The best way to understand several important recent Obama administration statements about Iran is that for some reason the administration is seeking to reassure Iran. The message appears to be "relax, we will not challenge Iran militarily if you seek nuclear weapons and hegemony in the region."
That may sound bizarre; in fact it is bizarre. But look at the evidence.
There are the president’s comments at a press conference on December 8, which I discussed on this blog, here. There were Secretary of Defense Panetta’s remarks to the Saban Forum on December 2, which I discussed here. Mr. Panetta recounted at length his fears about a military attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons program: it won’t do much good, it might fail, it might have unintended economic consequences, we are afraid of retaliation, etc.
Now we have a new entry: the explanations by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Here is a piece of Josh Rogin’s report at Foreign Policy on Rhodes’s comments about the Middle East and Persian Gulf region:
The tide of war is receding around the world," said Rhodes. "It’s certainly going to be the lowest level, in terms of number of troops that we’ve seen in 20 years. There are not really plans to have any substantial increases in any other parts of the Gulf as this war winds down." Just after the administration announced it was not able to reach a deal with Iraq to extend the U.S. troop presence there in October, the New York Times reported the administration was planning to increase troop levels in nearby countries, such as Kuwait, to account for the risk of Iraq backsliding into violence. But Rhodes said Wednesday that’s just not the case. "I don’t think we’re looking to reallocate our military footprint in any significant way from Iraq. They won’t be reallocated to other countries in the region in any substantial numbers," he said.
Rhodes explained that the scaling back of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf was part of the administration’s strategy to "demilitarize" U.S. foreign policy and shift to an approach that favored counter-terrorism tactics. He also said the end of the war in Iraq -- and eventually the war in Afghanistan -- proved that large military deployments are not necessary to deny terrorists safe haven in foreign countries. "The argument several years ago... was that you needed to have a very large U.S. military footprint so that you could fight the terrorists ’over there,’ so they wouldn’t come here. But we’ve demonstrated the opposite, that you don’t need to have a large U.S. military footprint in these countries, that you can shrink them and focus on al Qaeda in a far more specific way... and still very much accomplish your national security goals," said Rhodes.
"That allows us in many respects to demilitarize elements of our foreign policy and establish more normal relationships," he added. "That’s our posture in the region and its far more in line with where we were before 1990."
It is too bad that ayatollahs do not drink champagne or they might have some; at any rate they can toast these remarks with orange juice. Mr. Rhodes has just given them a White House assurance that the United States does not intend to challenge an assertion of Iranian dominance in the region. Troop levels have come down and will stay down because “the tide of war is receding.” (Someone must tell the Chinese this so they can stop making gigantic investments in the Peoples Liberation Army, Navy, and Air Force.)
Now, there are several explanations for saying such things. First, we have no reason to doubt that Mr. Rhodes believes them. He is being candid. He is in line with the Obama of the Senate and the 2008 campaign, and with three years of speeches and policies that called for “engagement” with hostile governments like those of Venezuela, Syria, and Iran. You may believe that this policy has already failed miserably, but apparently the White House does not.
Second, he is very much in line with an administration that is already calling for cuts in the defense budget of $450 billion and seems quite comfortable with hundreds of billions more in cuts. One way to “demilitarize” your foreign policy is to hollow out the military; then you don’t have much of a choice. A defender of Mr. Rhodes might say that his remarks refer only to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and the administration favors a more robust military presence in the Pacific. So do I, but you cannot have one if you gut the defense budget.
Third, Mr. Rhodes does not appear to be a student of history. Of course our presence in the region changed when we reversed Saddam’s grab of Kuwait, but the previous posture was hardly demilitarized. That’s why in 1979 there was the Carter Doctrine: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Carter was responding to the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan that year (as well, perhaps, as communist victories in Angola and Nicaragua).
I am struck by two things in Mr. Rhodes’s remarks. The first is their ideological, rather than pragmatic, argument. He did not say “Look, as we showed in the First Gulf War we can get troops there when we need to do so,” and instead spoke about “demilitarization” and the “tide of war.” The second is that he ignores Iran. Thus my suggestion of champagne, or the moral equivalent of champagne, in Tehran. Read what he said and it seems we have one problem in the world: Al Qaida. When I talk to Israelis and Arabs, I find that they think there is another problem lying on the far side of the Persian Gulf.
The administration’s answer cannot be that the president always has the option of bombing Iran’s nuclear sites with B-2s stationed in Missouri, for the problem of Iran is not only its nuclear program. If this administration is so focused on terrorism, as Mr. Rhodes suggested, why has it been weak in responding to Iranian terrorism against Americans (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and done absolutely nothing in response to the Iranian terrorist plot in our nation’s capital?
The “very large U.S. military footprint” of the 1990s that he decries as outmoded was not in fact put there to fight terrorism, as he suggests. It was put there as noted to resist and to fight aggression on the part of a local power. If the administration now believes that there is no risk of aggression from Iran, it is almost alone in that conclusion. Economic sanctions and diplomacy are useful and important in dealing with Iran, but the ayatollahs have never backed off in the face of a new round of UN sanctions. They backed off when the United States shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988 (by mistake, but that did not matter in Tehran), when we invaded Iraq in 2003, and when they have faced a military challenge they saw they could not defeat. Ayatollah Khomeini “drank the cup of poison” and ended the Iran-Iraq war at just such a moment. This should not surprise us, but should remind us of what George Kennan said in the famous "long telegram" about Soviet power: that it is "impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw—and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point."
The words Mr. Rhodes has spoken suggest that we will not only not prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear capability but will not even adopt a policy of containment. For containment is a military policy promising retaliation for certain steps, but we’re going to “demilitarize elements of our foreign policy.”
Go back to those words of President Carter’s. Instead of the stale formula the president continues to use about “all options” being “on the table,” it would be far more reassuring if he were saying “An attempt by Iran to gain control of the Persian Gulf region or to build a nuclear weapon will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” That would be a message worth sending to our friends and allies in the region—and to Tehran.