In “Why the United States can be optimistic about the Middle East” appearing in the August 6th issue of the Washing Post, Fareed Zacharia makes a good point that Americans can be too pessimistic regarding challenges and problems in the world. He cited Nixon’s fears of a multipolar word in the wake of Vietnam, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets representing the Soviets winning the Cold War rather than making a fatal error, Japan would overtake the US economically, Saddam Hussein was an “intolerable danger” and that President Obama was taking a step back to say Iran doesn’t spend that much on its military compared to anyone else. He is an optimist and not a Chicken Little. With nukes put on hold, we don’t have to worry about the Iranian military because we’re big and they’re small -- despite Tehran handily exporting terror and destabilizing Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Yemen on a tight budget.
Fareed makes a great point with his list but the opposite list can be made too, the US sometimes has too much hubris fueled optimism and we find ourselves often using our 20/20 hindsight to learn from the past. US complacency in manufacturing and underestimation of international competitors set back the many people and created the “rust belt” in the US, an error we are still paying for. We thought we could make peace with the new Iranian regime in 1979 and instead saw witness to rise of modern Shia terrorism and then the Sunni response in what would become Al Qaeda and other groups. We believed that the US could sponsor radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan and never pay a price for it and then later we believed we could simply ignore Osama Bin Laden and paid for both errors with 9/11. Osama claimed some inspiration from the bombing of US troops in Syria and the subsequent US pullout by President Reagan, another moment of overconfidence leading to unpredictable problems. We believed we could we could ignore the Yugoslavian break up with the Serbian ethnic cleansing and leave it to European members of NATO to resolve and instead go fix Somalia which was a disaster and we ended up bombing Serbia despite trying to stay out. In 1991 we decided not to topple Saddam Hussein believing he would be quickly toppled internally while under sanctions and no fly zones. The US had the hubris to think it could ignore World War I and World War II and ended up in both. Sometimes our hubris leads us to costly errors we have to live with. Very recently Americans thought electing an African American President twice meant we turned a corner on intuitional racism only to learn in places like Ferguson that we still have serious institutional problems.
Our collective glass is frequently half full of something that stinks and whether we call it optimism or pessimism – it’s the kind substance we should not imbibe when we need to make sober decisions on Iran that we will have to live with for a long time. The problem with pessimism and optimism is that they obfuscate rather than describe the problems we face. I find myself very skeptical but I want the debate and I would like the debate to be something more than a political jousting match. I would love to see thoughtful people like Fareed Zacharia make the case for caution and to stand against anyone who doesn’t want the nuclear agreement with Iran to be carefully vetted in public. We neither want to lose the chance to have a good deal with the Iranians nor create a situation where war is inevitable and costly.