Things have been breaking well for President Obama. Economically, job growth has outperformed expectations. The unemployment rate could be below 8 percent by Election Day. Politically, Republicans are engaged in the sort of demolition derby once reserved for Democrats. The protracted Hillary-Barack duel of 2008 seems like a love feast compared to the Mitt and Rick slugfest. All this is reflected in the president’s rising approval ratings.
However, Obama faces a daunting two-part challenge related to Iran’s nuclear assertions, with implications for both national security and sustainable energy. A misstep could cost him the presidency and cause the country to take a disastrously wrong turn in these two critical areas.
Iran’s threat to mine the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s crude oil passes, is roiling oil markets. Five--dollar gas this summer will help neither the economy nor the president’s re-election.
Obama has used the gathering Iranian crisis to redouble calls for energy independence. But self-sufficiency does not necessarily mean clean energy. Politically, the easier path is to double down on environmentally hazardous natural--gas fracking and “clean coal,” an aspirational category that doesn’t yet exist. Speaking in late February, Obama chided the Republicans for an energy policy based entirely on oil drilling but called for “an all-of-the-above strategy that expands production of American energy resources,” including “oil and gas, but also wind, and solar, and nuclear, and biofuels, and more.”
Oil, coal, and gas of course produce carbon. Unless these domestic carbon sources are limited to transitional use, energy self-reliance will only accelerate global climate change. The administration’s efforts to promote energy that is both domestic and clean have been modest. The U.S. lags in incentives for electric vehicles and measures to shift electric -utilities to renewables. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, addressed in this issue’s special report, would accelerate China’s dominance in solar and wind energy. Using the Iranian threat to truly recommit America to clean energy will require major shifts in strategic thinking and public education.
The more urgent concern is the national-security challenge. Iranian and Western leaders have been engaged in brinksmanship reminiscent of the Cold War. As our cover story suggests, the best strategy is a variant of the one that allowed the West to prevail in that “long twilight struggle” with the Soviet Union—containment. At first, the policy was hugely controversial. Richard Nixon in 1952 described Democrat Adlai Stevenson as having a “Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of communist containment.” Today’s Republican field is competing to offer the most outlandishly bellicose rhetoric on Iran and to bait Obama as soft on Islamists. The president needs to face down the right’s mockery with an Iran policy of strategic diplomacy backed by sanctions rather than war.
Iran, if anything, poses an even trickier challenge than Soviet containment. The Soviets usually had one dictator at a time for us to negotiate with. It’s not always clear who is running Iran. The nuclear standoff of the Cold War had only two major players; after the Cuban missile crisis, the choreography of mutually assured destruction settled down to a familiar, almost reassuring bipolar stalemate. Iranian geopolitics faces the further complication of “America’s most loyal ally,” a reckless Israeli government spoiling to launch a preemptive strike.
Obama will need not only a policy of patient restraint vis-à-vis our enemy Iran but an equally firm policy to restrain our friend Israel. Here, too, he faces mischief from the Republican right, which is more slavishly pro-Israel than the Israel lobby.
Obama has been an effective foreign-policy president. His fate is to govern when the most pressing issues are economic. Unjustly, his foreign-policy successes have not gained him notable support, but foreign-policy failure would produce severe setbacks. If an oil shock derails the recovery, that failure would also have grave economic consequences with knock-on political effects.
For both energy and national security, what’s needed is more of the Barack Obama we glimpsed in 2008—the political leader as teacher. Obama has played this role better as a candidate than as chief executive. Happily, President Obama is again a candidate. On both energy and national -security, Iran offers a politically tempting low road and a more arduous but ultimately rewarding high road. To make the high road good politics will take rare leadership to educate public opinion and isolate the ultras.