The Doctrine of American Unexceptionalism
The Biden administration believes that soft power is smart and hard power is dumb. Our allies are paying the price.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin was supposed to have used his Victory Day speech yesterday to reveal his intentions regarding the Ukraine war. Russia watchers expected him to define his aims, signaling a prolonged conflict or, possibly, a path to peace. As it turned out, Putin did neither. His war against Ukraine drags on.
But although this week failed to clarify the future of the war in Europe, there is still a small chance that it will offer us some clarity on another front: Iran’s ongoing efforts to build a nuclear arsenal. Enrique Mora, the European Union’s Iran nuclear talks coordinator, is visiting Tehran today, May 10, seeking to break the deadlock in the negotiations between Iran and the United States. His mission might teach us whether Tehran has decided to cut a deal with President Biden. Chances are, however, that we will end the week as much in the dark about Tehran’s intentions as we are about Putin’s.
To help us understand why, I turn to Michael Doran, the author of today’s essay. Doran sees a connection between the way the Biden administration has approached both the Ukraine war and the conflict with Iran. Namely: in both cases the White House has profoundly weakened America’s diplomatic hand by shying away from traditional deterrence.
Doran has never gone along with the crowd. He first came on my radar in 2005, after what we would now call “woke” professors mobilized against his bid for tenure at Princeton. I liked him immediately.
He has a knack for writing topical articles that age well. His 2002 Foreign Affairs article on Osama bin Laden, “Somebody Else’s Civil War,” remains one of the best things written on al-Qaeda and radical Islam. When his 2015 piece, “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” first came out, Doran’s view about Obama’s eagerness to please Iran was controversial. It’s now common wisdom. And last year, when Biden took office, he co-authored a piece in Tablet Magazine, “The Realignment,” which predicted that President Biden would zealously follow Obama’s Middle East playbook.
Today’s essay tries to make sense of this administration’s baffling foreign policy strategy, which seems to offer succor toward our enemies, like Iran and China, while isolating allies in the Gulf and Israel. As Doran explains, this is not borne out of incompetence, but out of a deeply held ideology about the trajectory of America and the West. — BW
The Islamic Republic of Iran can be a real pill.
Just ask the diplomats who spent the better part of a year working in Vienna to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal. By early March, they had completed the lion’s share of their work, but at least one sticking point remained: Tehran was standing firm on its demand that the United States remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
Eager to get the deal done, President Biden began to consider complying with Tehran’s demand—a process that involved consultations with skeptics, including the Israeli government, which, needless to say, was flabbergasted. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the move “delusional.”
But on March 12, the IRGC injected itself directly into the conversation—by launching an attack on Erbil, Iraq. The United States has traditionally considered lobbing ballistic missiles across international borders into civilian areas the very definition of a terrorist act. Yet Washington pretended it didn’t notice.
This was hardly a unique occurrence.
Over the past six months, Iran has launched multiple ballistic missile and drone attacks on American allies like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia through its Houthi proxy in Yemen. It conducted a direct attack, this time through a proxy in Iraq, on American forces in al-Tanf, Syria. It hatched a plot to kidnap the Iranian-American journalist, Masih Alinejad, from her home in Brooklyn. And it has actively pursued plans to assassinate former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Iran envoy Brian Hook, and former National Security Advisor John Bolton. In the context of the nuclear negotiations, the Biden team asked Tehran, politely, to put an end to these assassination plots. Tehran said no.
Yet the Biden team has played down all these provocations—and many more.
The question is why.
The obvious answer is that the White House does not want to do anything to slow down or derail its effort to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear deal is formally known. The Biden administration operates within the lines that President Obama drew when he first sold the Iran deal. “There really are only two alternatives here: either Iran getting a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through negotiation,” Obama said. “Or it is resolved through force, through war.”
But even the most cursory examination of the deal reveals that it resolves nothing. On the contrary, it permits Tehran to keep everything it needs to build a nuclear bomb, even including, for example, the secure bunker dug deep under a mountain near Fordow. Designed to shield Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities from attack, Fordow’s sole purpose is military in nature. We know this with certainty thanks to the nuclear archive that the Israelis captured in a Tehran warehouse in 2018. What’s more, the deal permits Tehran to make advances in its weapons program—by, for example, developing advanced centrifuges—even while its nuclear activities are still formally under international restrictions.
