America’s Iran Challenge: John McCain on Wrong Course


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America does have an Iran challenge.
Senator John McCain is not wrong in thinking that there needs to be a smarter strategy that gets Iran off of what many believe to be a nuclear weapons and/or large-scale full fuel cycle course.
Years ago, I know that Senator McCain was the type of person to pull experts together in his office along with Senators and House Members from both sides of the aisle to think through a tough challenge. Years ago, I was impressed with how Senator McCain approached issues like normalization of relations between the US and Vietnam — which was hugely controversial at the time — or worked through cautiously various Vietnam scenarios.
However, he is setting up a false metaphor for dealing with Iran in which he is the Churchill figure — and just about everyone else except Joe Lieberman and Sarah Paliin is Neville Chamberlain. That’s not a way to solve the Iran problem.
Sanctions alone will not move Iran. Bombing will actually have an adverse effect on the long term chances of keeping Iran nuclear weapons free. So, what are the other credible options? I have lots of thoughts — as do numerous thoughtful policy experts in Washington and around the nation.
It would serve Senator McCain well to convene some of these folks — and rather than using it as an opportunity to keep talking about a blunt bombing campaign that doesn’t consider consequences — he might turn it in to a learning moment where he tries to consider serious alternatives.
I spoke with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown last night about John McCain’s “pull the trigger” comments about needing to get to the task of bombing Iran.
— Steve Clemons


14 comments on “America’s Iran Challenge: John McCain on Wrong Course

  1. nadine says:

    I would be interested to know what methods of containment Steve thiks will work on the paymasters of Hizbullah and Hamas, who by all accounts are believing ‘Twelvers’. Where is the leverage supposed to come from?


  2. john Sang says:

    I’m not worried that Iran might get nuclear weapons. I think it
    would help balance out the middle east/south asia power
    imbalance. I think Israel is extremely worried about Iran
    becoming more powerful because Iran is the last BIG supporter of
    Palestinian rights. And since Israel mostly controls Washington’s
    middle east policy and intelligence we are up to our eyebrows in
    this. Israel and its supporters in the US and elsewhere have been
    selling this dangerous Iran snakeoil for years now and it still isn’t
    true. Israel is the dangerous one, lets take out Israel’s nuclear
    capability, put US troops into the west bank and give it back to
    it’s rightful owners the Palestinians.


  3. The Pessimist says:

    Thank you Steve for publically rebuking McCain’s position on this important topic.
    However, I still have an urge to try and engage the readers of this blog with a question that I feel deserves some serious consideration:
    Why do so many DC insiders reflexively project the false-narrative that McCain is an admirable and honorable person? He was, and may still be, a wife beater. He is emotionally abusive towards everyone around him. He is a vindictive sore loser. This is all common knowledge in the DC bubble.
    Why anyone would admire this despicable and horribly flawed man is beyond my comprehension. The image of John McCain as an American hero is one of the greatest propaganda campaigns of all time.
    I can only imagine that his handlers must operate in a perpetual state of Def-Con 1 whenever


  4. JohnH says:

    McCain is like Ann Coulter–say anything, no matter how outrageous, so that your ugly face gets on the evening news.


  5. The Pessimist says:

    One small point:
    Why is John McCain being accepted at face value for anything he says?
    Has not just the past three years of McCain’s long political career fully exposed him as the hypocritical liar that he is and always has been? Example: “I’ve never considered myself to be a Maverick.” Really, then why have you so often referred to yourself as a maverick, John?
    I just don’t understand where the continued deference to McCain’s political wisdom is coming from that encourages otherwise intelligent and rational people to expect from McCain a change in his behavior towards a direction where “he might turn it in to a learning moment where he tries to consider serious alternatives.”
    There are no alternatives for “Bombs Away McCain.” Tough guys don’t drop words, they drop bombs and McCain wants to be seen as the toughest guy in DC.
    McCain is a broken shell of his former self. He is emotionally unstable. He is barely controlling a simmering rage against all those whom he is perceiving as obstructing his political entitlements, especially Obama.
    Recall the emotional outburst towards Obama when he told McCain that “The election is over, John.” McCain’s veins were literally bulging out of his neck when he venomously spewed back “I’m reminded of that every day!” It was embarrassing for everyone in the room.
    Why, why, why is McCain still in the game?


  6. questions says:

    Thanks Sweetness!
    Actually Machiavelli is to the point at some level. As action-oriented as he is, as desirous of bold and sweeping moves, quickly and bravely done, he is still profoundly aware of Lady Fortuna whose actions indeed screw around with all the plans of mice and men, and all things gang aft aglee (if I have that right).
    Control is illusory, but it’s one hell of an illusion. And one hell of a fantasy. And it’s going to guide us no matter what.
    But geez, we’ve been on Iran’s case for a really long time now, and nothing has come of it, seemingly.


  7. JohnH says:

    Steve–when you write your planned article, I hope you will address the real issues at stake. Why is the US so obsessed with Iran?
    And please leave out all the BS that is widely considered informed opinion, such as the military threat to Israel, meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan, freedom and democracy, etc. Resorting to these red herrings only destroy a writer’s credibility.
    I encourage you to use the words “energy resources” among other stakes when you talk about American goals.


