This morning, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that in July 2007 Barack Obama had asked Zbigniew Brzezinski what could a new president accomplish in his first year in office that would not be possible later. Because Carter’s national security advisor has not been right in years, I feel a patriotic urge to suggest at least one answer.
As extensively reported, the world has gone crazy about our President-Elect. His global popularity, however, will not persuade rogues to give up their ambition to possess nuclear arsenals. Yet this does not mean Obama’s appeal is unimportant for the purpose of finding enduring disarmament solutions. For example, he has an historic opportunity to create a global coalition to surround and strangle the Iranian theocracy.
Today, that miserable government survives because many nations–friends and foes alike–trade with it, invest in its businesses, and provide diplomatic assistance. The Bush administration, for all its efforts, proved to be particularly inept in obtaining support for its policies, whether the hard tactics of earlier years or the softer ones that followed. As a result of one of Dubya’s most spectacular failures, Iran is on the threshold of obtaining all the expertise needed for a nuclear weapon.
No one truly knows whether there are any set of carrots and sticks that could, short of the use of force, convince the regime to disband its nuclear program. Yet clearly sanctions are uppermost in the mind of its leaders at this moment. Today, they called on Obama to end them as a sign of good faith. Instead of dropping sanctions, however, the President-Elect could see if his international following means anything by enlisting other nations in strict embargoes against Iran. The European Union could, for instance, enact a total prohibition on commerce with the renegade country, and so could the Security Council because there is no international law prohibiting Moscow and Beijing from acting responsibly in the face of great danger.
Of course, at this late date the probability of finding a non-coercive solution is small. Yet, if one is possible, it will be so only during the first months of the Obama administration when others will be more predisposed to working with Washington.
If Obama can lead the international community to impose sanctions, it may not matter whether he talks to the Iranians without preconditions or not. With the rest of the world on our side, conversations with the mullahs can be especially productive. Yet should Obama fail during his first year to defang the Iranians, nothing much else may matter. The regime is on track to taking down the international system, and, should it succeed, most everything about our world will be worse.