In 2000, the Coen brothers released a movie called “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey (it won the Oscar for Best Screenplay from Adapted Material). The original tale of 2700 years ago, described Odysseus’ 10-year ordeal to return home from his decade-long Trojan War. A convoluted parallel is taking place in the Middle East today.
Iran and Iraq Wars
In 1979, Iran went through an Islamic revolution at which time it threw out its western-backed leader. In a year’s time, Iran was at war with its Muslim neighbor next door in Iraq. That eight year war claimed 1 million lives. Within two years of that war’s end, in 1990 Iraq went to war with its neighbor Kuwait, which brought America back to the region in Operation Desert Storm.
America would return to the region to defend itself rather than an ally. After the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, the US launched a major offensive against Iraq in 2003, under the belief that Iraq was behind the 9-11 attacks and that it was developing weapons of mass destruction again (Israel destroyed Iraq’s initial plant in 1981). While running for president of the USA, then-Senator Barack Obama stated that the Iraq war was a mistake and promised to pull US forces out if elected, which he did in 2011.
The vacuum created from the withdrawal of American troops was filled by Islamic radicals seeking to create a new Islamic State. The group brutally slaughtered many thousands of people as it sought to impose a new country based on radical Islam throughout the Middle East, beginning with Iraq.
Obama Cast as Hero
Obama defined himself in his presidential campaign as being anti-war. The world cast the young politician as a hero (like Odysseus?) and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 before he even did anything. His moniker “Hope” stuck to him like bumper stickers on a Subaru: here was a man who was going to leave the wars behind and bring Americans home. The decades of war in the Middle East were ending, and Odysseus – ‘er Obama – was the hero to make it happen.
Obama in the Middle East
Obama has fought (and sought to portray his fights) in the Middle East with a very light hand, compared to his aggressive war in Afghanistan:
- In Yemen, he preferred discrete drone strikes against terrorists, over deploying thousands of US troops on the ground
- In Syria, where a civil war has claimed over 200,000 lives (and counting), he has been reluctant to get involved. Indeed, even after Syria used chemical weapons which crossed Obama’s “red line”, he still opted to use diplomacy over a military strike
- In Libya, Obama overthrew the government, but he claimed it was a “limited operation” and didn’t even seek Congressional approval
- In Iraq, he removed all US troops, even though he was advised strongly against doing so by members of Congress.
And then there is Iran.
The US did not initially get involved in stemming Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In 2006 the UN Security Council passed its first resolution calling for Iran to stop its nuclear program, and US President George Bush convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to a sanctions program against Iran. However, when Iran elected Hassan Rouhani president in 2013, the Obama administration opted to shift courses from crippling sanctions and a military threat, to engagement. Obama called Rouhani. US Secretary of State Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. The dream was that Iran had changed attitude to become more moderate, and therefore changed course on the direction of its nuclear program.
The 2013 Iranian election provided a pathway for Obama to dial back on sanctions and threats on the Iranian nuclear program. While the Iran still shouted “Death to America, Death to Israel”, hanged gays from the center of the capital, and promoted terrorism around the world, Obama “Hoped” that Iran had moderated its ways with a single election, which would enable Obama to avoid returning American troops to the region.
The People on Iranian Nuclear Weapons
It is almost universal in the western world that people do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. Whether in protests in New York or London, or reading blogs in Berlin or Tel Aviv, ordinary people understand that a state-sponsor of terrorism with a violent ideological bent should never be permitted to have weapons of mass destruction.
In the summer of 2015, the question before the US Congress is whether the proposed Iranian deal will ensure that Iran will not have the ability to obtain nuclear weapons. For some reason, the view that the deal will be effective is held uniquely by Democrats, while Republicans view the deal as a guarantee for a nuclear-armed Iran.
At a rally in New York City on July 22, 2015 against the Iran deal, almost every speaker was a Republican, including George Pataki and Allen West. The Democrats that came out were not politicians, but ordinary citizens like Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz who said that Iran should not be a partisan issue (he needs to talk to more fellow Democrats). Speakers like Caroline Glick and others called out Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, for not being there. The crowd essentially called out “O Democrats, Where Art Thou?”
Obama’s Homeward Journey; The World’s Souvenir
Like Odysseus, Obama is coming to the end of his journey. He has charted his way home from long wars, and he is doing everything he can to avoid returning back to the scene of the battles.
However, avoiding war is not always a good choice. A commitment to end a war should only be kept if conditions warrant. A fear of returning to a region should not govern important matters of foreign policy.
Obama claims that the Iranian deal will prevent the country from obtaining nuclear weapons and is pitching the merits of the deal on that basis. His party loyalists are willing to believe him; liberals will always believe in this hero. But is this deal more about Obama finally arriving home to complete his epic poem?
The world is not a poem which ends with Obama’s last speech. The world will live with the ramifications of this deal for many years to come. There are many who feel strongly that Obama and the United Nations are pursuing a dangerous course that will guarantee a much more costly war in the future, rather than deal effectively with the issue today.
A nuclear-armed rogue state is not a souvenir the world can afford to end Obama’s journey.
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