Imagine you are one of the dozen or so people who can influence a foreign-policy decision for the Obama administration. Not a top staffer, able to quickly master and mobilize complex data points for and against a given policy position, but someone who has also ascended the complicated personal networks of Obamaland. Valerie Jarrett. John Kerry. Ashton Carter. Joe Biden.
Suddenly you find the world seems to be going to hell at once. Triple—nearly simultaneous—terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France. Greece on the edge of default. Puerto Rico too. The Iran negotiations up against their deadline—the Ayatollah suddenly spouting nationalistic formulations about inspections which may not mean much in real terms, but which give the well-organized opponents of Iran detente new levers to agitate against the negotiations. Ukraine: the Kiev government, encouraged by John McCain and part of America’s State Department, hopes to pull the United States into a sort of alliance, giving it protection as it looks to escalate the war against its rebellious eastern provinces. (“Killing its own citizens” is how the mainstream media might describe Kiev’s actions in another context.)
Which of these issues is the most important, which do you have to make sure to get right? It’s not easy—and if you are John Kerry, you are probably still in pain every day from a badly broken leg. Plus it’s the week of July 4th, and though you are a serious person who doesn’t even think about vacation, you sense a gap between the urgency of saving the world from chaos and the fact that much of your family is in summer mode.
I hope Obama is hearing something like this from such people, which I suspect tracks with his own inclinations: We can’t know the consequences of a Greek exit from the Eurozone, but they will be manageable. The smartest financial analysts (like Nouriel Roubini, whose online newsletter people pay a pricey subscription to receive) have for years done serious projections on a Greek exit from the Eurozone, focusing on ways in which the worst disruptions can be mitigated. They almost certainly can be. For Greece, gaining control of its own currency and fiscal policy is probably necessary for any real recovery. The Euro project may have been doomed to fail eventually—there isn’t enough in common between its various components to make a genuine currency union viable.
The Greeks have as much reason to resent German overlordship as anyone in Europe. But in France too, arguments that the Euro and the Brussels bureaucracy curtails French sovereignty and democracy, or simply provides powerful lever for American financial hegemony, are heard increasingly on both Left and Right. It’s far from clear whether the weakening of the European Union or the collapse of the Euro would benefit or harm American interests, but it would almost certainly strengthen democracy within Europe. About the financial consequences, experts can figure out how to smooth them over, though it will surely take time. The European economy, including Greece’s, rests ultimately on a combination of an educated and skilled populace and decent amount of natural resources, and these will not disappear.
Oh, Puerto Rico might default too? Perhaps it’s a good thing then it isn’t actually a state, as many conservatives believed it should become back in the 1990’s.
Iran. A breakdown in the Iran negotiations would be a genuine tragedy, and would probably start the clock ticking inexorably towards war. There are powerful groups in the United States—everyone knows who they are—which actively hope for war with Iran and have for years. They were rebuffed in the latter years of George W. Bush’s presidency and early in Obama’s. But they are extremely well funded—their expensive full-page advertisements appear in the New York Times, and others will soon blanket the airwaves. They have every reason to hope that if they block a deal now, they will have a more malleable president within a year and a half.
The Iran hawks’ most recent talking point involves inspections, as they argue for the idea that anything less than unlimited inspections all over the country means that Iran will be able to cheat and construct clandestinely a nuclear weapon. This is pretty much nonsense: Iran has already agreed to a rigorous inspection regime, and is under one now. As for inspection of military sites—it is true that the Ayatollah railed against them recently in a speech to Iranian hard-liners; it is also true that Fordow, Iran’s once-secret underground enrichment and research facility—and part of a military base—has had inspectors crawling all over it, with Iran’s agreement, since the initial preliminary pact was signed two years ago. That will not change. The remaining gaps between the U.S. and Iran are technical and minor relative to the vast distance which has been covered.
There is momentum behind the agreement, some of it economic (you can’t read the financial page without seeing reports of major Western firms vying for position in a post-accord investment environment) and much of it strategic. That yet another Saudi committed suicide terrorism, blowing up a Shi’ite mosque in Kuwait and killing dozens of worshipers, adds to the growing recognition that tying American Mideast policy to the wishes of the Saudi princes, the main financiers of Sunni jihadism, is a form of madness. It is not clear what will happen with the so-called Islamic State—which may be easier to contain than destroy. But in almost any scenario, America will need allies in the region with troops willing to fight, and Iran is clearly the most powerful and most willing. It is one of history’s ironies that after years of Israeli and neoconservative propaganda proclaiming that Iran was a crazy terror-exporting state run by religious fanatics (for which there is little recent evidence), precisely such an entity did emerge from within Sunni Islam, while Iran has proven its most able—and indeed in the Mideast virtually its only—opponent.
In any case, it is likely that relations with Iran will move forward or backward—they won’t, can’t, stay in their present balance, where Iran is treated as a sort of back-door ally against ISIS, its diplomats and generals treated respectably by their American counterparts, yet under serious sanctions and reviled in much public discourse as the epitome of evil.
Foreign policy is about making distinctions between the important and the marginal. There is little we can do about Greece, but its exit from the Euro will not be tragic. There is virtually no one in Western Europe who wants to be a full-fledged ally of Ukraine, and the United States can and should learn something from Europe’s reticence. But Iran is important: a successful nuclear agreement will reveal that Iran is the key to containing Islamic State terrorism and probably to maintaining American influence in the Mideast.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.