The upshot is this: By 2031, under the terms of this supposedly excellent deal, Iran will have a major, unfettered nuclear weapons program.
America’s military and economic advantages over Iran are incalculable. The United States also has allies, Israel above all, who would be more than willing to do the hard of work of deterring Iran from advancing toward a bomb if only they were certain that America had their back.
So again, we must ask: Why? Why is America making moves that seem nothing less than appeasement? What makes the Biden team so eager to cut a deal that guarantees a nuclear Iran? Why has the White House placed Moscow in the catbird seat in these negotiations? Why is it treating China as a key partner in the deal, even as China openly proclaims its intention to overturn the American-led world order? And why has Biden entirely excluded traditional allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, from the negotiations?
The answer to these questions lies in something Mahmoud Abbaszadeh-Meshkini, a spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, recently said. “In the new world order, a triangle consisting of three powers—Iran, Russia, and China—has formed,” he declared on the eve of the Ukraine war. “This new arrangement heralds the end of the inequitable hegemony of the United States and the West.”
The Biden administration wouldn’t put it that way, of course. It continues to claim that it is dedicated to preventing the rise of Iran as a nuclear weapons power and to containing Iranian forces and proxies on the ground. But the ramifications of the deal are exactly as Abbaszadeh-Meshkini says: the undermining of American power. In the White House, however, the president and his advisors prefer to think of it as the heralding of a world based on multilateral partnership between Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran.
Indeed, at its deepest level, the Iran nuclear deal is an instrument for rejecting American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States is uniquely poised by history and geography to exercise leadership on the international stage—and for ushering in a post-American global order. It is only through understanding this worldview that it is possible to understand America’s confounding and seemingly contradictory moves on the world stage.
I’ve come to think of it as reverse American exceptionalism.
Perhaps the cleanest articulation of this worldview came in 2009, from the mouth of Barack Obama, when he refused to endorse a traditional understanding of the concept of American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” he said.
That was the provocative sentence that drove headlines. But equally important was what Obama said next. America’s leadership role, he insisted, “depends on our ability to create partnerships.” That’s because, he said, America can’t solve “problems alone.”
The Iran deal was a direct outgrowth of this perspective. Obama dreamed, he told David Remnick of The New Yorker in 2014, of “an equilibrium” between the Gulf states and Iran in which “there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”
This dream was not entirely fanciful—the search for regional stability is indeed the job of America. But Obama’s route to achieving it was loopy. The problem, in his eyes, was America’s allies. Israel and Saudi Arabia’s maximalist agendas were hastening conflict, launching the United States into an unnecessary confrontation with Iran. Thus, the goal of American policy should be to moderate both the Iranians and traditional American allies by accommodating Tehran.
Joe Biden, as vice president, strongly endorsed Obama’s view. “Our biggest problem is our allies,” Biden said in October 2014, lamenting the opposition of America’s allies to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s closest friend. As president, Biden has placed former Obama staffers in key positions, men who, like their mentor, believe that stability will come only after the United States reins in its allies, thus proving to Tehran that it can best solve its security dilemmas in concert with Washington.
Just listen to Robert Malley, who was responsible for Middle East policy in the Obama White House and is now the Special Envoy for Iran in the State Department. In 2020, he wrote, admiringly, that Obama’s “ultimate goal was to help the [Middle East] find a more stable balance of power that would make it less dependent on direct U.S. interference or protection.” Or here’s Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor. The goal, he wrote in May 2020, is to be “less ambitious” militarily in the Middle East, “but more ambitious in using U.S. leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.”
In other words, the path to establishing equilibrium is to court the Iranian regime, not to crush it. The Obama-Biden doctrine is no mere “downsizing” or “rightsizing” of America’s role in the Middle East: The United States could, for example, pull back militarily while demanding that allies do more to confront Iran. This doctrine of American unexceptionalism, however, is opposed to the very idea of the balance of power as we have understood it since ancient times.
Democrats believe that, as a result of the end of the Cold War and the advent of a globalized and digitally networked world, humanity has transitioned to a more advanced stage in history. We have somehow migrated beyond the time-honored truths of Thucydides, Machiavelli, Metternich, Kissinger, et al. In such conditions, to adopt a traditional balance-of-power approach is not simply unnecessary. It is positively self-defeating.
“End of History” assumptions—that a multipolar world is inevitable and that free trade and capitalism combine to form a powerful acid that will dissolve both state interest and nationalist particularism—have a long American pedigree.