  8. Paul Norheim says:

    “Small countries have to learn to surf the waves or they get
    As I always say: “Like it or not, but Norway is a small country, and
    this has implications for our foreign policy choices.”
    What do you think, Wig: Was that a megalomaniac statement, or
    final proof that I am an anti-Norwegian?


  9. Sweetness says:

    Ah, Questions! This is where fatalism comes to the rescue. NOT
    as in “there’s nothing to be done,” but as in “you have to surf the
    wave that’s coming at you.”
    We have this idea that “doing nothing” means the situation will
    turn against us. But this is a nationally narcissistic point of view.
    Not everything that happens is about “us” or “US” or directed at
    Just as a small example, in the thread above, we read about all
    the reasons Turkey opposes sanctions. Lots of common sense
    reasons. I can’t tell you how reasonable they are, but they sound
    But none of them have to do with us.
    Let me shift gears. Small countries have to learn to surf the
    waves or they get crushed. Their limited resources prevent them
    from sustaining the illusion that they can control events. Our
    great resources constantly tempt us to think that we can.
    This isn’t to say that we can’t control or do anything. We can.
    But not as much, or not in the way we think. And here’s the
    Most of the Americans alive today grew up in a time (or were
    brought up by people who grew up in a time) when America
    really was the hegemon. We emerged from WWII the absolute
    victor in many ways. Only the USSR could “contain” us, and there
    only on a military basis.
    (It’s my believe that we largely propped up the USSR through the
    Cold War, but that’s another matter.)
    Now, it’s not so much that we’re in decline, but that other
    countries are coming up. Good for them! But that means the
    waves of interaction are going in many more directions than just
    lapping onto our Atlantic or Pacific and Gulf coasts.
    We need to become much more astute at figuring out and
    surfing those other waves for our own benefit…and the benefit
    of the world.


  10. questions says:

    Multiply McCain’s primary challenge to the right by JD Hayworth by the number of countries and politicians involved and to be honest, I don’t quite see where the space is to wiggle and be subtle and real.
    Multiply all of that by the level of uncertainty that is most likely in effect and it gets even worse.
    The shifts in emphasis internationally, if not accompanied by rapid re-solidification, are likely to cause another set of problems.
    Containment is another way of saying punishing sanctions, interventions, occasional assassinations if necessary, deal making that might cause short term problems even if it helps with the process of containing — the Iranian people aren’t going to start deathing America over this too?
    Machiavelli suggests we get all the nasty business done early, quickly, brutally, and then we move on. We started our nasty business in Iran a very long time ago and we’re still not done. The length of time we’ve taken means we’re dealing with a regime the head of which was one of the hostage takers in ’79. Think about that.
    And despite all the strategizing about containing or dealing or propping up or funding insurrections or whatever, we still don’t have what we want.
    I’m getting nihilistic, I think. I seriously doubt there’s much we can actually do, and I seriously think we are really bad at figuring out what our interests are in part because we really can’t control the outcomes of our interventions.


  11. chumanist says:

    Having had full agreement with the Clemens way of resolving the Iran nuclear dispute, I would daresay by propelling the argument that America should think on the lines what may worst to worst come out of the Iranian nuclear program- if Iran becomes the second nuclear power in the Middle east after Israel- would it not pave the way for an strategic nuclear balance in the region, thereby closing the chapter of the Israeli outdated doctrine of nuclear opacity?


  12. Steven Clemons says:

    Thanks Paul and Wig — I have mentioned pieces of the strategy
    repeatedly here, but I am planning to write a longer essay on the
    subject and post here or in another publication and will outline the
    steps I think are needed in a comprehensive Iran strategy. I don’t
    think that there are guarantees of any kind that a grand bargain
    approach would work with Iran right now, so I think containment
    has to be on the table. More on this when I am able to get to it. all
    best, steve


  13. Paul Norheim says:

    But it looks like Steve wants to discuss this with Senator McCain
    in his office before sharing his thoughts with his readers…


  14. WigWag says:

    “Sanctions alone will not move Iran. Bombing will actually have an adverse effect on the long term chances of keeping Iran nuclear weapons free. So, what are the other credible options? I have lots of thoughts — as do numerous thoughtful policy experts in Washington and around the nation.” (Steve Clemons)
    I think it would be great, Steve, if you shared those thoughts on this blog or elsewhere more than you have. I’m sure that you will admit that a quick spot on “Countdown” doesn’t really provide ample opportunity for you to provide an in depth analysis.
    At the Washington Note you have made clear that you think the Iranian regime is tyrannical and that the recent elections weren’t fair. You’ve openly sided with the demonstrators against the regime and you’ve also stated your belief on this blog that Iran probably does desire nuclear weapons. But as far as I remember, I don’t think we’ve seen a series of strategic recommendations from you. If you have them, I know that your readers would appreciate hearing the particulars.
    Whatever criticisms one might want to launch at McCain on one side or the Leveretts on the other, at least their positions are clear. McCain thinks a bombing campaign is the way to go and the Leveretts feel that any approach other than a “grand bargain” (including a containment strategy) will almost certainly lead to a war between Iran and the United States that they think will be calamitous.
    If you have a better idea, we’re all ears.


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