The Obama Legacy — A Second Nuclear Age?

A mere decade from now, when the world is forced to remember the overriding legacy of the years 2009-2017 (the Obama years), they probably will not look back fondly. Whether or not this president understands his predicament, his hand has already been played. The Middle East is either going to have a totally destabilizing nuclear arms race (the most likely scenario), or it’s going to have a nuclear-weapons-free zone. If it’s the former, Obama will be blamed. If it’s somehow the latter, his name probably won’t even be mentioned. This conclusion can be easily drawn from the reactions of all of Iran’s neighbors. Whatever Iran is allowed to possess in terms of a nuclear infrastructure, the rest of the Middle East will most certainly follow suit. This truism can now be called the Obama factor.

The major fault line with the Nuclear Framework Agreement is time. Because the agreement has such a short duration, it has become seriously flawed from the outset. If the sunset clause would have fifty years on or even thirty-five, then Iran’s neighbors might have taken pause. Perhaps within the strict confines of a near foolproof inspection regime, a much longer time-frame with a means-tested lifting of sanctions might have mollified the major nuclear and non-nuclear states of the region. But ten years — how can such a miniscule blink of time in the eye of history give any state a sense of assurance? Obviously it can’t, or the world wouldn’t be in the predicament in which it’s about to find itself.

And make no mistake, this potential second nuclear age is very real. The initial Cold War ended without a nuclear exchange. That didn’t mean that it didn’t have its incidents of nuclear danger and near apocalyptic catastrophe. In one such incident, a large American nuclear air base was placed on the highest alert due to an international crisis, the perimeter of that base being breached by our fellow mammal, a bear. You read this right, and I don’t mean as an allegorical Russian bear. Just google “False alarm, how a bear nearly started a nuclear war” for the details. Yes, accidents can really happen. And in as unstable a region as the Middle East, there could be many false alarms created not by bears, but by quite fallible human beings. In a region famous for conspiracy theory, terrorism, authoritarianism, irrational blood feud, endemic poverty, lack of diplomatic relations, strained memory, miscommunication through cultural misunderstanding and religious fundamentalism, who in their right mind would want to introduce a nuclear arms race?

But such a nuclear arms race will be the long-lasting legacy of the Obama administration. In such an irrational political environment as the Middle East, deterrence through mutually assured destruction (MAD), long considered the “rational” approach to nuclear weapons, will not find the necessary political stability in order to flourish. The Middle East is not Europe. And because the first nuclear age came after the two most devastating continental wars in all of European history, WWI and WWII, a new and formidable balance of power based on war fatigue had been created. The Middle East, however, is now directly engaged in a region-wide struggle of unprecedented proportions. To risk a nuclear arms race in the midst of such a struggle can only be judged to be the height of folly. The world barely escaped such a nuclear arms race in the closing months of WWII. Why start a similar race in the Middle East?

In recent decades, at least since the end of the Cold War and its aftermath, American presidents have begun to think that the world revolves completely around themselves alone. But the age of unipolar pretensions has collapsed on the shoals of vast global debts used to maintain a system of massive inequality. The Democratic Party understands these limitations much better than the Republican Party. But our young Democrat president hasn’t figured out a foreign policy to complement the new times. The Obama presidency, with its failed policies in both Europe and the Middle East, is a prime example of an administration with unipolar pretensions facing the limitation of a rigid kind of economic and geopolitical determinism. If the Americans cannot stabilize the Middle East alone (and Obama knows they can’t), at least his administration feels it can achieve a short-gap insular nuclear deal with Iran. But that is not a foreign policy, it’s just a foolish means to continue to kick the can of instability down the road. In fact, as described above, it only makes matters much, much worse.

Only a policy leading to Middle East stability can be considered a successful foreign policy. And on this score, the Obama retreat from the region — as personified by the complete American withdrawal from Iraq and the consequent rise of ISIS — speaks volumes. The same is true of American policy in Syria (or should I say, a lack of policy). Throughout the entire Obama presidency, unipolar pretension has been stymied by war fatigue and economic constraint. This is the paradox of Democratic Party executive foreign policy. The lone eagle has lost its ability to fly in the face of so much grounded domestic inequality and genuine economic morass. In other words, Obama (and Hillary too) lead a political party without unipolar pretension at a time when no policy has arisen to take its place.

Obama is gambling the future of all his Middle East allies on the premise that, within ten short years, Iran’s regional ambitions will somehow change. In the face of such a long-shot American policy, the second nuclear age is being born. And the only policy that can stop this new age from its Frankenstein-monster birth is one of multi-polar international cooperation between the world’s great powers — i.e. China, India, Russia, France and the US-England. Without such international cooperation, other theatres of discontent (East Asia and Europe) will continue to fester, and any hope of international coordination with respect to Middle East regional stability, leading to a future nuclear-weapons-free zone, will become frozen in a new cold war.

This new international cooperation can best be achieved with a strong Middle East component. In other words, the fusion of an internationally-balanced Middle East regional geopolitical dynamic, with the future of the area’s nuclear infrastructure (Israel’s included). As Henry Kissinger says: “The Middle East will not stabilize itself, nor will the balance of power naturally assert itself out of Iranian-Sunni competition”. Hence the Obama administration strategy, of disengaging the region from the nuclear negotiations, hasn’t solved the region’s problems. On the contrary, it has exacerbated them.

This is the real reason why the new Saudi king won’t be at the Camp David summit on May 14th. Because such a cavalier approach to the nuclear question as a technical negotiating process, and not as a regional balance of power dilemma, is the real reason that this administration has such little credibility with any of its allies. This is especially true of the Israelis. They see this nuclear policy as an adjunct to a regional dimension in total flux. Jerusalem perceives Obama’s policy in combination with Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian civil war, the weakness and instability of Jordan, and an administration wanting to force Israel back to its 1949 armistice line. Obama is on the verge of being considered another Jimmy Carter, i.e. anti-Israel.

Obama needs to read the Kissinger-Shultz essay — “The Iran Nuclear Deal and Its Consequences” (Wall St. Journal, April 7th 2015). Then he must begin to synthesize the sound criticisms embedded within the essay with a whole new foreign policy paradigm whose emphasis is true peace through international coordinated effort. Only through such a turnabout can America mesh its international capacities with a more reasonable foreign policy. Because only through the long-term goal of responsible stability through multilateral cooperation can the world hope to address the impending planetary issues of ecological balance with a proper human economy. The world simply cannot withstand either a second nuclear age, or even a second Cold War. Planetary problems require responsible nations at peace. This is true between nations and within nation-states.

If this president really believes in the future of his children and their children, then he can never be satisfied to merely kick the nuclear can down the road. Ten years from now, his two girls will be young adults in their twenties. As an older parent, I know that is not a very long time. How is this president to explain to his family a legacy (his legacy) of a second nuclear age? Because within a decade, if current policy isn’t changed, the Middle East will be awash with nuclear weapons. Certainly a smart man like President Obama can foresee the consequences of his actions. But for some reason, if he can’t, I am certain that his two bright young daughters will explain it all to him. By then, however, it will be too late.

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).