Whether he meant to or not, in his latest version of Iran war policy President Obama has built on the Bush precedent. His represents, however, an even more extreme version, which should perhaps be labeled the 0% Doctrine. In holding off an Israeli strike that may itself be nothing but a bluff, he has defined a future Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon as a new form of aggression against the United States. We would, as the president explained to Jeffrey Goldberg, be committing our military power against Iran not to prevent an attack on the U.S. itself, but a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
And by the way, note that he didn’t say, “We don’t bluff.” His formulation was: “I don’t bluff.” And that “I” should not be ignored. The Bush administration promoted a cult of presidential power, of (as they called it at the time) a “unitary executive.” No one in the White House uses such a term these days, any more than they use the term “Global War on Terror,” but if both terms have disappeared, the phenomena they named have only intensified.
The Global War on Terror, with its burgeoning secret military, the elite special operations forces, and its growing drone air force, controlled in part by the CIA, should be thought of as the president’s private war. In addition, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote recently, when it comes to drone assassinations (or “targeted killings” as they are now more politely known), Attorney General Eric Holder has just claimed for the president the “authority to kill any American if he unilaterally determines them to be a threat to the nation.” In doing so, added Turley, “Obama has replaced the constitutional protections afforded to citizens with a ‘trust me’ pledge.” With terror in its crosshairs, war, in other words, is increasingly becoming the president’s private preserve and strikes on the enemy, however defined, a matter of his own private judgment.
It is no longer a matter of “we,” but of a presidential “I” when it comes to unleashing attacks in what has become a global free fire zone for those drones and special ops forces. War, in other words, is increasingly lodged in the Oval Office and a commander-in-chief executive. As the Libyan intervention suggested, like the American people, Congress is, at best, an afterthought — even though this Congress would rubber-stamp a presidential act of war against Iran without a second thought.
The irony is that the president has propounded a war-making policy of unprecedented extremity at a moment when there is no evidence that the Iranians are pursuing a bomb — not yet at least. The “supreme leader” of their theocratic state has termed the possession of nuclear weapons “a grave sin” and U.S. national intelligence estimates have repeatedly concluded that the Iranians are not, in fact, moving to build nuclear weapons. If, however — and it’s a giant if — Iran actually got the bomb, if a 10th country joined the nuclear club (with others to follow), it would be bad news, and the world would be a worse place for it, but not necessarily that greatly changed.
What could change the world in a radical way, however, is the 0% doctrine — and the trend more generally to make war the personal prerogative of an American president, while ceding to the U.S. military what was once the province and power of diplomacy.