Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton makes a strong case today on the New York Times op-ed page for the need to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to ensure that the regime doesn’t get a bomb. He’s right that those who dismiss the use of force are underestimating the damage air strikes can inflict and overestimating Tehran’s ability to recoup its losses in quick order after it has taken them decades to get this close. But before you give too much credit to the editors of the Times for, in what is an increasingly rare gesture for them, giving space to opposing views, take a moment and think about whether this is the debate about Iran we should be having. For the past year and a half President Obama has attempted to portray opponents of his appeasement of Iran as warmongers when, in fact, most have rightly advocated sticking to the tough sanctions he has discarded in hope of forcing the regime to accept an agreement that, unlike the one currently being negotiated, would actually stop them from building a bomb. Whatever its virtues, the Bolton article merely serves to bolster Obama’s disingenuous arguments.
One of the hallmarks of the Times opinion pages in recent years is the way its editors have discarded any notion of providing space to contrary views except in rare instances. With respect to the drumbeat of criticism aimed at Israel, the avalanche of columns attacking the government of the Jewish state or bolstering the propaganda assault of the Palestinians and their allies has further tarnished the paper’s reputation as the prime example of media bias. The same is true of virtually any position taken by the Times editorial page including support for the president’s policy toward Iran. In that context, Bolton’s column is a breath of fresh air because it outlines the danger of Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon and the certainty that Obama’s offer to Tehran will set off a dangerous arms race in the region.
But by publishing Bolton’s article, the Times is attempting to couch the debate about Iran according to the president’s preferred talking point in which the choice is between his policy and war. That is a prime example of the president setting up straw men to knock down rather than actually engaging the arguments of his critics in a serious way.
The president’s steady retreat from his past promises about ending Iran’s nuclear program has been part of a strategy in which the regime is embraced as a tacit ally against ISIS. He is acquiescing to Iran’s quest for hegemony in the Middle East so as to enable the president to essentially withdraw from the region. To facilitate this rapprochement, Obama discarded the enormous economic and military leverage over Iran and given in whenever the Iranians stood their ground in the talks. The result is a flimsy agreement that could allow Iran to cheat their way to a bomb during the course of a deal that will eventually expire and let them get one anyway. Worse than that, because of that weakness and Washington’s unwillingness to support International Atomic Energy Agency demands for information about their military research, the administration could let them get one even while abiding by the deal.
But the real alternative to the president’s feckless pursuit of détente with Iran is not war. What is needed is a return to the sanctions that the president opposed when Congress first passed them and measures toughening them that, when combined with the collapse in oil prices, bring Iran’s economy to its knees. All it would have taken in 2013 for this to work would have been patience, courage, and leadership on Obama’s part. Instead, he abandoned the isolation of Iran at the first opportunity he got. Were the president to concede that appeasement is failing to stop Iran, he could go back to the path of strength and, with strict enforcement of U.S. sanctions that would make it difficult for other nations to do business with Iran, force America’s allies to follow suit.
Even at the 11th hour, as we may be days away from the signing of a bad deal with Iran, it is not too late for the U.S. to step back from the brink of folly. A demonstration of strength and principle on Obama’s part, however unlikely it may seem today, would be a devastating blow to Iran and perhaps actually compel them to start making concessions that might enable the president to keep his campaign promises about the nuclear threat.
That is the choice that America still has on Iran. That is the debate we should be having, not one of appeasement versus war.
Once the Iran deal is signed, it may well be that the West will no longer have either a diplomatic or a military option for stopping Iran. But until then, opponents of Obama’s retreat must continue to advocate for sanctions and tough diplomacy rather than for the use of force that Obama would never choose under virtually any circumstances. However correct Bolton’s points might be, his article merely strengthens the president’s disingenuous arguments about false choices that are leading us down the primrose path to Iran appeasement.