What Would John Adams Do About Iran?

It’s time for No. 44 to channel No. 2.

In the summer of 1798, U.S. President John Adams faced the gravest crisis of his time in office. Hostilities with the revolutionary, expansionist regime in France had been rising since his election, with French privateers seizing American merchant ships off the Atlantic coast. Adams's effort at diplomacy had backfired. The envoys he had sent to France had been met with extortionate and insulting demands; the publication of their dispatches, in what came to be known as the XYZ Affair, had provoked a firestorm of outrage and war fever, the likes of which the young republic had never before known. The public, led by Adams's own Federalist Party, was demanding a declaration of war. Adams himself had stoked those public passions. But now, in the summer, he hesitated between belligerence and yet more diplomacy.

The United States is now locked in conflict with Iran, another revolutionary, expansionist power. It is not yet summer 1798, but it's getting close. Today's president, Barack Obama, as firmly committed to the principle of engagement as Adams was to the principle of neutrality, is still giving diplomacy a chance. But the bugles are sounding. Israeli officials openly and urgently talk about the need for military action; Iran has apparently responded with a barrage of assassination attempts abroad; and polls show that a majority of Americans are prepared to use force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The president is under pressure, not from his own party, but from his adversaries, to issue an ultimatum to Iran. We may be only one stupid mistake away from the point where an attack becomes unavoidable.

Although Americans view themselves as slow to anger and reluctant to take up arms, the historical record argues otherwise. Adams was the first, but not the last, U.S. president, to feel the enormous pressure of the public clamor for war. Exactly 100 years after the XYZ Affair, President William McKinley cowered before the braying of the yellow press for war against Spain, the colonial master of the Philippines and Cuba. In one of the grossest public abuses of religious sentiment on record, McKinley famously claimed that he had fallen to his knees to ask divine guidance on the issue, heard God instruct him to liberate and Christianize the Filipinos, and "slept soundly." And half a century later, when the Soviets blockaded Berlin, President Harry Truman confronted demands that he force a military showdown. The Red Army was, of course, a much more formidable foe than Spain, and Truman wisely overruled his more bloody-minded generals -- as John F. Kennedy would later do during the Cuban missile crisis.

Adams himself was convinced that France threatened not only American commerce but American sovereignty; in a speech before a special session of Congress, he accused the French Directory of seeking "to separate the people of the United States from the government" in order to foment domestic upheaval. He created a new Department of the Navy and began building warships. In the aftermath of the XYZ Affair, he stood aside as Federalists whipped through Congress the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed at French nationals and sympathizers. In short, Adams behaved less like Obama than like George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Unlike Bush, however, Adams did not want war, and neither, it turned out, did France. Once Charles M. de Talleyrand, France's foreign minister, saw that the United States was preparing for war, he began authorizing intermediaries to tell influential Americans that France had no wish for hostilities and would accept a new envoy with none of the onerous conditions (including the payment of a douceur, or bribe, to himself) imposed on the previous mission. Adams began hearing from private citizens and diplomats, including his son John Quincy, then minister in Berlin, that France wanted peace. None of this was publicly known, and opinion remained no less inflamed. But Adams concluded he had to take a risk on Talleyrand's bona fides. In February 1799, he appointed his minister to the Netherlands as envoy to France. And in October 1800, the two sides signed a peace treaty known as the Convention of 1800.

Standing up to the war hawks was the most noble and selfless act of Adams's tenure. As historian William Stinchcombe concludes in The XYZ Affair, "in this respect alone his record as president must be judged as superior to that of many others." Adams believed he had signed his own political death warrant, and he may have been right: He lost considerable Federalist support and was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800 election. McKinley, by contrast, not only apparently slept like a baby but cruised to reelection. One moral of the story is thus that choosing diplomacy over a needless war may gain a president credit with posterity, but not with voters. If the temperature rises, Obama, too, may have to risk his political future in order to resist the call to arms.

There are other lessons of the so-called quasi-war with France more directly applicable to the current standoff with Iran. Despite its revolutionary domestic policy, France pursued its foreign interests as a rational state actor. Talleyrand was a wily schemer who laughed at ideological purity. One could not say the same, of course, for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- though the English-speaking foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, may be the closest thing to a moderate in the upper ranks of the Iranian leadership. Both, in any case, appear to be trying to maneuver Iran back from the brink. Salehi has recently said that Iran is prepared to rejoin talks with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and has proposed doing so in Turkey. Salehi's bona fides are at least as suspect as Talleyrand's, but it behooves the United States and its allies to test them.

