Belmont Club

Locked Out of His Own Cockpit

One of the first comments on the last thread posed a very perceptive question: “did we ever have the right, or the means, to stop Iran from building a nuke, short of invasion and ‘regime change’?” To the extent that America ever had such a right it was granted by the tacit consent of the “international community” itself in the aftermath of World War 2 by a planet weary of war.  Politically speaking the Security Council got its authority from the same source. The devil’s bargain for the hegemon is it can only continue to regard itself as special as long as it retains the confidence of the “international community” and only if it keeps the peace.

But in the three generations since 1945 the hegemon has either lost the mandate of heaven or president Obama has simply decided to exit the business. Consequently it no longer has the right — not the will in any case — to stop Iran from building a nuke.  That strategic decision will haunt president Obama’s framework deal with Tehran.  It will only work within a framework that he himself has dissolved.  Peggy Noonan glimpses the contradiction in her Wall Street Journal article.

Barack Obama, six years into his presidency, does not have a foreign-policy legacy—or, rather, he does and it’s bad. He has a visceral and understandable reluctance to extend and overextend U.S. power, but where that power has been absent, violence and instability have filled the void. When he overcomes his reluctance to get involved, he picks the wrong place, such as Libya, where the tyrant we toppled was better than many of those attempting to take his place.

Syria, red lines, an exploding Mideast, a Russian president who took the American’s measure and made a move, upsetting a hard-built order that had maintained for a quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union—what a mess.

In late February, at a Washington meeting of foreign-policy intellectuals, Henry Kissinger summed up part of the past six years: “Ukraine has lost Crimea; Russia has lost Ukraine; the U.S. has lost Russia; the world has lost stability.”

But she does not take the thought to its conclusion. There is now no one who can make — or is willing to make — a deal like this stick. In a power vacuum, without a stable structure of international governance to guarantee credible enforcement, vague “framework deals” of the sort cobbled together in Lausanne can be destabilizing rather than steadying. Vague agreements with disputed provisions which lack a clear means of enforcement will tend to increase uncertainty instead of diminishing it. The world is already highly uncertain and needs more predictability, not less. Ironically may now be a whole lot more uncertain after the framework agreement than before it.

According to Nour Malas and Rory Jones of the Wall Street Journal, it may be sending everyone to battle stations. The Sunnis see the deal as reflecting U.S. weakness while the Shiites see it as confirmation Iranian ascendancy, which is exactly the wrong sort of message to send.  Faced with the shadowy provisions of the deal, everyone may take the counsel of their fears.

“This nuclear deal is a face-saving thing for Obama,” said Hamid al-Mutlag, an Iraqi Sunni lawmaker. “America should put a condition on Iran in this deal: Hands off Iraq.”

Lebanese Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk, who is allied with the country’s pro-Western political camp, said Arab states were no longer waiting on the U.S. to take action.

This roughly translates to: “Sharif Will Kane has left town. It’s every man for himself boys.” Even in distant Australia Greg Sheridan writes, that a “weakened Barack Obama makes Iran the winner in Mid-East chaos”.  Nobody is sleeping better tonight because nobody knows where this goes.

What will emerge from that Mid-East chaos is anybody’s guess. It is gradually becoming obvious that Saudi Arabia’s offensive in Yemen is much bigger than anyone had thought — and it is not going well. “(Reuters) – Yemeni Houthi fighters and their allies seized a central Aden district on Thursday, striking a heavy blow against the Saudi-led coalition which has waged a week of air strikes to try to stem advances by the Iran-allied Shi’ite group.”

Nor Iran is not having everything its own way.  It has taken heavy casualties in the campaign for Tikrit.  Al-Qaida sneaked into Sanaa and freed 300 of its men right under the Houthi’s noses. ISIS is making a strong comeback in Syria, entering parts of Damascus itself and taking possession of a giant Palestinian refugee camp housing half a million people.

A struggle between such titanic forces is bound to be a ding-dong affair. Rather than providing answers to outstanding questions, Obama’s deal has opened up new ones, the major one being whether in granting “sanctions relief” the US is allowing Tehran to resupply and return to the battlefield with renewed force. The Washington Post editorial board notes that the framework deal does nothing to prevent, except by imposing a delay of a few months, a threshold nuclear state:

The “key parameters” for an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program released Thursday fall well short of the goals originally set by the Obama administration. None of Iran’s nuclear facilities — including the Fordow center buried under a mountain — will be closed. Not one of the country’s 19,000 centrifuges will be dismantled. Tehran’s existing stockpile of enriched uranium will be “reduced” but not necessarily shipped out of the country. In effect, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact, though some of it will be mothballed for 10 years. When the accord lapses, the Islamic republic will instantly become a threshold nuclear state.

The Islamic republic will instantly become a threshold nuclear state when the accord lapses or Iran cheats, whichever comes first.

But Washington Post editorial continues to the more immediate consequence. “The proposed accord will provide Iran a huge economic boost that will allow it to wage more aggressively the wars it is already fighting or sponsoring across the region. Whether that concession is worthwhile will depend in part on details that have yet to be agreed upon, or at least publicly explained.”

In other words, the Lausanne framework agreement actually threatens to tip the balance in favor of a Shia victory. And that may stir up more trouble than it solves, for the Saudis are hardly likely to take that lying down. Obama’s “historic” deal has been pulled, not in the stable “end of history” international environment of the late 20th century when America was the evil hegemon Obama laments, but in the middle of an Islamic civil war as an increasingly hapless bystander he chose to be. In this setting the Iranian nuclear bomb may assume the importance of the Manhattan Project to the US in World War 2: something to be obtained at all costs, in which case Iran will determine to get it precisely because of the chaos the hegemon’s absence has unleashed.

The risks and uncertainties are simply multiplying. The deal is causing more of them to spring up like mushrooms. ABC News reports that Congress may insist on looking at the deal. “Key players in Congress -– Republicans and Democrats — are skeptical of the Iran deal and want to see the fine print. No one is ruling out a big push ahead on new Iran sanctions, or a measure to require President Obama to get congressional approval, two pieces of legislation the White House strongly opposes.”

President Obama is now embarking on a long and dolorous process of reassuring old allies he hasn’t sold them out, telling Tehran he hasn’t been conned by them and convincing Congress he isn’t ignoring their powers — things he should have done before and not after the deal. He may in the end find the deal is more trouble than it’s worth. Anyway he can’t have it both ways. When he decided to exit the hegemon business, Obama necessarily got out of the business of making historic deals. America is just an ordinary country now. It doesn’t have the will to stop Iran from building a nuke. Recently Michele Bachmann has been criticized for comparing president Obama to the deranged Andreas Lubitz, who locked the pilot of the Germanwings airliner cockpit. But the comparison is not appropriate. President Obama is like the pilot who locked himself out of his own cockpit — and left the key inside.


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