Nuking Westphalia: Obama’s Deep Convictions Point to War With Iran

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By Walter Russell Mead | 17 July 2010


In spite of what some conspiracy-minded critics on the right think, mainstream journalists like Time’s Joel Klein do not often agree with Fidel Castro.  That both Klein and Castro think the chances of war between the United States and Iran have increased recently is worth noting.  I happen to think they are right.


The problem is not, as Castro would argue, that the United States under President Obama is bellicose and imperialist.  President Obama genuinely does not want war with Iran and would make any reasonable concession (and even a few unreasonable ones) to keep the peace.  And while what I hear matches Klein’s observation that the US military is more confident than it was a year or two ago about its ability to succeed against Iran (“The Iranians aren’t ten feet tall,” is what one soldier told me), the military isn’t exactly pulling on the leash.

Nevertheless, there is a significantly greater chance that President Obama will lead the United States into a war with Iran than many observers think — and that chance is growing rather than shrinking as the confrontation wears on.

The failure to grasp the real possibility that Obama may confront the mullahs reflects the difficulty that many foreign policy experts have in understanding the way that President Obama’s world view differs from a conventional realist perspective.

Most analysts are looking at the US-Iranian confrontation from the standpoint of realpolitik.  Issues like the regional balance of power, US relations with key regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and economic factors (the price of oil) are being taken into account.  Those are important issues, and they are the kind of issues that under the right circumstances might have led other US presidents (like George H. W. Bush) towards confrontation with Iran.

But those are not the issues that move President Obama.  Under extreme conditions this president might respond to a realist threat to vital American interests with force, but the core of his global agenda isn’t about the balance of power or the Straits of Hormuz. Threats of that kind call forth Obama’s patience and summon him to diplomacy rather than war.

The conventional wisdom that Obama will end up learning to live with an Iranian bomb rather than risking a military confrontation to stop it rests on the perception, accurate as far as it goes, that the strictly realist case for confronting Iran is unlikely to move this president.  (Additionally, his perceived lack of love for the Jewish state means that the ‘solidarity with Israel’ argument might, some feel, carry  little conviction in the Oval Office.)


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