What is also clear is that it was not Obama's initial policy of engagement that has induced the change in Iranian behavior, but the vise of economic sanctions he and others have tightened on Iran -- and perhaps also the threat of war from Israel. Iran has been pursuing the logic of an expansionist foreign policy, just as France did; in both cases, revolutionary ideology essentially served to sanction classic self-aggrandizement. Iran would not be waylaid by deference and respect. Obama needed to make good his threats, as Adams needed to build his "wooden walls."

At the same time, Iran will not be deflected from pursuing its self-interest without some very significant inducement. In 1798, France needed to be reassured that the United States was not allying itself with England, as the French feared. Iran, at a minimum, must be reassured that it can retain its nuclear program, which has become a question of national identity. Obama administration officials might do well to read a recent report from the International Crisis Group that suggests that the P5+1 recognize Iran's right in principle to enrich uranium in exchange for Iran's acceptance of stringent safeguards on and intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities. The West would begin to relax sanctions as Iran complied with this demand as well as other measures designed to eliminate its supply of highly enriched uranium. Beyond that, the report proposes, Washington must be prepared to discuss the whole range of regional issues, including Afghanistan and Iraq, in which Tehran has an interest. If war would be a calamity, as Obama appears to think, then there can be no excuse for halfhearted diplomacy.

Iran may very well reject these terms. By 1798, France was already a status quo power; Iran, remarkably, remains a deeply ideological force even 30 years after the revolution, and it continues to play a disruptive role in world affairs. Conciliation itself could violate the leadership's ideology or political interests -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, might carry out his power struggle with Ahmadinejad by blocking any attempt at negotiation. It may be, in short, that Iran will stop at nothing to reach at least the capacity to build a bomb. And then Obama or his successor will have to choose, not between war and diplomacy, but between war and containment. And in that case, it will take much more political courage to stick to a policy of patience and restraint.


Terms of Engagement

Fumbling the Nuclear Football

President Obama finally has a chance to make good on his pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons. So why is he so afraid of making history?

In the first major foreign-policy speech of his tenure, President Barack Obama told a wildly cheering audience in Prague that the United States would commit itself to "a world without nuclear weapons" and then described in detail the "trajectory" required to get there. In the almost three years since that euphoric moment, the Obama White House has done what it so often does -- forthrightly acknowledge the complexity of its visionary goal, issue nuanced documents that compromise that goal even while reaffirming it, and accept half-measures, then quarter-measures, in the face of utterly unreasonable partisan opposition, surrendering more than planned to get less than expected.

Obama now has the chance -- perhaps his last chance -- to finally make good on his Prague pledge. He has ordered a review of the U.S. strategic arsenal, to be delivered to him in the coming weeks. The president must decide how many nuclear weapons the United States really needs. Arms control advocates think that this time, finally, Obama will grasp the nettle and accept that the country needs far fewer deployed warheads than the 1,760 or so it now has. I hope he does. But the mottled history of the last three years should give any disarmament advocate pause.

According to the extraordinarily ambitious strategy Obama laid out in Prague, the United States would adopt a new policy to "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy," pursue arms reduction in treaty negotiations with Russia, pass the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the so-called Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to control the production of enriched uranium and plutonium, and strengthen the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Of all these measures, the only one wholly within Obama's own powers was the new policy statement, to be embodied in a document called the Nuclear Posture Review. I followed this debate closely throughout 2009; then, administration officials told me that the document would furnish a clear "narrative" of a fundamental, directional change toward eliminating nuclear weapons. Advocates inside the administration hoped that the new document would change "declaratory policy" to stipulate that the United States would only use nukes against a nuclear threat rather than, for example, against a rogue state or a terrorist group that it feared might obtain weapons of mass destruction (as current policy now foresees); that it would end the terrifying but archaic Cold War requirement that hundreds of warheads be available for launch "on warning"; and that it would eliminate one leg of the nuclear "triad" of bombers, missiles, and subs (probably bombers). None of those things happened. As I noted at the time, even Sam Nunn, the hawkish former U.S. senator, said that he was "disappointed" with Obama's caution and specified that the unwillingness to "de-alert" the nuclear force "went beyond what I thought was rational."

