Step by step America is being primed for war with Iran. President Trump has not actually torn up the “Iran deal”—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that is supposed to defer the day the Islamic Republic might seek a nuclear weapon—but he “decertified” it in October, and his administration is under constant pressure from the war lobby. The decertification opens the way to new sanctions, the aim of which is not so much to get Iran to comply with Washington’s demands as to harden resolve on both sides. The Iranian regime can be expected to respond with defiance, and the Iranian people may well rally to the government in a spirit of nationalism. If your aim is war, that’s the response you want: Distrust and mutual antagonism should be maximized.
The Iraq invasion, the last great project of the War Party, was a long time coming. But the hawks have plenty of money, and they can afford to be patient. They can wear down the rocks of resistance to another regime-change experiment the way that waves wear down a coastline. Five years before George W. Bush plunged Iraq into chaos, Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress had already made regime change in Baghdad an explicit goal with the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. The screw might turn slowly, but as long as it turns in the right direction, it will get the job done.
The Peace Party, by contrast, has no screws to turn. Barack Obama was supposed to be a peace president—so certain was it that he would be one, in fact, that he was preemptively awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. He was elected in no small part owing to the nation’s disgust with the way Bush’s wars had turned out. But his administration was packed with liberal interventionists like Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power, and so even though he pulled troops out of Iraq, he failed to end the Afghan war and owned a regime-change fiasco of his own in Libya. The Iran deal was perhaps meant to be an act of atonement, though it came at a time when its political price was irrelevant to a term-limited leader. Only under these fluky conditions—a president borne into office by his predecessor’s failed strategy and with the luxury to pursue a peace plan in his second term—was the Iran deal possible.
Otherwise, the politics of peace were a dead end: Democrats are still humanitarian interventionists in the main, as proved by Hillary Clinton’s success in winning her party’s presidential nomination last year. The Republicans, meanwhile, are subject to a mix of Cold War nostalgia, nationalism, and democratic imperialist propaganda churned out by think tanks and pundits. Republican voters have also been trained, as much by the behavior of the left as by the words of the neoconservatives, to identify antiwar views with anti-Americanism. In the late 20th century the Republican Party was the party of strong yet creative diplomacy under presidents Nixon and Reagan. The two presidents Bush, on the other hand, were trigger-happy, and today their foreign-policy views are still the views of the party’s elite. No Republican has yet come along who could undo the damage the Bushes did, by showing that a Nixonian resistance to the cultural left and a Reaganite profession of America’s moral strength should be wedded not to nation-building but to grand diplomacy.
And now there’s Trump, who has thus far been a disappointment to those hoping for a revival of old-style Republican realism. But precisely the qualities that make Trump such a disappointment to the realists may yet undo the war partisans as well. He’s unpredictable, and he does not seem to operate according to the usual political rules of pressure and response. Moreover, Trump is only one sign of a much deeper change in American politics, a repudiation of a ruling class and its ideologies, including those that demand global hegemony. So maybe the formula for war won’t work this time. But to be sure of that, America needs not another left-wing peace movement or more scholarly realism, but a right-wing movement for victory the Nixon and Reagan way.