In recent days, former Vice President Dick Cheney has stepped up the attack on the Iran nuclear deal, denouncing it in a speech as “capitulation” and “madness.” In reply, the White House has put out a YouTube video denouncing him as having been wrong about the Iraq war as well as noting that Iran’s nuclear program grew on the Bush administration’s watch and left President Obama a mess to clean up. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will double down on that charge in a speech she will give today in which she will claim credit for stopping Iran and repeating the charges about Bush’s failure. Where does the truth lie? Unfortunately for the nation and the world, both Cheney and the Obama/Clinton team are largely right about each other’s missteps on Iran. Though Cheney spent his time in office advocating for a tougher policy on Iran, the administration he served did fail on the Iran nuclear threat. But while Bush failed, Cheney is right about Obama’s utter capitulation in negotiations that make it almost certain that Iran will get a bomb sooner or later.
Cheney is such a polarizing figure that nothing he says, no matter how accurate, will get a fair hearing. In popular culture as well as the mainstream media, Cheney is the boogeyman of the Bush administration, and nothing is going to change that in the foreseeable future. While he and his colleagues made terrible mistakes on Iraq, he has been so thoroughly demonized by liberals that few will give him credit for his leadership in the war on al-Qaeda that helped keep America safe after 9/11. Nor do those who correctly take him to task for Iraq care to remember that he was often right on other foreign policy issues such as supporting Israel in its effort to defend itself against terror and their strike on the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 that Bush opposed.
But Cheney’s defense of the Bush administration’s conduct toward Iran doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s true that they enacted sanctions that began the process of squeezing the Islamist regime that Obama continued and would take a terrible toll on its economy until they began to be dismantled with the signing of the interim nuclear accord in November 2013. But though Cheney and some other conservative Republicans were prescient about the threat from Iran, Bush was preoccupied with al-Qaeda and especially Iraq. When liberals say that Iran’s nuclear program grew on Bush’s watch with little effective action taken to stop them, they are right.
The irony here is that while Democrats never tire of berating Cheney for Iraq, Obama inherited an Iraq War that had already been won by the surge Bush ordered in 2007. They took that victory and threw it away with a shortsighted decision to completely abandon Iraq in order for President Obama to claim that he had ended the war. The vacuum that he left behind bred the chaos that allowed ISIS to grow into a threat that dwarfs the one posed by al Qaeda after 9/11.
But Democrats are right to say that Obama inherited a disaster in the making as far as Iran is concerned.
To their credit, neither Bush nor Cheney had the illusions about Iran’s leadership and their willingness to change that have motivated Obama to pursue a policy of appeasement. They correctly realized that Iran was a dangerous power intent on fomenting terror and determined to wage war on the West and Israel at all costs.
Because he refused to deal directly with Iran, Bush outsourced diplomacy on the nuclear threat to America’s European allies. Though France and Germany were eager for a solution that would enable them to go on doing business with Iran, they failed through no fault of their own. Iran was never serious about a deal on any terms that would be acceptable to the West. Bush doesn’t deserve criticism for failing to accept any Iranian offers at that time even though, in retrospect, those terms were far tougher on Tehran than the ones Obama accepted. Neither Bush nor the Europeans were prepared to sign off on allowing Iran to enrich uranium or to keep their nuclear infrastructure, and they were right to take that stand.
But Bush was never willing to connect the dots between that lucid assessment and the need for action or to push for sanctions and ultimately an embargo on oil sales from the Islamist regime. During this period, turning around Iraq was always the priority, and this led to Iran getting stronger. One can certainly make the case that the world was made better by the toppling of the vicious and dangerous Saddam Hussein regime. But neither can it be denied that doing so made the even more dangerous regime in Tehran more powerful and a greater threat to their neighbors and the West.
But even if we are forced to concur with the Obama/Clinton charge that Bush failed on Iran, that doesn’t excuse their decision to abandon principle in pursuit of an Iran deal at any cost. Call Cheney any name that you like, but he’s painfully right that what Obama did over the course of the last three years was to abandon every principle that had guided the last two administrations on Iran. In 2008, it wasn’t clear whether the West would ever muster the will to do something to stop Iran. But when Obama took office and committed himself to outreach to the Islamist regime, neither Republicans nor Democrats could have possibly imagined that he would ever present Congress with a nuclear deal that more or less guaranteed that Iran would become a nuclear threshold state with Western approval.
Bush dithered and ultimately kicked the can down the road on Iran. Obama surrendered to it. The Bush administration deserves a considerable share of the blame for strengthening Iran and letting its nuclear program grow. But it never capitulated to it or pledged to send it funds or guarantee its right to centrifuges, reactors, and research that ensure it will eventually get a bomb. Obama is empowering a nation bent on regional hegemony and waging, at the very least, proxy wars against Israel via terrorist auxiliaries. Cheney may not have the standing to call out Obama on Iran, but his criticisms of the president’s folly and that of the former secretary of state that wants to succeed him are right on target. History may not be kind to Bush and Cheney on Iraq or Iran. But as harshly as it may judge the decision to invade Iraq, it well view Obama’s appeasement of Iran as a historic blunder with few parallels.