The Nuclear Posture Review, published in April 2010, was blunted by skeptics in the Pentagon and perhaps the White House, as well as by opposition in the nuclear laboratories. The disarmament negotiations over the New START agreement, however, faced external resistance -- first from the Russians, who dragged out the talks over months, delaying Obama's planned trajectory, and then from Senate Republicans, many of whom treated the modest agreement to limit each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads as a radical act of unilateral disarmament. To win them over, the administration had to promise to make exorbitant investments in the nuclear labs in Los Alamos and elsewhere.

We live with that decision today: The Energy Department's 2013 budget includes a 5 percent increase for refurbishment of the equipment that produces warheads and their nuclear "pits," upkeep of the weapons themselves, and training for nuclear scientists and the like, at a time when discretionary spending is frozen. Over the next decade, the United States is now projected to spend over $180 billion on nuclear modernization.

The administration had been prepared to offer such a deal for Republican acceptance of much tougher agreements, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But once it had to pay that price for New START, there was no currency left for the future; in any case, Republicans weren't about to accept anything beyond the nuclear reductions agreement. Opposition from Pakistan and several other states then took the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty off the table. Spirited American diplomacy did salvage a consensus document at the 2010 conference reviewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. There, as elsewhere, the Obama administration has taken what the market will give and has very good excuses for what it hasn't achieved. But a transformational president doesn't wish to be judged by the quality of the rationales he can furnish.

Now, however, the market may have shifted in Obama's favor. Thanks chiefly to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama is no longer under the onus of proving his toughness on national security issues. Voters preoccupied with the economy don't care that much about foreign threats. And with half a trillion dollars in Pentagon budget cuts scheduled for the next decade, senior military officials are engaged in triage, and they will be prepared to get rid of weapons they never expect to use in order to preserve ones, like aircraft carriers and new-generation fighters, they believe they need. It is possible, in short, that the very economic crisis that has bedeviled Obama's entire presidency will afford him the opportunity to achieve the historic change he has sought.

Obama has asked the Pentagon to provide him with options for reducing the number of warheads below the 1,550 stipulated in the New START agreement. Administration officials won't talk about the highly secret document now apparently moving through the interagency process; none of the congressional staffers or arms control experts I talked to had seen it or heard a reliable account of its contents. A Feb. 14 Associated Press article made the startling claim that the administration was considering options ranging from a low of 300 weapons to a high of 1,100. This is almost certainly wrong, or misleading. One expert I spoke to said that he would be "staggered beyond belief if the president were seriously considering going to 300" -- a figure that would put U.S. forces at about the level of France. And Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointedly told a House committee that "the status quo" -- 1,550 -- "is always an option and one that is in play." (The view inside the arms control world is that a Republican staffer leaked the story in order to give conservatives a target to attack.)

What is the "right" number of warheads? (See today's article by Joseph Cirincione.) Of course, the "right" number depends on the threats that can be deterred only by the reciprocal threat of a nuclear attack. At a recent panel discussion, Morton Halperin of the Open Society Foundations sarcastically asked whether we believe the Russians will wake up and say, "Oh, it's Easter Sunday; the Americans are at rest. We can launch a surprise attack, and it will be successful." The answer, save perhaps to some Republican members of Congress who haven't yet acknowledged the end of the Soviet Union, is obvious. The country's targeting strategy, which foresees the simultaneous obliteration of 250 industrial centers across Russia and China, is a grotesque relic of the Cold War. Obama has the chance to finally put it to rest.

The numbers matter, but the underlying doctrine matters just as much. In a recent article, arms control expert Hans Kristensen listed the policy choices Obama could make to justify a smaller nuclear force: He could, among other things, reduce the category of targets or "the number and diversity of strike options," change the declared mission to one of responding only to nuclear threats, take warheads off high-alert status, eliminate one leg of the triad -- or do all of the above. In short, Obama now has the opportunity to review the decisions he made in the Nuclear Posture Review and thus make the sharp break with the Cold War that he vowed to do in Prague. He has, in short, a second chance.

Will he take it? Republican hawks have already begun to warn of the "reckless lunacy" of deep cuts. Obama could take any number of exit ramps from the transformational highway, for example by insisting that any additional cuts be negotiated with the Russians in a new treaty -- which the Senate would almost certainly reject. He might postpone the decision until after the election -- which would be fine, so long as he wins. But he must choose between making perfectly reasonable excuses for the half-measures he adopts and taking the risks that come with historic change.

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