Consider, as one of countless examples, the letter that Bill Clinton wrote to congressional leaders in 2000 to justify the accession of China to the World Trade Organization. “As China’s people become more mobile, prosperous, and aware of alternative ways of life, they will seek greater say in the decisions that affect their lives,” Clinton wrote. This democratizing process “will strengthen the rule of law” at home, while abroad China will become “a more constructive player . . . with a stake in preserving peace and stability.”
Consciously or not, Clinton borrowed this theory from Woodrow Wilson, whose thinking, in turn, derived from Perpetual Peace, a book by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, written in 1795. War need not be a permanent feature of international life, Kant argued. States have it within their grasp to establish a universal and self-perpetuating peace by recognizing a few key principles and creating an international federation dedicated to upholding them. On American soil, Kant’s intellectual descendants created an optimistic, quasi-religious belief that capitalism, free trade, diplomatic transparency, and voluntary restraint in warfare would spur the advent of global peace.
When Clinton made these arguments with respect to China, they were the consensus position in Washington and beyond: you were as likely to read them in the New York Times as you were on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. These days, however, most Americans are a little less optimistic and a little more clear-eyed, thanks to the rise of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who have used profits from participation in the American-led global free trade system to build war machines dedicated to overturning that very system. (Last year, according to Gallup polling, the reputations of China and Russia hit historic lows among Americans.)
But while Americans in general are returning to realpolitik, progressives remain wedded to the dream of perpetual peace. Under their influence, a very different theory influences our foreign policy—especially in the Middle East.
Here again, no one has articulated that theory better than President Barack Obama. “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game,” Obama said in 2009 to the United Nations General Assembly. “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.” Note that Obama did not exhort the United Nations to create a new system. He claimed that the fundamentals of a more advanced order were already in place. “The people of the world want change. They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history.”
Joe Biden and his team would be the first to admit that Xi, Putin, and Khamenei have yet to understand this fact, but they would hasten to add that the aspiration of those leaders to be powerful and successful in a globalized world will sooner or later force them to bring their behavior into line with global public opinion. They will be more likely to adjust, moreover, if the United States ropes them into mutual dependencies, thereby demonstrating to them simultaneously that the West is not intent on destroying them, and that their prosperity is best pursued through cooperation. To put it crudely, the Biden administration believes that soft power is smart and hard power is dumb.
It is only by understanding this view that the Iran deal—a bizarre term for something that gives the West nothing and Iran everything it has ever demanded—makes any sense at all. The foreign policy strategists in the White House believe that, as Iran integrates into the world economy and becomes a more trusted participant in the security architecture of the Middle East, the resulting economic and political interdependencies will fundamentally reshape the worldview of leaders in Tehran.
Experienced men like Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, are fully aware that traditional military tools continue to play an indispensable role in international affairs, but they consciously strive to minimize that role. Power politics as practiced from time immemorial may not have entirely disappeared, but it is on the way out, replaced by non-military tools such as sanctions. The primary job of the United States is not to discipline rogue actors with unilateral applications of American power; it’s to build the global system that will discipline them automatically.
We do not have to look further than the hellscape of Syria to see what this theoretical approach produces in the real world. In October 2015, Moscow and Tehran intervened together in the Syrian civil war. When Russian jets began bombing civilians, critics of Obama’s passivity called on him to take military countermeasures. Rejecting those calls, Obama said, “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work.”
Hard power solutions, Obama preached, are inherently self-defeating. Putin, however, never learned the lesson. Together with the Iranians, Moscow systematically reduced most of Syria’s major cities to rubble and saved the Assad regime without ever paying a serious price. Of course, Obama opposed exacting that price, because it would have destroyed his dream of creating a concert system with Russia and Iran in the Middle East.
A similar restraint is guiding Biden in Ukraine today—and with similar results. In traditional statecraft, leaders rely on the balance of power and deterrence to prevent war and empower diplomacy. The traditional playbook calls for keeping Putin guessing about what the United States military might do, while preemptively arming the Ukrainians with weapons and other capabilities that will guarantee unbearable pain to the Russians. But that hasn’t happened. While the American military and its European allies have indeed armed the Ukrainians, the aid has come too late and without the necessary lethality to influence Putin’s major decisions.
