I’ve been fairly disappointed with the level of discussion in progressive circles surrounding the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. For me, nuclear non-proliferation is one of the most important issues facing mankind. And America’s role in preventing nuclear proliferation is critical. It’s nice that we can send aid to tsunami victims in Sumatra and earthquake victims in Haiti and flood victims in Pakistan. It’s important that we can provide peacekeeping forces in the Balkans or in the Sinai. But preventing a nuclear war is our biggest responsibility, and that’s why, for me, our hegemonic role within the United Nations system is never more justified than when we are working on nuclear issues.
One of the things I found most alarming and destructive about the lead-up to the Iraq War was the way in which this serious responsibility was treated unseriously and was actually used as a false pretext for war. It not only undermined our credibility, it undermined our ability to carry out our real responsibilities. It eroded our moral standing in the world, but it also destroyed progressive support for a robust anti-proliferation policy here at home.
So, now, when the president is trying to avoid war and avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the progressive left is so jaded and cynical that it tends to not acknowledge the legitimacy of the effort at all. I see more effort put into defending Iran’s right to a nuclear weapon than I see concern about the consequences of a nuclear Iran.
The issue of nuclear non-proliferation is complicated, but it deserves a most robust conversation in the progressive community. It should be uncontroversial that the goal is to reduce existing nuclear stockpiles and to prevent new countries from engaging in nuclear weaponization. The president has been pursuing this policy. A little over a year ago, he signed the New START Treaty with Russia. I don’t feel he got nearly enough credit for that. As I see it, the problem comes down to a strain of thought on the left that was given great strength by the Bush/Cheney regime. It’s the idea that America’s meddling in the world, particularly in the Middle East, is nothing more than illegitimate imperialism and a fight for precious resources. It’s a strain of thought that tends to break everything down into simple ideas of fairness: if Israel has nukes, how can anyone deny them to Iran? Who died and put America in charge?
I can’t address all the complexities of the debate over America’s historic and present role in the world in this blog post. I’ll just say that you can’t successfully prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East by saying Israel’s possession of nukes makes it morally impossible to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. You can’t prevent nations from building a nuclear weapons capability if you don’t have some enforcement arm of the IAEA and the United Nations. America is the country, presently, that has the capabilities to be that enforcement arm. We should talk about what it would mean if China was the enforcement arm instead. Or what it would mean if there were no enforcement arm. We can talk about power-sharing arrangements. But to suggest that the UN should be rendered toothless in the area of nonproliferation seems to me to be little different than John Bolton’s desire to tear down the top floors of the UN building in New York.
In any case, read this excerpt from an interview the president recently did with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. It was done in anticipation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to America starting today.
GOLDBERG: Go back to this language, ‘All options on the table.’ You’ve probably said it 50 or 100 times. And a lot of people believe it, but the two main intended audiences, the supreme leader of Iran and the prime minister of Israel, you could argue, don’t entirely trust this. The impression we get is that the Israeli government thinks this is a vague expression that’s been used for so many years. Is there some ramping-up of the rhetoric you’re going to give them?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think the Israeli people understand it, I think the American people understand it, and I think the Iranians understand it. It means a political component that involves isolating Iran; it means an economic component that involves unprecedented and crippling sanctions; it means a diplomatic component in which we have been able to strengthen the coalition that presents Iran with various options through the P-5 plus 1 and ensures that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is robust in evaluating Iran’s military program; and it includes a military component. And I think people understand that.
I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff. I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say. Let me describe very specifically why this is important to us.
In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel, one of our strongest allies in the world; in addition to the outrageous language that has been directed toward Israel by the leaders of the Iranian government — if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation.
GOLDBERG: What would your position be if Israel weren’t in this picture?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It would still be a profound national-security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
GOLDBERG: Why, then, is this issue so often seen as binary, always defined as Israel versus Iran?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think it has to do with a legitimate concern on the part of Israel that they are a small country in a tough neighborhood, and as a consequence, even though the U.S. and Israel very much share assessments of how quickly Iran could obtain breakout capacity, and even though there is constant consultation and intelligence coordination around that question, Israel feels more vulnerable. And I think the prime minister and the defense minister, [Ehud Barak,] feel a profound, historic obligation not to put Israel in a position where it cannot act decisively and unilaterally to protect the state of Israel. I understand those concerns, and as a consequence, I think it’s not surprising that the way it gets framed, at least in this country, where the vast majority of people are profoundly sympathetic to Israel’s plight and potential vulnerabilities — that articles and stories get framed in terms of Israel’s potential vulnerability.
But I want to make clear that when we travel around the world and make presentations about this issue, that’s not how we frame it. We frame it as: this is something in the national-security interests of the United States and in the interests of the world community. And I assure you that Europe would not have gone forward with sanctions on Iranian oil imports — which are very difficult for them to carry out, because they get a lot of oil from Iran — had it not been for their understanding that it is in the world’s interest, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. China would not have abided by the existing sanctions coming out of the National Security Council, and other countries around the world would not have unified around those sanctions, had it not been for us making the presentation about why this was important for everyone, not just one country.
So, can we have a grownup conversation about these issues, or are we all going to act like we’re just trying to repeat the Iraq War?