Is there no Plan B on Iran?

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Last Saturday, the Washington Post ran an excerpt from Bob Woodward’s book on the debt ceiling negotiations of summer 2011; and it contains some instructive reminders of President Obama’s recurrent fantasy: that he dwells in a region above the chafe and bustle of constitutional politics; that he lives for the endgame, husbanding his strength and parachuting in to clinch a victory. It did not work like that for health care—or, if you gauge the result from another angle, it worked at a cost in squandered authority so high that we are still counting.

Woodward has a telling quotation from Harry Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, on the lack of forethought by the president in case the Republicans should reject his Grand Bargain.“The first rule that I’ve always been taught,” said Krone to Obama, “is to have a Plan B. And it is really disheartening that you, that this White House did not have a Plan B.” Though Woodward must be read with suspicion, his report is consistent with earlier accounts of Obama’s summer of denial: see for example the parallel story by Noam Scheiber in the New Republic. There was no plan B, either, on cap-and-trade, after the House passed the legislation but 60 votes were not there in the Senate. Obama let the issue fade. The same with the environment: two sentences about climate change in his speech accepting the nomination were his first mention of the issue in more than a year. Again, there was no Plan B against a strengthening of the insurgency in the Afghanistan war. A necessary war, and the less said about it, the better.

It looks very much as if Barack Obama has no Plan B for dealing with Iran. The tightening sanctions and the crowding of U.S. war ships into the Persian Gulf almost constitute a siege. In addressing the Israeli interest, some of it conveyed directly by Netanyahu and Barak, much of it by the Israel lobby, President Obama has placated again and again–though without twitching at the precise moment or in the precise way demanded by Israel. He has signaled that what they want concerning Iran is what he wants also. Has Obama then put off a war in the fall by committing us to war in the spring?

While the Israeli demands and American assurances were passing, Kenneth Waltz published an article in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”; and now, in a surprising interjection from a further establishment source, Bill Keller writes in the Times on September 10 that toleration of a nuclear Iran would be preferable to war. Keller asks the president to consider plan B: not to bomb and yet not to encourage Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but to lift the sanctions, gradually, and improve trade relations in return for a regimen of closer inspections. Low enrichment of uranium would be allowed to continue for peaceful purposes.

Yet Congress lags far behind the skepticism of opinions like these. It continues to subscribe with near unanimity to the war resolutions written for its members by AIPAC. We are at a moment when a president with an ounce of invention could move the consensus in this country, and legitimate a stance of containment rather than imminent war. The Israeli position itself constitutes a provocation to war, but every relevant American authority, from the secretary of defense to the chairman of the joint chiefs, has been saying to Netanyahu and Barak that the U.S. retains the right to form its own judgment.

The latest public disavowal was made on September 10 by Hillary Clinton. Interviewed on Bloomberg radio, she sounded an independent note, as if U.S. policy were not bound by an oath of obedience to Israel: “We’re not setting deadlines.” No deadlines and no “red lines,” in the phraseology concocted by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Her remark may indicate a salutary resistance to preventive war, but, if so, the posture will take  stamina to maintain. For, on Iran in 2012, as on Afghanistan in 2009, Obama has trapped himself by misreading the tightness of an establishment consensus he did not like but did not care to contest. On Iran in 2012, as on Afghanistan in 2010, he has put himself on the record favoring a policy that presses toward more violence. It is amazing that in the three years since the failure of his short-winded negotiations with Iran in fall 2009 (not the “hands-on” negotiations he promised in 2008), this president has not worked so much as the length of one speech to try and build an alternative consensus for containment. The materials for such a consensus now exist outside Congress.

If you imagine an opportunity coming tomorrow for an end of the run-up to war, one fact still makes the prognosis less than optimistic. The president has done nothing to prepare the public mind for such a turn of policy. He would have to present the change, therefore, as a fait accompli. If a solution is being drafted in stealth even now, it is being depended on in the same magical way as in the summer of 2011. But war is worse than default. You cannot govern a country on a diet of Plan A and prayer; and supposing you do have in mind a better path, it is dangerous to wait for a moment of fair weather in domestic politics that may never come.

About David Bromwich

David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale. He is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke's selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty.

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