When all the options are bad

There's good reason to distrust Iran. But most Americans support the nuclear deal anyway.

John Kerry
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool))

Here's an apparent paradox: By a landslide margin of 59 to 31 percent, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll found, Americans approve of making a deal to limit Iran's nuclear capabilities. And yet 59 percent of Americans also say they have little confidence a negotiated agreement will stop Iran from eventually developing nuclear weapons. Why, then, do people prefer negotiating with the mullahs, despite justified skepticism that Iran will comply with its promises? Are we a nation of weak-kneed Neville Chamberlains? Let me hazard an alternative hypothesis that begins with two words: Iraq and Afghanistan. After the two longest wars in U.S. history, most Americans have concluded there are limits on what U.S. military power can achieve. We can't cure what ails the Middle East, and our attempts to do so have produced terrible disappointment and terrible costs.

This doesn't mean most Americans have become isolationists. Clearly, the U.S. cannot afford to ignore Iran, or ISIS, or Syria, or the Sunni-Shiite war now igniting the region. But to a large degree, the chaos there is an unintended consequence of the regime change we engineered in Iraq. We've tried toppling dictatorial regimes, and have found that the "Pottery Barn rule" applies: You break it, you own it. Americans aren't eager to own any more broken countries. Nor do most folks want to send brave young soldiers to fight in foreign civil wars, having seen far too many return with limbs torn off by IEDs or their psyches scarred for life. Americans know that trusting the Ayatollah is not a good option — but also that there are no good options. When all the options are bad, you can only hope to pick the least worst.

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.