Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton has yet to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination, the general election has gotten underway. So far, I have to say that I like what I see. Rather than the feared "You're old/You're black" barbs flying back and forth, we seem to be in for a substantive debate on what U.S. foreign policy should be in the coming years. Who'd have known that actual discussion was possible in this day and age?
In particular, the topic du jour has been the issue of the threat posed by Iran (particularly in relation to the threat of the old USSR) and whether or not negotiations with Iran make any sense. I'm not any sort of expert in foreign policy and so anything I write from this point on should be taken with a major grain of salt (or two). That being said, I think I've identified the major point if disagreement between the dueling senators.
What the argument really comes down to is the question of whether or not Iran is a rational actor on the global stage. Depending on how one answers that question, everything else falls into place. By rational, I don't mean reasonable necessarily. I mean, rational in the sense of holds a sense of self preservation and will try to promote its own interests.
Obama seems to think that Iran is a rational actor. In this thinking, Iran clearly poses a lesser threat than the USSR (another rational actor) did. Clearly the USSR had a larger army, greater international presence, and a more potent nuclear arsenal than Iran does today. However, you may have noticed that the world isn't a radioactive disaster zone. That's because rational thinking constrained the use of nuclear weapons and prevented outright war. Any use of nukes or any reversion to an outright ground war would have cost both sides so dearly that it wasn't in the rational interest of either country to initiate. Mutually assured destruction worked because neither side was willing to accept an assured destruction. If Iran is similarly unwilling to accept its own destruction (even if it means inflicting great harm on the U.S.), then it poses a lesser threat than the Soviet Union did.
However, that calculus changes hugely if Iran is an irrational actor as McCain seems to think. If Iran is willing to accept its own destruction (which clearly wouldn't be in its rational self interest) if it meant destroying the U.S., we're in real trouble. Mutually assured destruction during the Cold War only worked because neither side wanted to be destroyed. But if one side doesn't mind, there's no real disincentive to trying to destroy the other. Assuming that Iran is an irrational actor, it may be willing to accept its own destruction as the cost for destroying the United States. Assuming that this view is correct, Iran poses a significantly greater risk than anything that Soviet Union presented. Despite all the rhetoric, the rational USSR never really could have acted to destroy the U.S. There are no such assurances with an irrational Iran.
The question of ratonality vs. irrationality also holds implications for whether or not to negotiate with the country. If rational, negotiations that clearly lay out positive and negative consequences could be very beneficial. If irrational, negotiations will not do anything at all.
That's the point where I think Obama finally wins the debate. I can't pretend to know whether or not Iran is willing to act in a rational manner in its own self interest. My sense is that it would, but that's not based on much more than wishful thinking. However, looking at the possible outcomes seems to indicate that negotiations are worthwhile. If Iran is rational, good can come from talking and listening. If Iran is irrational, nothing more bad will happen. The situation won't get better, but I don't see how it would get worse in a practical sense either. It's not like Iran would say, "Well, I used to hate them and want them wiped off the earth, but now after meeting the president I really hate them and want them wiped off the earth." As long as our negotiators had the sense to not give away the farm, we wouldn't have anything to lose. We might even have something to gain.