The interim agreement that the United States and its partners cut with Iran last week stands as a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. The Obama administration has walked away from a core objective of U.S. policy for two decades—preventing a nuclear Iran—thereby threatening fundamental regional and global interests. In accepting a partial pause in aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, and in giving up on the insistence that Iran ultimately abandon its nuclear program, the Obama administration invites dire strategic consequences—an existential threat to Israel and our Arab allies, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, a strengthening of the forces of radicalism and terrorism in the region, and a fundamental weakening of the U.S. position in the region and the world.
Congress and U.S. allies in the Middle East must make their own judgments of this deal and retain freedom of action. They may well be able to limit its damage. We encourage them to do so. But we’re also obliged to ask what the deal tells us about our president and his view of the world.
There’s an obvious comparison of Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who pursued a policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler, culminating in the Munich conference of 1938. There, Chamberlain and the French premier agreed to Hitler’s demand that Czechoslovakia should cede the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany to stave off a threatened German invasion, without the Czechs even being a party to the talks.
Obama does manifest some of Chamberlain’s trusting naïveté and insular self-righteousness. More important perhaps, like Chamberlain, Obama thinks his job is to accommodate domestic war-weariness and to keep us out of foreign conflicts. Also like Chamberlain, Obama in the Middle East has inclined toward appeasing Muslims at the expense of Jews in the Holy Land. And like Chamberlain, Obama will go down in history as a failed leader of the leading Western democracy, one whose policies will have to be reversed—one hopes this time at less cost—by his successor.
Churchill succeeded Chamberlain in May 1940, and saved the West. Churchill in turn was succeeded in July 1945, two months after V-E Day, by Clement Attlee, the Labour party leader, who defeated Churchill in the general election. And it is Attlee with whom Obama has perhaps more in common even than Chamberlain.
Attlee cared far more about the massive expansion of the British welfare state than about preserving Britain’s traditional role in the world. Or rather, he didn’t want to preserve that role. He described it as the “mess of centuries,” and it was a mess he wanted to clean up. And so Attlee went about tearing apart the strategic and imperial inheritance that Churchill bequeathed him in 1945. Attlee believed that a new era had dawned, one where the rules derived from a study of history and its lessons no longer applied. The old power politics were anachronistic. British bases in the Mediterranean and East Indies were “obsolete.” The United Nations would be the key to the future. And the British economy was weak. So Attlee moved quickly to decolonize a significant part of the British Empire, granting independence to India, Burma, and Ceylon, and reducing or removing British presence in Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Southeast Asia. Some of this was desirable, if not inevitable, but the precipitous and pell-mell fashion in which this policy was executed often sparked chaos and bloodshed in the countries abandoned, and undermined British strategic interests around the world.
Yet Attlee oddly decided to make a stand in Palestine, the one part of the empire from which Churchill thought it right to withdraw and where a Jewish state was ready to be established. As the Attlee government became increasingly hostile to Zionism, an astonished Churchill commented on Attlee’s inversion, if not perversion, of foreign policy priorities: “To abandon India, with all the dire consequences that would follow therefrom, but to have a war with the Jews in order to give Palestine to the Arabs amid the execration of the world, appears to carry incongruity of thought and policy to levels which have rarely been attained in human history.” Or, as Churchill further put it, “ ‘Scuttle’ everywhere is the order of the day—Egypt, India, Burma. One thing at all costs we must preserve: the right to get ourselves world-mocked and world-hated over Palestine.”