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What America undeniably has is luck: Steinberg

Whenever anyone speaks of “American exceptionalism,” the wilted notion that the United States has a special greatness, I try to point out that feeling really, really good about your homeland is not itself a sign of greatness. Exceptionalism is routinely trotted out while attacking Barack Obama for suggesting that sometimes our country has stumbled. It has, because every country has, and only tinpot dictatorships insist otherwise.

What America undeniably has is luck. Founded on a vast continent, rich with resources, guarded only by a scattered, indigenous people susceptible to both smallpox and gunpowder, it was located in the right place. Blessed by the right leaders, like George Washington, who could have been king. Or Abraham Lincoln, who bound our nation together when it broke apart.

Franklin D. Roosevelt also saved our country. His was an era that spawned tyrants: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. FDR could have easily led the country down the wrong path. Anyone who read Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” a novel imagining that Charles Lindbergh was elected president instead of FDR, knows how chillingly plausible it is that America could have gone another way in the 1930s.

But we didn’t. We had Roosevelt, and he prodded a nation all too happy to let Lindbergh’s friends, the Nazis, rule Europe, to help that last bastion of democracy, Great Britain.

FDR spoke so well — true, in a high-pitched voice that would never fly today. But he said the right words. Winston Churchill rightly is remembered as an orator. But FDR could turn a phrase, one of which kept vibrating in the back of my mind during this debate over a nuclear deal with Iran.

“No man can turn a tiger into a kitten by stroking it,” Roosevelt said during his “Fireside chat” radio address on Dec. 29, 1940. He was talking about the need to resist Germany. “The experience of the past two years has proven beyond doubt that no nation can appease the Nazis.”

That line alone was almost enough to make me doubt any pact with Iran. You can’t pet the problem away. Their nature will not change.

But a metaphor only goes so far. Are the Iranians the Nazis? An implacable force bent on domination and death, even when that means its own ultimate destruction? They don’t seem to be. The Republicans argue we can’t make a deal with Iran because they can’t be trusted, though the GOP trusts them completely whenever they make a wild threat against Israel. Wild threats against Israel are what its neighbors do. It keeps their people distracted.

Iran with a bomb would have to be insane to attack Israel, which has nuclear-armed submarines for the purpose of turning any nation that nukes it into a sheet of fused glass.

It is far more likely that any bomb the Iranians develop will be passed to their terrorist pals, put on one of the countless containers that are waved into American ports every day, and be detonated there. We should worry about ourselves more than Israel.

What to do? Our three options: 1) attack Iran before it finishes a bomb; 2) keep applying severe economic sanctions; or 3) come to a deal to limit its atomic development. The Israelis itch for option No. 1. The U.S. assembled a coalition that implemented No. 2, which didn’t solve the problem. So now, if Congress approves next month, we’ll try No. 3.

If it fails, well, lots of crazy, anti-American regimes have nuclear weapons, from Russia to North Korea to Pakistan. They threaten left and right, just like the Iranians, but never pull the trigger. A war might stop them, but then in the you-break-it-you-bought-it dynamic in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’d own Iran too. We don’t want it.

Getting back to the idea of being lucky with leaders, we’ve had wars dangled at us before over nations getting nukes that shouldn’t have them. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? Remember our war with the Soviets in 1962? Of course you don’t. Peace is less memorable than war. Which is why we’re still flipping through the dog-eared World War II playbook, looking for guidance regarding Iran, when we should consider John F. Kennedy’s walk-away-from-the-war two-step, which worked great. His generals were hot to attack the Ruskies. Kennedy said no, the best thing he ever did. We don’t remember the wars we didn’t fight as clearly as the wars we did, but maybe we should try harder to keep them in mind.