U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has put Europe in a tight spot. The squeeze is made still tighter by his subsequent insistence that the deal’s five-year ban on conventional arms sales to Iran be extended before it expires in October.
Though hardly eager for Iran to be permitted to purchase weapons, the European nations that remain party to the Iran deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) want to keep the agreement intact, with or without Washington's desired embargo extension. But they’re beset on one side by demands for compliance -- demands backed by the threat of further U.S. sanctions on Iran that could cause the nuclear deal to unravel altogether. On the other side, Russia and China --both would-be arms exporters to Iran who, like the United States, hold permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council -- are insisting the extension cannot happen.
There is no easy path forward for French, German, and British diplomats, who are pushing for a middle-ground arrangement that can satisfy both sides without contentious Security Council votes. But there is a lesson here for U.S. foreign policy: It must recognize its limits.
This is a lesson Washington does not wish to learn, and certainly one it has steadily avoided over the past two decades. Indeed, the story of our post-9/11 foreign policy failures can be told in many ways as an account of reckless rejections of limits on what American power, and especially American military power, can do.
After beginning in Afghanistan with a quickly accomplished mission of retribution for the 9/11 attacks, our war on terror has metastasized into a global monstrosity.
At home, it has brought unconstitutional surveillance, security theater, and militarized policing. Abroad, it has played out as an absurd attempt to reshape an entire region. Mission creep has moved the effort from retaliation to occupation to regime change and nation-building. Callous and counterproductive disregard for civilian casualties has created as many or more new enemies for the United States as our airstrikes and invasions can kill. Congressional authorizations of use of military force either stretch beyond any reasonable reading of their initial scope and intent, or are ignored altogether in favor of unfettered executive war-making.
In its rejection of limits, our foreign policy has rejected any guidance of strategy, prudence, or humanity. This hubris has cost us dearly. It has added violence to the Middle East and North Africa without adding to our security. It has exacted a price in blood, health, and treasure we will feel for decades to come. It has not fostered security, stability, or peace.
This scuffle over the Iranian arms embargo is but one tiny piece of U.S. foreign affairs -- though, in a worst-case scenario, it could put us back on the path toward a devastating war with Iran. But even if European diplomats can swing some more temperate resolution, and this disagreement fades into obscurity, Washington should still learn this lesson of limits. The proper aim of U.S. foreign policy is not world domination. We cannot police the planet, and we cannot expect to force other nations to stop acting in their own perceived interests, as France, Germany, and the U.K. seek to do by preserving the Iran deal. We desperately need a foreign policy built not on invasion and coercion, but on diplomacy and restraint.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative, among other outlets. The views expressed are the author's own.