Radical Differences: Obama and Iran vs Bush and Iraq

There are many similarities between the concerns in Iraq in 2003 and Iran in 2015. Fear of both countries pursuing a nuclear weapons program were and have been omnipresent, respectively.
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The contrast could not be greater in the manner in which President George W. Bush approached Iraq and President Barack Obama approached Iran.

There are many similarities between the concerns in Iraq in 2003 and Iran in 2015. Fear of both countries pursuing a nuclear weapons program were and have been omnipresent, respectively. The World's attention turned to each country when the United States became interested in potential nuclear weapons programs. And in 2003 and 2015 the same options were available to each president.

Stark Differences

  • President Bush seemingly surrounded himself with individuals who were intent on finding a reason to go to war with Iraq. This has been well documented by authors such as Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward. Meanwhile, President Obama seemingly surrounded himself with people who were reluctant with his approach but who were nonetheless committed to his tough diplomacy.
  • President Bush never gave Iraq a chance to negotiate; he insisted that Iraq dismantle all of its WMD programs, programs we later found out had been dismantled years earlier. Meanwhile, President Obama has given Iran more than ample opportunity to negotiate, so much so that it has made many allies concerned that too much was being given away.
  • President Bush insisted on an illogical standard: Iraq had to prove it did not have a WMD program (one can't prove this sort of negative). Meanwhile, President Obama insisted that Iran allow us to inspect all nuclear facilities (the burden of proof should rest on the West to substantiate allegations).
  • President Bush used a climate of fear to justify war with Iraq over a WMD program. Meanwhile, President Obama used a climate of diplomacy and sanctions to avoid a war with Iran.
  • President Bush had a small coalition of countries who supported war with Iraq. Meanwhile, President Obama has a small number of countries who oppose negotiations.
  • President Bush's approach to Iraq resulted in war. Meanwhile, President Obama's approach to Iran, right or wrong, reminds us of why he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The differences could go on.

Like Minds

The same advocates of war with Iraq who continue to defend the disastrous decision to invade that country are the same advocates who argue that any deal with Iran is a bad deal. Individuals such as John Bolton argued that "only military action like Israel's 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor ... can accomplish what is required." Dick Cheney argued that bombing Iran is the best option. Cheney also said that "we don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it." And of course, Benjamin Netanyahu argued that war with Iraq was good for the Middle East, also argues that this deal framework is a bad deal.

The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has shifted his rhetoric from this being a bad deal that will undermine Israel's safety to one where not enough was gained in the negotiation. For example, Netanyahu has started saying that too much was given and that negotiators should have gotten Iran to stop its support for global terror. I disagree. That is a different issue. The issue at hand concerned Iran's nuclear program, not activities that the West would like to see Iran desist. To invoke anything other than sanctions relief for curtailing a nuclear program would be futile.

Finally, the situation with North Korea cannot be a useful corollary to Iran; North Korea never agreed to the same level of intrusive inspections that are being negotiated with Iran right now. The current framework with Iran is not based on trust, but on unprecedented intrusive inspections to verity of a peaceful Iranian nuclear program.


The United States never proved to the world that Iraq had a WMD program, and it never found one. The United States has no evidence that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapons program; the underlying issue is one of trusting that Iran is not pursuing a weapons program. But it is Iran's right under the NPT to pursue peaceful nuclear technology, something that Iran's leaders have said time and time again that Iran is exclusively pursuing.

An entire generation came to understand and appreciate that rushing into war has disastrous consequences in American blood and treasure, and our international legitimacy and trust. Many people today, myself included, tread more cautiously because of the mistakes made in 2003 with Iraq. However, there are some who have not learned the lessons of what went wrong in Iraq in 2003.

It is too early to tell if President Obama's approach will prove to be a prudent one. When considering that alternatives offered by the US House and Senate Republicans, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and past President Bush administration officials all lead to war, early indications suggest that Obama's approach is the best one.

PAUL HEROUX is a state representative from Massachusetts who previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.

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