Steven Horowitz
Steven Horowitz

Strategic Impatience: A Coherent Policy?

For eight years the nations of the Middle East were confronted by an Obama administration which practiced a concept of “strategic patience” with regard to Iran and its hegemonic/nuclear plans for the region. Obama attempted to assure Israel and the Sunni Arab states that sooner rather than later, the government in Tehran would moderate its position. This was the basis of the Obama “sweetheart deal” signed as the JCPOA nuclear agreement and ratified by the US along with five other major powers. So far, there has been no hint of moderation coming from Iran. On the contrary, Tehran appears locked into a military land bridge extending from its border all the way to Hezbollah territory in southern Lebanon.

Now the US has a new president. Trump’s view of Obama’s “strategic patience” policy has been negative from the very beginning of his campaign nearly two years ago. But adopting a muscular strategy (I call it “strategic impatience”) boils down to either bluff or war. Bluff (exposed) would be a disaster, leaving nearly all America’s allies the necessity for a strategic re-evaluation. While, on the other hand, a war against Iran — without UN Security Council agreement — will risk a direct confrontation with Russia. Unless the US is willing to compromise with regard to Europe and East Asia, such a UN agreement would likely be vetoed by either Russia or China. Also, Britain and France would be extremely reluctant to agree to a muscular Trump policy without a clear blueprint as to a better future alternative to the present JCPOA.

With regard to Iran, Trump is isolated. But to continue allowing Iran access through Iraq and into Syria and Lebanon toward Israel, the Syrian Golan, and Jordan is a policy equally fraught with the potential for a regional explosion. Such a regional explosion could also lead to a dangerous escalation involving Russia and the US.

Russia is in Syria as a form of leverage against further NATO expansion into border areas close to the Kremlin’s heartland. This NATO expansion is the very crux of the Russian position in the Syrian war. Russia and Iran are merely “temporary partners” due to an insistence by the US establishment that it and its allies alone possess a dominance in both Europe and the Middle East. But such hegemony (if not exposed as mere bluff) will eventually be challenged with the possibility of dangerous escalations leading to a large conventional war or worse.

Iran (like North Korea) seeks to establish a nuclear program in order to deter a US directed regime change. However, Iran possesses an ideological overlay that is extreme with regard to its theological nature. This means it is less likely to moderate its behavior under pressure from either the US or Israel. Russia, on the other hand, is looking to roll back US/NATO hegemony in Europe. Moscow can become very pragmatic or very tough, depending on the circumstances.

Iran needs to understand that the entire UN Security Council — not just the US alone, practicing a Trump-style strategic impatience — has agreed on an alternative to the JCPOA and the future of foreign power penetration into the Middle East. Only then will the Islamic Republic (perhaps) moderate its position. Tehran needs to know that regime change is not on the agenda of the UN Security Council. Instead, an alternative to both the JCPOA and US/Russian military presence within the region will be exchanged for an anti-hegemonic non-nuclear alternative.

The Trump administration has now declared that the Iran nuclear deal repeats the mistakes that have allowed North Korea to advance its own nuclear program. The administration will now study whether or not to continue with the deal. The North Korean example is an apt one. The JCPOA will eventually allow Iran to reduce its “breakout time” to a matter of a few weeks. This could mean that, like North Korea, Tehran’s nuclear ambitions could become a fait accompli. Instead of simply “kicking the can down the road” (like what was done with North Korea) the Iran nuclear deal has now legalized the same process. But while the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration encompassed a strong element of the North Korean disaster embedded in its structure, Trump’s strategic impatience with regard to both North Korea and Iran could lead to a potential nuclear catastrophe lurking in the near future (Korean peninsula) and the not-so-distant future (Iran).

What is needed is a global “Grand Bargain”. What must change is the US post-Cold War position of the sole guarantor for all of Europe — excluding Russia. Also needed in order to de-escalate the US-Russia face-off in the Middle East is an agreement leading to the region’s complete absence of both nuclear weapons and all foreign forces. And finally, in Asia, the US must work as true partners with China. First and foremost, the removal of US troops from the Korean peninsula would demonstrate a new policy of trust with global cooperation between Beijing and Washington. A defensive strategic alliance between China and the US to allow the two Koreas a guarantee of borders and sovereignty, in exchange for the complete denuclearization of the peninsula.

American foreign policy has been incoherent since the demise of the Soviet Union. At that time, George H. W. Bush promised a “new international order”. He failed to deliver. Bill Clinton treated Russia with contempt and began the process of NATO expansion. George W. Bush brought NATO to Russia’s doorstep and invaded Iraq to prove American control in the Middle East. In the end, Bush was replaced by Obama, who pivoted away from the Middle East with his incoherent policy of strategic patience with regard to Iran. But Obama’s pivot to Asia was without substance and totally neglected a strategy toward North Korea’s nuclear program. Meanwhile Obama demonized Russia in the aftermath of the EU/CIA pro-Western coup in the Ukraine. All the while, US foreign policy has attempted to encircle China with bases, naval power and trade deals.

In the future, the JCPOA will become the huge disaster that North Korea has already become. Time moves quickly. But President Trump must truly seek peaceful solutions. Yes, the Obama era of “strategic patience” was misguided and now should be replaced. But the challenges of the future will not be solved by its opposite — a reactive policy of muscular strategic impatience.

Only a global “Grand Bargain” between Russia, China, the US and all their neighbors will suffice to defuse the global nuclear threat of dangerous confrontation and nuclear proliferation. That is, a “Grand Bargain” based on the serious diminishment of the potential for conventional war. Only then, and with such a “Grand Bargain” could the entire world begin to contemplate the serious endeavor of complete Security Council denuclearization. Time and ideas are running short for the potential of a world at peace. But only such a “Grand Bargain” policy will assure the certainty of a future of human understanding in an historic era of genuine peace.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).