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Why Obama Just Might Fight Iran

Walter Russell Mead argues in the American Interest that President Barack Obama is more likely to go to war with Iran than many conventional observers believe. “In my view,” he wrote, “Iran and this president are headed toward a confrontation in which President Obama will either have to give up all hope on the issues he cares most about, or risk the use of force to stop Iran.”

The president is not likely to go to war with Iran for Israel’s sake. He’s even less likely to go to war with Iran on behalf of the Middle East’s Sunni Arabs. He’s not even all that likely to go to war with Iran to protect American interests in the Levant and the Persian Gulf. He just might, though, as Mead says, go to war to protect what he values most and hopes to accomplish as president.

Obama is often described as a cold-blooded “realist,” but in some ways he’s a Wilsonian. He’s a different kind of Wilsonian from President George W. Bush, but he is one nonetheless. “In many ways a classic example of the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy,” Mead writes, “President Obama believes that American security can best be safeguarded by the construction of a liberal and orderly world,” like a loose and less centralized European Union on a planet-wide scale. And yet, as Mead points out, “Iran’s success means the complete, utter and historic destruction of everything President Obama wants to build.”

He’s right. If Iran emerges as a nuclear-armed terrorist-sponsoring hegemon over the world’s primary energy fields, Obama’s neo-Wilsonian project — which is already a long-shot, at best, as it is — will stand no chance at all for the duration of his tenure and most likely beyond. His domestic American agenda will go sideways, as well, if he loses a re-election bid in 2012 for sending the Middle East and the stability of the world’s energy economy into a tailspin.

Surely, Obama knows he is often compared to former President Jimmy Carter by his domestic opponents — and not in a good way. Carter’s presidency was cut short for a number of reasons, the most memorable being his inability to rescue or negotiate the release of 52 hostages seized from the American Embassy in Tehran by Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical Islamists during Iran’s post-revolutionary struggle for power. That very same regime now threatens Obama’s presidency and place in history, too. As much as he fears and loathes the thought of going to war with Iran, he can’t relish the possibility of becoming Jimmy Carter Redux and losing everything.

American presidents, like all leaders everywhere, are forced to choose between bad and worse options. And it’s not always clear which option is which. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s likely Obama will use the military power at his disposal to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but it’s not unthinkable that he’ll surprise everyone — for good or for ill — if he feels those who destroyed Carter are on the verge of scalping him, too.