In the course of trying to explain to Tom Friedman why his diplomatic outreach to Iran is no threat to America or our allies, President Obama sounded for a brief moment like the kind of warmonger he is normally heard denouncing.
Usually, the president's go-to rhetorical ploy is to paint a dire picture of the consequences of U.S. airstrikes on Iran's nuclear sites. In his announcement last week of the framework agreement, for example, he dismissed the military option by warning that "we can bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, thereby starting another war in the Middle East." He never explains how airstrikes targeting a half-dozen sites would start a region-wide war, but the goal here, of course, is to make military action sound like it would have such terrible consequences that no reasonable person could possibly support it.
The president likes to make the case that the only alternative to the nuclear deal is war. Yet those of us who Obama puts in the warmonger category like to point out that this argument exaggerates Iran's capacity to retaliate—that Iran's pre-revolution conventional military is dilapidated and ineffective, that Iranian leaders are not likely to risk an escalation against the vastly more powerful U.S. military, that Iran's only plausible means of retaliation is through terrorist mischief, and that, while this is a genuine risk, it is one worth taking given the alternative of a nuclear-armed Iran.
So it was surprising to hear Obama make almost exactly these points (save for the concluding one) in his interview with Tom Friedman:
"The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us."
Obama is right—Iran cannot fight us. And it is precisely for this reason that the president should stop denigrating military action and put all options back on the table.