Commentary Magazine


This Would Certainly Be Hope ‘N Change

Robert Kagan calls on Obama to do something important and vital: push for regime change in Iran. He notes that Obama’s engagement folly was premised on the faulty assumption that “a bargain could be had with benighted and virulently anti-Western leaders.” It turns out that the problem was not insufficient humility by the West or George W. Bush. It was the nature of the current Iranian regime, which, if there had been any doubt, has now revealed its true nature in the wake of the June 12 elections. So Kagan argues:

Regime change is more important than any deal the Obama administration might strike with Iran’s present government on its nuclear program. Even if Tehran were to accept the offer made last year to export some of its low-enriched uranium, this would be a modest step down a long, uncertain road. Such a minor concession is not worth abandoning the push for real change.

And Kagan reminds us that regime change is, for a president so entranced with a nuclear-arms-free world, “the best nonproliferation policy. Even if the next Iranian government refused to give up the weapons program, its need for Western economic assistance and its desire for reintegration into the global economy and international order would at least cause it to slow today’s mad rush to completion and be much more open to diplomatic discussion.” But of course it’s also the only realistic approach in sight. Who thinks engagement will bear fruit? (Well, other than J Street.) There is no rationale for continuing the kabuki theater or for insisting on limiting our sanctions to keep the “door open.” (So we can be on the receiving end of more rebuffs and insults?)

But the problem remains: nothing in Obama’s rhetoric or conduct suggests that he grasps this. Kagan delicately puts it this way:

So far, the administration has been slow to shift in response to events in Iran. It has proceeded as if the political upheaval had only marginal significance, and the real prize remains some deal with Tehran. The president has been cautious to a fault.

But in fact Obama has been hostile to the interests of the democracy activists in Iran – not only did he rush to confer diplomatic legitimacy on the regime, but he slashed financial support to the very groups seeking to topple the regime.

Could Obama be enticed, as Kagan describes, by the prospect that “were the Iranian regime to fall on Obama’s watch, however, and were he to play some visible role in helping, his place in history as a transformational world leader would be secure”? Maybe. But Obama seems intoxicated by other, less attainable endeavors, not the least of which is churning round after round of the “peace process.” And if one takes seriously his West Point speech and his 60 Minutes appearance, he really would rather not engage in “triumphalism” or commitments with no predetermined end point. He really wants to go back to reinventing America.

But perhaps there’s where an opening exists. Kagan’s sage advice may have more impact now, in the wake of Obama’s domestic-policy wipeout and the widespread criticism of his first year’s bungle-filled foreign policy. Obama could use an important effort, one that combines both realism and the highest aspirations of America, which would replace his first year’s serial failures (two Copenhagens, the George Mitchell fright show) and cringe-inducing timidity (e.g., the Afghanistan seminars) with a more positive image of Obama as leader of the West. Does he have the foresight and determination to undertake such an about-face? We’ve seen no evidence of it so far. But as he suggested in his ABC interview, if he doesn’t get a second term, he should make the most of the current one.