I discussed yesterday how Israel needs Iran to gain the capability to threaten its destruction with nuclear weapons, and how Iran needs Israel to give legitimacy to its shaky theocracy, which means that the most likely outcome of the struggle will be that a) Iran successfully gains the ability to produce nuclear weapons; b) Israel launches a feeble military response (it will claim the logistics were too challenging), and c) that Iran will bluster about wiping Israel off the map, but won’t ever seriously consider using its nukes against her.
What about the United States? With an effectively unlimited range to its power projection across the globe, the United States can get involved in any local matter in which it pleases. The Mideast has been, since the US filled the vacuum left by the British after World War Two, always a favorite spot for power projection. It’s not hard to see why–per capita oil consumption in the US far exceeds that of any economic system in the world, and the Mideast has rivers of oil.
Given that oil is our primary national interest in the region, what will the United States do in response to Iran joining the nuclear club? What will it do if Israel attacks Iran to destroy its nuclear weapon’s sites?
It depends. The simple act of Iran gaining a nuclear weapons capability would not necessarily impact the flow of oil from the Gulf, but it might be perceived to have altered the balance of power in the region such that the US feels its oil supplies are threatened, justifying military action.
It is highly doubtful Iran would do anything so stupid as attack the US, as it did in the 1979 hostage crisis when it attacked the US Embassy in Tehran. But if Iran proved so needful of attention that it actually did attack the US, it would force the US’s hand, effectively requiring the US to mount some response.
Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran pose nothing in the way of an existential threat to the United States. But that seems not to matter in its decision-making matrix for projecting power. The US hasn’t faced an existential threat since the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the end of the Soviet Union, yet has engaged in at least three major (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq), and numerous minor (Panama, Kosovo, Somalia, etc) conflicts since then.
Conflicts that don’t involve existential threats are necessarily conflicts of choice. As Iran is several centuries away from posing an existential threat to the US, if the US engages Iran in a conflict because of its incipient nuclear weapons program, it will be a war of choice, in the same vein as were both Iraq wars.
So what drew us into those conflicts? By and large both Iraq wars were the result of the personal preferences of the commander-in-chief at the time. Bush 41, being an ex-CIA man, seemed hellbent on destroying tyrants he helped create, going after Noriega, and then in short order, Hussein. Bush 43 wanted to prove his daddy wrong for not having finished off “Saddam”.
The question now boils down to this: What will Obama want to do? Is he a warmonger, like the Bushes, who only seemed able to quiet their leadership angst by leading the nation into war. Or is he a pussy, like Jimmy Carter, that could not muster the stomach or marshal the resources to attack Iran even after it attacked sovereign US soil? Perhaps he is a quasi-isolationist like Reagan and Clinton were, careful to pick only battles that can be won and quickly leaving when the calculus proves errant (Beirut, 1983; Somalia, 1993).
Perhaps he is more like LBJ than either of the Bushes or Reagan or Clinton (and pray he’s not like Carter). It is obvious Obama, like LBJ, steadfastly believes in the ability of government to effect positive changes in people’s lives. LBJ extended his domestic belief in the ability of smart government to achieve good outcomes to the conflict in Southeast Asia, thinking that really smart people and processes applied to “diplomacy by other means” could bring the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to heel. He ended up a broken man for it, counting ears and directing bombing runs from the basement of the White House.
Obama hasn’t yet faced an international crisis, and very well might not. Iran might acquire nuclear weapons and then make nice, promising not to use them on Israel unless they use theirs first. But if the standoff between Israel and Iran turns into something unexpectedly hot and ugly, Obama’s personal priorities will largely determine the actions taken by the United States. It’s the nature of the discretion that comes with being commander-in-chief in a world that presents no real existential threats. Let’s hope he doesn’t channel his domestic LBJ into the arena of international relations, or turn out to be a warmonger like the Bushes. A little quasi-isolationism is not a bad thing.