Newsweek editor John Meacham seems to set out to rebut Fareed Zakaria’s pro-containment argument, but ends up strengthening it. He also produces a quote from Sen. John McCain that represents a more significant shift — both in terms of McCain’s views and for the debate over Iran more generally — than I think has been recognized.
“The success of deterrence is dependent on rationality,” Meacham writes, “and the more people with access to nuclear weapons increases the risk that irrationality will enter the equation.” That’s fine as far as it goes — I think we can agree that the fewer countries with nuclear weapons the better — but it doesn’t say much about the best way to deal with an Iran that has been intentionally opaque about its nuclear intentions.
Many leaders in President Obama’s position would love the opportunity to be Churchill and order up a dramatic strike that would set the Iranian program back and send a message of resolve. But even the most hawkish of American politicians do not believe such military action would work at an acceptable cost. In a conversation last week with John McCain, I asked whether we would have to live with a nuclear Iran. Without hesitation McCain replied: “Very likely.”
I don’t think we should foreclose the possibility of the Geneva talks achieving a breakthrough, but it’s very much worth noting that “living with a nuclear Iran” represents a real change in McCain’s thinking. During the 2008 campaign, one of McCain’s favorite lines was “There’s only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option, [and] that is a nuclear-armed Iran.” It seems now that he recognizes that that’s not quite right.
As for the idea that all politicians “would love the opportunity to be Churchill,” I suppose that’s true, but it also reveals the limits of this overused Churchill-Chamberlain analogy, in which making war is always the right choice, and seeking a course other than war is always cowardly. For example, the invasion of Iraq was presented by its advocates, McCain among them, as the act of a Churchill — a bold and heroic thrust at the heart of tyranny. Six years later, a solid American consensus regards the invasion as a feckless and impetuous blunder based on a serious misapprehension of the region’s dynamics, a tragic misreading of the historical moment, and a total lack of appreciation of the potential consequences. It was, in other words, more the act of a Chamberlain.
I don’t expect that McCain has or will ever come to recognize this in regard to Iraq, but it’s encouraging that one of America’s leading hawks has come around to the idea that dealing with Iran boldly and bravely does not necessitate making war against it.