WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Ironic humor, fortunately, is never far from politics. Few may recall the so-called "freedom agenda" advanced by President George W. Bush a decade ago.
Spreading democracy by muscular means would "transform" the Middle East as autocratic regimes crumbled. And it did but not the way Bush intended. Afghanistan and Iraq were the test cases and the Taliban and Saddam Hussein victims.
President Barack H. Obama has embraced Bush's preference for regime change without an accompanying freedom agenda. He has done so vigorously and deliciously.
First Tunisia dumped its long-standing leader. Egypt and Yemen followed suit. And, without the loss of a single military life on our side, Libya lost its dear Colonel Gadhafi. Now Syria and Iran are in Obama's gun sights.
Bush took down two odious regimes. Obama has already doubled that score during his first term AND brought Osama bin Laden to justice. BHO has indeed become W on steroids.
Whether or not these regime changes have made the world a safer or better place, the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq have been horrific and the futures for Egypt and Libya remain unresolved. But, wrongly handled, Syria and Iran have the potential for catastrophe. This column has brooded about repeating July 1914 a century later.
The consequences of what happens in Syria and Iran reflect the realities of the 21st century. Yet, our strategy, thought processes and use of policy instruments smack of the 20th century.
In Syria, Bashar Assad is fighting for his political life. While his actions are despicable and indefensible as far as the West is concerned, does anyone know who or what will replace him?
Most likely, a general and/or a Baathist would take over given the divided opposition with little propensity for reform or constructive change. The Russians fear another Iranian-like revolution but with radical Sunnis in control. Moscow could have a point.
And there is Iran. The arguments and speculation over the utility and risk of military attack against well-protected Iranian nuclear facilities, heightened by ill-defined "zones of invulnerability," have become hackneyed.
The critical questions are will Israel attack and, if so, when?
Tactically, an October Surprise would be the most politically damaging for America with presidential elections looming in November.
Strategically, an attack at any time would be cataclysmic. Iran has many asymmetric retaliatory options at its disposal. As bad, an attack would unite a very divided Iranian public and ignite Persian passions that will trump popular animosity against the ruling clerics.
What should the Obama administration do? First, the White House must recognize and respond to the seismic changes that have altered the geostrategic and economic landscapes and use them to advantage. We aren't doing that.
For example, sanctions could drive Iran into a corner from which the only options left such as blocking Hormuz would be self-defeating for all concerned. Keeping all options on the table, meaning the use of force, is counterproductive unless we are prepared to invade, occupy and govern Iran.
The "we" might only be "us" as coalitions of the willing could be impossible to create. And North Korea exposed the weakness of this old approach.
We huffed and puffed when North Korea exploded its nuclear device. Whether it has a usable weapon is still not clear.
The world didn't end just as it didn't implode in 1949 or 1964 when Soviet Russia and then Red China got their bombs. The United State had and still has mutual defense treaties with Japan and South Korea. And, at last viewing, North Korea has two far more powerful, nuclear armed neighbors.
If the United States were clever -- a big if -- it would be subtly and discreetly fashioning a deterrent scheme in the region offering protection for our friends in the Persian Gulf should Iran actually field nuclear weapons.
Other nuclear states, particularly Britain and France and possibly Russia, China, India and Pakistan, could be encouraged or persuaded to join this arrangement in the event Iran crossed the nuclear threshold.
Indeed, thinking well outside conventional boundaries, some form of nuclear arms limitations regime might be conceivable between Israel and Iran, since it is in no one's interest if these weapons were ever used.
This type of thinking is reminiscent of another Republican president and his doctrine for using geostrategic realities to advantage -- Richard Nixon and the Nixon Doctrine. It was based on exploiting the Sino-Soviet rift. And the world would become a better place for it.
Today, the competing and clashing forces of the 21st century can be applied as constructively and imaginatively as Nixon did to contain and even eliminate many of the looming crises confronting us. But we must have the courage to think boldly. And that will require even more steroids!
(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)