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.”
Still, despite the Attlee government’s efforts, a Jewish state was successfully established. And however bungled Britain’s relinquishment of its empire, the United States was there to take up Britain’s burden in Turkey and Greece and to take over the dominant global role Britain had held for two centuries. The damage inflicted by Attlee’s policies was limited because the United States, led by Harry Truman, stood ready to take over. As the commentator Mark Steyn has often pointed out, though, there is no one standing behind the United States now. So the consequences of Attlee-ism in America today will be far more dire than those in Britain in 1945.
President Obama seems intent on relinquishing America’s position in the Middle East and the world, achieved with so much exertion over many decades. He sees America as an unexceptional nation whose international involvements have often been wrong and ineffective. Like Attlee, he believes we now live in a new era in which the old rules are anachronistic. As he said at the U.N. in 2009, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.”
So Obama is engaged in Attlee’s project 70 years later, ignorant of the lessons of those decades and of the far greater risk of following that path with no friendly rising power standing by to pick up the reins. One can say of Obama’s Middle East policy what Churchill said in 1949 about the Palestine policy of Ernest Bevin, Attlee’s foreign minister: He is “wrong, wrong in his facts, wrong in his mood, wrong in the method, and wrong in the result,” and “no one has been proved by events to be more consistently wrong on every turning-point and at every moment than he.” One can say of Obama’s policy what Churchill said of Bevin’s: It is a “policy of folly, fatuity, and futility the like of which it is not easy to find in modern experience.”
But our task is not merely to characterize the foreign policy of Barack Obama, that heir of Attlee with more than a touch of Chamberlain. Our task is to oppose it and reverse it. There were, after all, limits to what Churchill could have achieved after the war. The empire was probably doomed, and Britain itself was unable to sustain a great power role. America, on the other hand, is still a superpower. The American people need not acquiesce in Obama’s foreign policy of folly, fatuity, and futility.