The back and forth between Barack Obama and John McCain over what kind of threat Iran represents, and how to respond to it, is instructive for the ways in which it illustrates the degree to which 9/11 sidetracked our national conversation over foreign policy and national security. That’s perfectly understandable given the magnitude of the trauma. But as with all traumatic events, there comes a time when they need to be integrated back into the broader historical context, otherwise we run the risk of responding more to internal stimuli (ie. our perception) rather than to external stimuli (ie. reality).
The broader historical context here begins in the immediate post-Cold War period, when America quickly adjusted to its new role in a world devoid of existential national security threats. As the dominant world power, we assumed the responsibility to function as a sort of backstop, maintaining the global order upon which the emerging project of globalization was built. Beginning with the first Gulf War and continuing through to the Kosovo campaign, a growing consensus for, and comfort with, military interventions in defense of stability and order emerged.
9/11 had the perverse effect of grafting the newly hatched interventionist consensus of the Nineties upon a reflexive return to the existential threat mindset of the Cold War. The resulting doctrine was used to justify not only a generational struggle that doesn’t correspond to the reality of the threat that terrorism represents, but also the right to respond to that threat unilaterally. The dangers of the new hybrid beast have been amply demonstrated in Iraq. But they’re also present in the current debate over Iran.
While he mentions the destabilizing role Iran plays in the region, McCain focuses his argument on the terrorism threat posed by Iran’s nuclear proliferation. But the terrorism angle is probably the least worrisome of the risks posed by a nuclearized Iran, which have more to do with the danger of a regional rush to nuclear weapons by the other nations of the Middle East. This kind of threat inflation, from the actual stability threat to an implied existential threat, shows a lack of imagination, and a disappointing similarity with the kind of hysterical rhetoric that has characterized the Bush administration’s Iran policy in particular, and its unilateral interventionist approach in general.
Obama’s position, on the other hand, reflects a more measured and realistic assessment of the threat Iran poses, as well as a more creative approach to addressing it. It’s a welcome corrective that hopefully will capture America’s imagination, regardless of the outcome of next November’s election. While we’ve been chasing the echoes of 9/11, the rest of the world has been enjoying the fruits of the system we helped to build in the Nineties. It’s a world that is determined to pursue its interests, and frustrate our own inasmuch as they conflict. But outside of a relatively small group of dangerous madmen congregating in the caves of the Pakistani badlands, it is not a world that is bent on our destrcution. The sooner we realize that, the more effective our efforts to stabilize it will be.