Iraq, Iran, and the President on Mindsets

by Paul Pillar

President Obama’s speech at American University was a thorough enough review of the issues that have come to surround the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program that any fair-minded listener who focuses on merits rather than politics would reach the conclusion, as Mr. Obama has, that completion of this agreement as being in U.S. interests was not a difficult decision or even close to being one. But although the president’s main purpose in the speech was to review the reasons this is the case and to beat back ill-guided attempts to destroy the agreement in the U.S. Congress, he made some more general points about the attitudes and beliefs that underlie those attempts and also underlay the launching of a disastrous war in Iraq 12 years ago. Here is how the president put it:

“When I ran for President eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, I said that America didn’t just have to end that war — we had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place. It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy; a mindset that put a premium on unilateral U.S. action over the painstaking work of building international consensus; a mindset that exaggerated threats beyond what the intelligence supported. Leaders did not level with the American people about the costs of war, insisting that we could easily impose our will on a part of the world with a profoundly different culture and history. And, of course, those calling for war labeled themselves strong and decisive, while dismissing those who disagreed as weak — even appeasers of a malevolent adversary.”

The comparison with the Iraq War is apt, and not only because some of the most enthusiastic promoters of that ill-fated expedition are today among the most vocal opponents of the Iran agreement. The same sort of thinking has led to each of those mistaken positions, and the president identified some of the elements of that thinking.

The preference for military action over diplomacy is indeed one of those elements, although the observation can be broadened a bit beyond a simple preference for one tool of statecraft over another. The attitude involves a preference for destroying things without thinking much about why people built whatever is being destroyed, or how people will react to the destruction. It involves a narrow focus on capabilities—and military force unquestionably is the instrument best able to destroy capabilities—and insufficient attention to intentions and motivations.

The preference for unilateral U.S. action and disdain for the judgments of most of the rest of the world is another of those elements, with the parallels extending even to some of the same major U.S. allies being the object of disdain. It was “old Europe” that became an object of contempt at the time of the Iraq War, a time when French fries became freedom fries. Today the same old Europeans of France and Germany are being ignored by opponents of the Iran agreement even though they are among the parties who helped to negotiate the agreement. And the same is true of that very close U.S. ally, the United Kingdom; David Cameron is not John Boehner’s poodle (or Barack Obama’s), even if Tony Blair was George W. Bush’s.

What the president identified as the exaggeration of threats beyond what intelligence supports is another common element. The makers of the Iraq War launched their project despite judgments by the U.S. intelligence community that contradicted the war-makers’ mythical “alliance” between the Iraqi regime and al-Qa’ida, not to mention the community’s judgments about the mess likely to ensue in Iraq after Saddam was overthrown. Today, opponents of the agreement speak endlessly about what an Iran that supposedly is salivating over the prospect of getting a nuclear weapon could do to cheat, despite the intelligence community’s repeatedly expressed public judgment that Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon and gave up whatever work it may have done on a weapon more than a decade ago. This opposition attitude is remarkably similar to how the promoters of the Iraq War went on endlessly about what Saddam Hussein “could” do with unconventional weapons he was presumed to have, despite the intelligence community’s public judgment that he was unlikely to use such weapons against U.S. interests or to give them to terrorists unless we invaded his country and started to overthrow his regime.

The belief in the ability of the United States to impose its will in the Middle East is certainly another common thread in the thinking involved, and it is not only a matter of faith in the efficacy of military force. The belief that a liberal democracy would easily fall into place in Iraq once Saddam was gone and if the United States so willed is of a piece with the belief that a “better deal” could be obtained once the current nuclear agreement is destroyed and if the United States so wills. In each case there is obtuseness about how real human beings react to real events, whether it is reaction to the “birth pangs of democracy” in Iraq or to attempts to coerce a proud Iran.

Another element of this thinking that could be mentioned, but that President Obama did not explicitly do so, is a black-and-white perspective that tends to see the Middle East as starkly divided between good-guy allies and bad-guy adversaries, with Iran currently occupying the most prominent place in the latter camp. Although the president did speak of the wisdom of making deals with one’s adversaries, he did not fundamentally challenge this perspective, despite its incongruence with reality. That is probably understandable and forgivable, given the need for him to maintain enough political correctness about Iran (and about Israel) to get the nuclear agreement through the Congressional gauntlet and across the finish line.

“Mindset” is an appropriate term for the president to have used. That term implies persistence and difficulty in dispelling the thought patterns involved. If the nuclear agreement survives it will be a major blow against the kind of insalubrious thinking that the mindset represents. But the mindset itself will survive. It is rooted primarily in certain parts of the politically active American elite, especially the part that usually carries the label neoconservatism. And those parts exploit some similar strains of thinking that are spread more widely in the American public. That exploitation helps the mindset to survive, despite even a disastrous collision with reality such as the Iraq War.

This article first was first published by The National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.

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  1. A superb analysis of superb comments by President Obama

  2. It was one of the most thoughtful, eloquent and reasoned speeches by the president. Anyone with a shred of fairness and intelligence could agree with the logic of the president’s speech. The trouble is that some people are totally deaf to rational arguments and wallow in their own prejudices and partisan loyalties. It will now become clear which people support their own elected president and which ones will follow the dictates of a foreign leader who has been proved wrong time and time again. The real battle is between peace and war and between diplomacy and resort to violence. After the experience of the past few decades most Americans will know which choice to make, even if their elected representatives do not.

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