America needs to form as broad an international coalition against Tehran as possible—and simultaneously to develop a strategy for the Middle East as a whole.
in the final years of his administration, President Barack Obama drastically reduced the aperture through which Washington viewed the Middle East. Identifying counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State as the top priority, he succumbed to a seductive vision: perhaps the Russians and the Iranians, America’s traditional adversaries, would partner with him to defeat Sunni radicalism.
Promising as it did to offer the United States a way to avoid costly troop commitments to the Middle East, this idea was as beguiling as it was wrongheaded. Obama’s pursuit of it led directly to the rise of the Russian-Iranian alliance and to a significant reduction of American influence in the Middle East.
Our essay in Mosaic sought to explain why this idea will not work, and to sketch a path back to a healthier approach to the Middle East. We are thankful that three distinguished observers of international politics—Michael O’Hanlon, Frederick Kagan, and Eran Lerman—have taken the time to offer thoughtful responses to our analysis, and we are pleased that, generally speaking, they approve our efforts.
But there was some disagreement, most notably from Michael O’Hanlon—who, among other things, chides us for the partisan tone of our article. He reminds us that Obama did not have a monopoly on error, and that George W. Bush bequeathed his successor a host of difficulties in the Middle East. O’Hanlon does not identify Bush’s mistakes explicitly, but he is presumably referring, among other things, to the fact that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened the door to Iranian influence in that country.
This fact is certainly true, and, if pressed, we have no problem admitting it. In our view, however, citing it was peripheral to our purpose. Our goal was not to keep partisan score but to unearth Obama’s most consequential strategic calculations. Even at this late date, those calculations remain buried under the mountain of misinformation generated by his hyperactive media machine. More to the point, it was Obama’s understanding of the Middle East, not Bush’s, that shaped the strategy currently being implemented by the United States military. We are more interested in contributing to the debate about that strategy than to the history of American policy.
On this latter score, O’Hanlon fears that we are perhaps unrealistic. He warns against defining the contest with Iran as “a zero-sum competition,” and argues that “shutting Iran out of the region altogether is simply implausible.” Instead, he urges us to engage in a kind of policy triage: “to think hard about which aspects of Iranian influence we find most problematic, and which ones we can live with.”
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In fact, we have no illusions about shutting Iran out of the region altogether. Instead, our goal is to curtail its influence and to force Iran to work much …read more