The genteel pages of the New Yorker are not where one expects to find criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy, unless we are speaking of elegantly wrung hands over the White House’s failure to close Guantanamo, or to finalize a climate treaty. But Steve Coll’s latest, carefully wrapped in the form of a hymn to the President’s wisdom in seeking negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, nevertheless contains some of the most powerful arguments that the President’s critics are making. Brilliant as the wisdom of our great President is, Coll writes, his success in the Middle East would be even greater…if he hadn’t utterly failed to develop a policy to counter Iran’s reckless march toward regional hegemony.
As Coll puts it:
But a deal might achieve more stability—and go down better in Congress—if it was accompanied by a broader political strategy designed to separate Shiite and Sunni fighters, promote autonomy and self-governance for Sunnis opposed to the Islamic State, reduce violence, and stop Iran from intervening in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Gaza.
Moreover, there’s another question Coll poses: won’t sanctions relief replenish Iran’s war chest at just the time when regional overextension and low oil prices might be creating problems for the country’s expansionist ambitions? As he points out:
How would lifting sanctions not simply revitalize Iran’s expansionism? If the Administration doesn’t have a plan, it should devise one.
As to whether there is such a plan, Coll is polite, but, in looking at the confused record of Obama Administration policymaking in Iraq, isn’t hopeful:
Obama has committed the U.S. to what looks to be a long war in Iraq, with Iran’s help; an attack on the large city of Mosul is due soon. The Islamic State has thrived because it has captured the grievances and bitter desperation of Iraq’s Sunni minority. Attacking the Sunnis with Shiite fighters is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. If Iran’s proxies in Iraq gain more access to guns and money because of a nuclear deal with the West, that may only make things worse.
In recent days, the Washington Post, the Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the New Yorker—all basically sympathetic to the President personally and to his overall goal of a nuclear deal with Iran—have raised serious questions about the viability and coherence of the White House strategy. Likewise Jeffrey Goldberg, another source by no means unsympathetic to the White House, enumerated today a very skeptical set of criteria by which he would judge any deal to be a success; it will be very hard for the Administration to satisfy these criteria. The President lost the right on Iran policy long ago. He is well on his way to losing the center. Now cracks are beginning to appear on the left.