A Deadly Double Down
Peter Baker writes, in a New York Times piece, that President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran represents a pivotal “moment of truth” for his “ambitions to remake the world.” Baker refers to the deal as a “gamble,” a “prospect,” a “holy grail.” This language of tantalizing evokes a sense of teasing, baiting, and peril. Combine Iran with the words “nuclear” and “peril,” and the stakes of Obama’s failure equal death on par with that seen last century. Welcome to Constructivist Foreign Policy Theory–the least-trusted foreign policy approach respected only within liberal academia.
Admittedly, the optimism of Constructivist Theory (or Constructivism) provides an alluring argument capable of ensnaring the naive and the desperate. Constructivism holds that a table is only a table because we recognize it as such. Stand on that table and sing a song and the table becomes a stage. Likewise, a rogue nation is only a rogue nation because it is viewed by others as such. Therefore, treat the nation as a responsible one, and it will rise to its new designation. While the theory does an excellent job creating stage props for a play, its application in foreign policy presents many more limitations.
Its adherents point to terrorist groups turned respectable political parties as proof of Constructivism’s success and potential. Sinn Fein, Hamas, and increasingly the Taliban, evolved from shadowy butchers to doughy politicians. Neo-Realism itself, another foreign policy theory, shares some Constructivist assumptions while avoiding Constructivism’s skeptics and critics. Of course, not only do theorists argue about Constructivism’s role in transforming these groups, but the consequences of getting the answer wrong–of misapplying the pollyanna theory–equal violence. Baker highlights this point by detailing Iran’s troubling recent history:
“[Iran] has been the most sustained destabilizing force in the Middle East–a sponsor of the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, a supporter of Shiite militias that killed American soldiers in Iraq, a patron of Syria’s government in its bloody civil war, and now a backer of rebels who pushed out the president of Yemen.”
Why pursue this strategy with Iran?
Mr. Obama’s coziness with Constructivism comes as no surprise: The president fashions himself a product of the Elite American University. Here, political hypotheses live artificially long lives, protected from their certain death by a lack of implementation. Obama also posits that with Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection, peace between Israel and Palestine, the true Holy Grail for American presidents, and one that if attained would justify his Nobel Peace Prize, appears impossible. Reforming Iran represents the last hope to offset his prolific use of drone strikes.
Then, there is the question of Obama’s desperation and naivety. Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist speaks to the former:
“Right now, he has no foreign policy legacy…He’s got a list of foreign policy failures.”
“Syria, red lines, an exploding Mideast, a Russian president who…made a move, upsetting a hard-built order that had maintained for a quarter-century since the fall of the Soviet Union–what a mess.”
Baker piles on:
“Rather than building a new partnership with Russia, he faces a new cold war. Rather than ending the war in Iraq, he has sent American forces back to fight the Islamic State…Rather than defeating Al Qaeda, he finds himself chasing its offshoots. Rather than forging peace in the Middle East, he said recently that is beyond his reach.”
Indeed, the Administration seeks a “win” to salvage its foreign policy reputation.
On the topic of naivety, Obama loyalists disagree that it applies to him. His own words, though, undermine these defenders:
“Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.”
The cute line, with its tone ripped from his 2008 campaign, fails to recognize that Iran rightly inspires reason to fear. Moreover, a Constructivist approach threatens to strengthen and embolden Iran–pitting an intangible goal, a foreign policy pin on his empty chest, against a tangible alternative, the millions of charred bodies of our allies, if not some of our own.
Obama’s “gamble” with Iran is a fool’s bet.