National Security & Defense

Why Can’t President Obama Put Iran in a Box?

(Pool Image/Getty)
Democrats are suddenly acting as if we must either strike a bad deal or rush to war.

What ever happened to the “box”?

Remember what the Democrats said about Saddam Hussein? Wait . . . that’s a confusing question. One must clarify whether we’re talking about when a Democratic administration was bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan because it was really a joint chemical-weapons venture between Iraq and al-Qaeda; or when that Democratic administration joined Congress in making regime change in Baghdad the national policy of the United States; or when congressional Democrats insisted on voting to show their support for the war to remove Saddam Hussein from power; or when Democrats decided Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda after all; or, finally, when Democrats turned with a vengeance against the Iraq war they had enthusiastically supported.

I’m talking about that phase at the end.

In obeisance to the hard-left, anti-war faction (now known as Obama’s base) that had come to dominate their party, leading Democrats scalded President Bush for his purportedly heedless rush to an unnecessary and ultimately disastrous war. In the new telling — the one that elides mention of the war drums beaten by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, et al. — there was no need to invade Iraq because President Bill Clinton, as he himself recalls it, had brilliantly maneuvered Saddam Hussein into a “box.”

President Clinton, we’re to understand, had methodically isolated Saddam, arranging American policy with an eye toward steadily strangling the regime through a mix of punishing economic sanctions, a no-fly zone, the threat of fierce military retaliation in the event of Iraqi aggression, and pressure on other countries to treat Saddam as a pariah. Sure, the Iraqi government was still a menace. Not only was Saddam concealing his weapons programs and stocks, and oppressing his own people; there remained the concern that he would provide safe haven for al-Qaeda if Afghanistan became too hot for the terror network — that Osama bin Laden would “boogie to Baghdad,” as Clinton counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke had memorably put it. Still, we are now assured, Clinton had Saddam contained: He was no longer an imminent threat to American interests, yet still a barrier to Iran’s regional ambitions.

There was no need to go to war, this revisionist history teaches. The regime in Baghdad was in a box, unable to ratchet up its weapons development and beset by internal strife that would eventually be its undoing.

Now, there are many problems with this history as history. The point here, though, is not to argue over whether this is a faithful rendition of events. It is to highlight the Democrats’ policy prescription. History, after all, gets revised so that those who write it can appear to have been on the right side of it.

In the case of Iraq, Democrats settled on what they argued was the most effective formula for handling a rogue regime with nuclear ambitions. Only then did they selectively mine the record to suggest that this formula had been their policy all along. For present purposes, the mining is irrelevant. As we turn our attention to Iran, what matters is the formula — the “box.”

Why can’t President Obama put Iran in a box?

Obama is the leading voice of the “Iraq was a huge mistake” crowd. Nearly as notorious are his admonitions against “false choices” that suggest having A (e.g., security) necessitates forfeiting B (e.g., due process). Yet, what is the president’s rationale for appeasing Iran with a disastrous deal that will enable it to become a nuclear-weapons power? It is that the only alternative to his bad deal is war.

That is not only the most false of choices, it is the antithesis of the lesson we’ve been instructed to learn from the Iraq misadventure.

To be sure, we have for over a decade been making the same tragic mistake about Iran that undermined us in Iraq: the myopia about weapons of mass destruction, particularly atomic bombs. Many governments possess nuclear weapons. With respect to most of those governments, that fact does not keep us up at night. The weapons matter far less than the regime that controls them.

Iran, like Saddam’s Iraq, cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons because it is a rogue aggressor that promotes jihadist terrorism, aspires to hegemony, and serially violates its international obligations. Consequently, the U.S. national interest is that Iran’s revolutionary regime, which has killed thousands of Americans and made opposition to America its ne plus ultra for 36 years, be — as Obama is fond of saying with respect to ISIS — degraded and ultimately defeated.

Democrats have been telling us for years that there is a smart way to do this, a way that does not call for a false choice between surrender or war. According to their “Iraq in a box” model, the administration needs to work with Congress to codify regime change as the unambiguous national policy of the United States. With that long-term goal as our compass, crippling economic sanctions must be restored and enhanced — and enforced without waiver — in order to cut off the regime’s access to the international banking system and curtail its ability to engage in commerce, especially the marketing of its oil and related products. Other countries that do business with Iran and abet its efforts to defeat the sanctions should find their own capacity to conduct business in our markets and those of our allies significantly diminished.

Actors within the long reach of our enforcement jurisdiction should be prosecuted if they trade with or materially support Iran and its agents (such as the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah). Iran itself needs to be put on notice that all options are on the table, including military attack, in response to its abetting of jihadist organizations and its refusal to dismantle its nuclear program. In the meantime, economic and logistical support for Iran’s dissidents should be substantially stepped up.

Very simply, it should be made obvious in word and deed that we take the regime’s “Death to America” rhetoric and actions deadly seriously, that we believe the sole rational response is to treat the regime as the incorrigible enemy that it is. Iran is not the Soviet empire; it is no match for determined American opposition on the world stage. Negotiating with it as if it were is a damaging error that empowers the mullahs when they should be forced to play the weak hand they actually have.

That is the box Democrats tell us was the viable alternative in Iraq: not surrendering, not allowing our enemy to arm itself with nuclear weapons, but reducing our enemy to a dying pariah through tough sanctions and hard-nosed diplomacy — rather than a rush to war.

Do they still believe it . . . or was it just bluster?

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