On the campaign trail, presidential candidate Barack Obama once called for a "reset" policy with Iran. Supposedly, the unpopularity of Texan provocateur George W. Bush and his administration's inability to finesse "soft power" had needlessly alienated the Iranian theocracy.
After all, the widely quoted but highly politicized 2007 National Intelligence Estimate had claimed that Iran had ceased work on a bomb in 2003 and would not have a weapon for the foreseeable future. That flawed analysis fueled another popular talking point: The Bush-Cheney warmongers were look-ing for more phantom weapons of mass de-struction in Iran of the sort that had led them into Iraq.
In contrast, Mr. Obama proclaimed himself to be a more sophisticated sort of president. His left-wing politics, his postracial appeal and his father's Muslim heritage might win over the heretofore need-lessly alienated Iranians and most others in the Middle East as well. At no point did candidate Obama stop to consider that the Iranians could view his loud politicking and opportunistic criticism of Mr. Bush's hostility toward Iran identical to standard U.S. bipartisan policy under at least the four previous presidents as weakness to be manipulated rather than magna-nimity to be appreciated.
After Mr. Obama took office in 2009, we had a new Iran 2.0 policy implemented on a variety of fronts. We courted Vladimir Putin by closing down an Eastern European anti-ballistic-missile project in hopes that the Russians would help stop Iranian proliferation. We scheduled face-to-face talks with the Iranians. We did not press initially for economic sanctions of Iranian exports and imports. We largely ignored Iranian terrorists who were killing Americans in Iraq.
The Obama administration kept quiet in spring 2009 when a million Iranians hit the streets to protest their cruel authoritarian regime. It seemed to apologize for the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. It reopened our embassy in Syria, Iran's closest Middle Eastern ally. It jawboned Israel, Iran's worst Middle Eastern enemy.
The result of Mr. Obama's Iran 2.0 policy?
Failure on every front. The Iranians sped up work on the bomb. They snubbed every deadline we issued. They increased weapons shipments to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. The Russians aided rather than blocked Iranian nuclear efforts.
More recently, the Iranians plotted to kill a Saudi diplomat in the United States. They issued warnings to the Sunni Arab Gulf kingdoms and tried to stir up their Shiite populations. They turned to Afghanistan and helped supply Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists. They forged an anti-American alliance in Latin America with Hugo Chavez. They are threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz and warning allies of Israel of possible retaliation.
In the manner that Jimmy Carter's reset foreign policy crashed in 1980 with the communists entering Afghanistan and Central America and American hostages taken in Iran, and was followed by a suddenly tough, new Carter Doctrine, the Obama administration likewise is forced to reset its policy.
With Mr. Obama's new Iran 3.0, we are flip-flopping and ratcheting up sanctions. We are announcing the dispatch of additional warships to the Persian Gulf. We are lobbying the United Nations for tougher resolutions against Iran and freezing Iranian assets in the United States. We are no longer warning Israel to play it cool but rather publicly and matter-of-factly announcing the likelihood of a pre-emptive Israeli bombing strike.
In other words, after demagoguing the old Iranian 1.0 containment strategy, the Obama administration is trying to play 3.0 catch-up after its own failed 2.0 appeasement policy.
The ironic result is that war is now far more likely with Iran than it ever was under George W. Bush, and for far more reasons. Mr. Obama faces no knee-jerk, left-wing criticism. Just as the left went silent when Mr. Obama suddenly took ownership of Guantanamo, Iraq, renditions and tribunals, it won't hit the streets if he takes action against Iran. If the president finds himself behind in the 2012 campaign, such a bold move would win him political unity and advantage in wag-the-dog fashion.
Because of Mr. Obama's hostility toward Israel, the United States has far less knowledge about and influence with the Israeli military. The long-appeased Iranian theocracy is now more likely to miscalculate, thinking either that the confused Obama administration won't stop it or that any American attempt to stop it would be only half-hearted.
Mr. Obama's initial Iran reset policy squandered the American sense of deterrence. Now we are desperately trying to regain the tough bipartisan approach taken under earlier presidents.
But the likely result of this schizophrenia probably will be an Obama 4.0 Iran policy in other words, a big war in the Persian Gulf.
By Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and historian at Stanford's Hoover Institution.