Preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is centrally important to our national interest. Upholding the international norm against chemical weapons use is not. Treating the two issues as functionally equivalent is a serious mistake. Yet this claim was at the core of President Obama’s argument today for an attack on Syria, and will surely be his trump card in our upcoming national debate.
To the extent that a strike on Syria is now connected to Iran’s drive to develop nuclear weapons, the link is in large part a function of the president’s ill-advised and barely thought-out drawing of a red line against chemical weapons use by Assad. Obama can now say that allowing Syria to cross one red line will encourage Iran to cross the other. Yet the two cases are not comparable, and it was the president’s mistake to treat them as such.
The best argument for a strike on Syria is that once the president of the United States drew his red line on chemical weapons, mistaken though he may have been, we had little choice but to act as though his commitment was made by each and every one of us. Although I reject this argument, I do so reluctantly.
The best argument against a strike on Syria is that the United States desperately needs a new foreign policy – a policy based on a realistic assessment of the direction of events in the Middle East. A distinction between futile attempts to change the region’s political culture and serious and direct threats to our own interests should be at the very core of that new foreign policy.
Facing this difficult choice, I would vote against a strike against Syria.
Yet anyone who would take this position ought also to speak to the case of Iran. This does not mean that a decision about whether to preemptively strike at Iran has to be made right now. It does mean that the seriousness with which this country takes the possibility of a nuclear Iran needs to be acknowledged and addressed as part of our coming debate.
Ideally, a congressional vote against action in Syria would be accompanied by a non-binding resolution highlighting the importance of the red line we have already drawn against a nuclear Iran.
My fear is that ill-advised interventions such as Libya and Syria are weakening rather than strengthening the American public’s resolve to stand against the profound threat to our national interests that an Iranian nuclear weapon represents. We’ve taken our eye off the ball. Futile and counterproductive interventions on humanitarian grounds are sapping our resolve, not strenghtening it. An agonizing national debate followed by reluctant agreement to go where the president should never have dragged us to begin with won’t scare Iran’s mullahs. It will embolden them.
The familiar international dynamic of deterrence backed up by credible threats of force is being undermined by a domestic dynamic of public exasperation with events in the Middle East and the incoherence of our policy there. For every gain in credibility a show of force achieves, there is an at least equal and opposite decline in resolve at home.
The only way to overcome this destructive cycle is to create clarity about our national-security interests and carefully limit our pressure and potential interventions to those instances. That should put Iran’s nuclear program at the top of our list, and Syria’s use of chemical weapons at the bottom.