As my administration nears its conclusion, I want the citizens of the world to clearly understand what my mission was, why it failed, and the lessons I have learned.
My mission was to undo the terrible damage my country had visited upon much of the world. My predecessors had dominated developing countries to the advantage of the United States, and had imposed Judeo-Christian standards on them, along with capitalism. I believe this is unfair to those who don’t share our standards, and damaging to us as well, since it deprives us of the wisdom of more ancient civilizations.
We had wrecked the Middle East by invading Iraq and Afghanistan, we were in constant conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and were seemingly unable to undo lingering Cold War antagonisms with countries like Russia, China, North Korea and Cuba.
I resolved to undo the damage we had done, which meant several things: weakening American military power, canceling the installation of anti-Iranian and anti-Russian missile systems in Europe, weakening traditional alliances, especially those with the colonialist powers, and establishing warmer partnerships with former enemies. Accordingly, I reached out to my most important counterparts, our long-standing rivals in Russia and Iran, President Putin and Supreme Leader Khamenei. I saw this as a fulfillment of the confidence bestowed on me by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, which, as you well know, reflected the global consensus so often expressed here at the UN.
It did not, however, reflect the domestic consensus in my own country. I wanted a strategic alliance with our erstwhile enemies, especially with Iran, but American public opinion was against it. This was a part of American Islamophobia, and I fought against it from my first days in office. I even forbade officials in my administration to use phrases like “radical Islam,” or “Islamic terrorism.” I sent several letters to his Excellency, Supreme Leader Khamenei, assuring him that we would abandon all efforts at regime change, and urging him to work with us. I knew it would take time, and that if I were going to succeed the breakthrough would likely come in my second term. As I told Russian President Medvedev, I could be much more flexible after my reelection. I was true to my word.
Obviously, these efforts, like the secret negotiations that began even before I was sworn in, had to be secret, lest my domestic opponents mount a campaign against my diplomacy, or lest the Iranians panic. The need for secrecy was absolute. To do something as dramatic and game-changing as I had undertaken required everything be in place before the strategic realignment could be announced. You all remember when we replaced decades of enmity with the People’s Republic of China. There, too, secrecy was imperative.
I therefore kept the details of my opening to Iran from everyone except my closest personal associates. The others who could see that I was bending over backwards to reassure the Iranians—and later, the Russians as well—were our military officers in the field. They could see that the Iranians were killing US soldiers, and wanted to respond. I couldn’t permit that and from time to time I had to replace some of the complainers.
The combination of secrecy and restraint was not sufficient to produce the strategic transformation I wanted—the supreme leader was not convinced by my words or actions–and I reluctantly introduced economic sanctions. These were much more effective, indeed even more effective than my pro-sanctions advocates had expected. That is one of the basic lessons we learned: good will is important if you want to change the world, but money is fundamental. This became clearer as the negotiations progressed. As we moved toward the formalization of the nuclear deal, the JCPOA, the Iranians, in our secret talks, were forever introducing new financial demands. Payment for impounded assets in the US, payment for the release of our hostages, which was done in cash, payment for decades of interest the Iranians demanded, and so forth.
We paid it all, and then some. And I got some good results: a nuclear deal was agreed, and Americans were freed. But there is no strategic realignment. The Iranians didn’t want a partnership with me. They went with Vladimir Putin, and, so far as I can tell, they mean it when they chant “Death to America.” They are still killing Americans, directly and indirectly, and they are still taking Americans hostage, and shaking us down for ransom.
This is another basic lesson: Iranian enmity for the West is real, and I don’t think it’s likely to change. God knows I tried, even at the expense of my own personal credibility, as with the “red line” regarding Syrian chemical weapons. I didn’t want to risk the nuclear deal over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and both the Iranians and the Russians made it clear that those were the real stakes.
The bottom line is that Iran, and quite possibly Russia, considers itself at war with us, but I am certainly not going to wage war against the Islamic Republic or its foreign legions, Hezbollah and the Quds Force. I don’t have the slightest desire to send American fighters into battle in the Middle East, and while I might order some of our special forces to help out, I’m not going to tolerate a large American military presence after all I did to get us out during the last eight years.
The current unpleasantness in and around Syria is not what I wanted, but it’s fair to say I have done everything humanly possible to avoid it. You already know much of the story, and you will learn more about my efforts to bring the Islamic Republic into the fold of civilized nations. This is their decision, not mine.
I would still like a strategic realignment in the Middle East, and in other areas as well. But I couldn’t accomplish my mission. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Our former enemies just weren’t willing to change.
Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @michaelledeen.