It was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking from Kiev, who offered the most succinct and scathing rebuttal of this approach. When the Biden administration offered him asylum—a move that signaled to the world that Washington had given up all hope of conducting a serious resistance to Putin—Zelensky said, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Even after the Ukrainian military proved itself to be a capable fighting force, Biden continued to reject the classical logic of power politics. In a two-part presidential tweet, he deployed the rhetoric of old-school deterrence to hide the fact that he was refusing to rely on it. “I want to be clear: We will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full might of a united and galvanized NATO,” Biden wrote. The rhetoric made the president sound like Harry Truman standing up to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Putin, however, had no intention of attacking NATO allies. Biden was “deterring” an attack that Putin had never even contemplated.
With respect to the aggression that Putin was actually prosecuting, Biden used the same tweet to all but welcome it. “But we will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine,” Biden wrote. “A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III. And something we must strive to prevent.” Biden was rejecting a direct confrontation with Russia that few were advocating. At that moment, the president’s critics were urging him to deliver more lethal assistance to the Ukrainians—such as MiG fighter jets from Poland, which would be flown by Ukrainian pilots. No American or NATO soldiers would join the fight.
The doublespeak in Biden’s World War III tweet now defines the lived reality of America’s Middle Eastern allies. The Biden administration’s zealous efforts to transform the Islamic Republic from pariah to partner are neither containing nor deterring Iran’s leaders—quite the opposite. They are emboldened, as the ballistic missile attack on Erbil (not to mention the recent rise to the presidency of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi) indicates.
In the meantime, thanks to the Biden team’s steadfast intention to empower Iran, America’s Gulf allies have become security orphans. They increasingly look for help from China, the great power with the most influence over Tehran. The list of hard power arenas in which China is now a major player is long and growing longer by the day: It manufactures military drones in partnership with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE; it builds ballistic missiles together with the Saudis, whom it is also helping to master nuclear technology; and it is selling jets to the UAE, where last year it was secretly building a military site at Khalifa Port near Abu Dhabi.
Under pressure from the Americans, the Emiratis shut down the facility in the spring of 2021, but it won’t be long before Abu Dhabi and Riyadh refuse to comply with any such demands from the United States. Deference to Washington rests on the understanding that the United States will provide security—hard power deterrence. Instead, the Biden administration is offering its allies doublespeak based on utopian theories about how giving Tehran a hug and hundreds of billions of dollars will persuade it to play nice.
Among themselves, America’s allies wonder how such a crackpot idea ever became the guiding concept of American foreign policy. Senior leaders in both Israel and the Gulf have told me personally that they find the Biden team’s policies incomprehensible and its explanations of those policies fundamentally incoherent, if not dishonest. In quiet voices in Tel Aviv, Israeli leaders are now talking about when, not if, they will have to take major military action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
None of this is likely to change minds in the White House. The progressive foreign policy paradigm is a closed intellectual system, which can never be falsified. It is also a domestic political initiative, which readily attributes any of its failures to the behavior of its adversaries. Is Iran more aggressive now than ever before? Perhaps, but not because Obama’s nuclear deal was ill-conceived. Iran is aggressive, because President Trump abandoned the JCPOA and thus rejected Obama’s path to peace. He provoked the Iranians, so now we are all paying the price.
Of course, the Israelis will always prove a ready scapegoat. The binary choice that Obama presented to Americans—between support for the nuclear deal or catastrophic war—divided the world into two camps. His was the party of peace. Opposite it stood the party of war, which included, among others, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party, Evangelical Christians, hawkish Republicans, and the Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman—a cast of characters whom progressives reviled even before the deal. While this formulation does not turn Iran into a member of the peace camp, it does transform it into the object of diplomacy.
As a means of stopping Iran from getting a bomb, the nuclear deal is sadly wanting; but as a tool for branding the Saudis, the domestic rivals of the progressives, and, above all, the Israelis as warmongers, it is an effective propaganda tool. When a kinder and gentler Islamic Republic fails to arrive—and fail it most certainly will—then the Biden administration mandarins will lecture us like didactic professors. More in sorrow than in anger, they will shake their heads and lament the fact that those damned Israelis and Saudis just couldn’t learn to share the Middle East with the Iranians. We tried to tell them, but they just wouldn’t listen.
The pointy heads in the Biden administration are marching us toward a beautiful world of perpetual peace. They will never get there. But they will find plenty of people and countries to cancel along the way.