"In war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations. . .In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose. . .thus we can follow a chain of sequential objectives until we reach one that requires no justification, because its necessity is self-evident. In many cases, particularly those involving great and decisive actions, the analysis must extend to the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace.”
It is a tribute to the wiser Presidents of the Cold War era, including John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush, that they never allowed themselves to lose sight of the ultimate objective and actively sought peace among the major powers in the Cold War. Even Ronald Reagan, in his second term, realized that Mikhail Gorbachev was ready for peace and began moving in that direction. Since the end of the Cold War, however, our foreign policy establishment seems to have been so seduced by the idea of American hegemony that peace has not been much of a concern. Instead, following in the steps of the Israelis--but with much less justification--we have condemned ourselves to perpetual war, both with Al Queda and with several unfriendly states, led by Iran. Suddenly, this week, it seems possible that we might actually reverse course and make a deal with the new Iranian government that would loosen the economic sanctions against Iran in return for limits on the Iranian nuclear program. That step, following closely upon the decision to reach an agreement with Syria on its chemical weapons rather than undertake a useless air strike, suggests that the Obama Administration might be moving towards real peace with the Muslim world. Given the anarchy that has been unleashed in so much of that area and the largely dashed hopes of the Arab spring, that dream may be utopian, but this is in any case a turning point for the United States and the world, and perhaps a chance for President Obama to earn the Nobel Prize that he was awarded so precipitously.
I do not know what Iran's intentions with respect to nuclear weapons might be. I suspect that they want at least the capability to build one relatively rapidly should they choose to do so--or at least, that that was their goal under their last government. On the one hand, they must understand how impossible it seems to be to make effective use of nuclear weapons; on the other hand, the examples of Iraq on the one hand and North Korea on the other suggest that only a nuclear weapon would make them safe against an attack by the United States. Iran's new President, Hassan Rouhani, obviously wants detente with the West for both economic and political reasons and seems willing to accept some limits on nuclear development to get it. It is most unlikely that he is willing to abandon either Hezbollah or the government of Hafez Assad in Syria, but it is not clear that either of them is going anywhere anyway, and Iran could certainly help broker some kind of political settlement in Syria that left Assad in power and brought the civil war to an end--that is, a deal that would satisfy Clausewitz's dictum, above. President Obama and John Kerry are right: this deal was worth pursuing. If they do bring it off, Kerry will have easily eclipsed his predecessor's achievements as Secretary of State, too.
The main opponents of a deal seem to be the unlikely combination of Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the Israelis will presumably try to deploy their substantial political power in the United States to stop it. Yet that power is not what it used to be. President Obama will never need AIPAC to be re-elected again, and the Tea Party is not very interested in an activist foreign policy. Congressional approval of a deal is not likely to be necessary, and fortunately Congress has never been stupid enough to repeat what it did in the late 1990s, passing a law endorsing regime change in Iraq, with respect to Iran. In any case, our relations with the Israelis have reached a crossroads. In 2003 we invaded Iraq in part to remove a potential security threat to themselves. We did eliminate a large hostile army, but the results on the whole have not been encouraging. Netanyahu seems to feel American military power should be available to eliminate any unwelcome military capability in a hostile state. He and the Israeli people as a whole (with some very vocal exceptions, of course) have clearly given up on peace with the Palestinians and have accepted the idea of decades more of conflict with the Palestinians and at least some of their neighbors. The United States, in my opinion, cannot afford to follow in their wake. It is not clear in any case that either the US or Israel could stop Iran from making a nuclear weapon with military action. Clearly invading and conquering Iran is out of the question, and we do not know where their enriched uranium and many of their centrifuges might be. An attack would almost surely make them more, not less, willing to go ahead an build the weapon.
Meanwhile, this whole crisis, and Israel's position, raise an interesting question about Israel's own nuclear weapons, which everyone assumes they have. Israel has presumably built a nuclear arsenal for deterrence, but the Israeli government does not trust its arsenal to deter Iran. Like the George W. Bush Administration, it now argues that it cannot tolerate even the threat of nuclear attack, the threat that the United States, the Soviet Union and China lived with for decades. If that is so, wouldn't it make much more sense for Israel to offer to give up its nuclear weapons as part of a wide-ranging deal to create a nuclear-free Middle East? In any case I do not see how the Israelis can indefinitely maintain the idea that they alone within that region must have them.
A fellow historian remarked sometime in the 1990s that we were going to miss the Cold War. In many ways I see now that he was right. Yes, it was a very dangerous era, and both sides were drawn into useless, destructive conflicts in the Third World. Yet both sides did a great deal of state-building all over the world as well, and both understood the necessity of keeping the peace. Both we and the Russians took statesmanship a lot more seriously, and the United States, I think, took its responsibilities to the rest of the world more seriously then than now. The negotiations with Iran, I repeat, are a big step forward and a possible first step away from threatening international anarchy. I hope that Secretary Kerry can strike a satisfactory deal, and that no one else will be able to stop it. I would like to see my government back in the business of bringing about peace.
[P.S. Saturday evening at 9:00 PM, Fox News is running a documentary on the Kennedy assassination in which I shall be featured. I hope you can tune in.]