Obama’s NDU Speech: Implications for Tehran

The major speech on counter-terrorism policy President Obama delivered last week at the National Defense University has generated a great deal of commentary about its implications for drone strikes and Guantanamo detainees.  Little noticed, however, is the underlying message it sends to Iran’s leaders.

Mr. Obama has made it a habit of talking tough to the Islamic Republic, regularly declaring that he is prepared, if necessary, to resort to military means to stop Tehran’s advancing nuclear weapons program.  But as I’ve argued in previous posts (here, here and here), the president’s own actions – from his frequently-stated eagerness to extricate the United States from a dozen years of war in the Greater Middle East to his determined focus on the domestic agenda – have undercut the power of his words.  As a number of analysts note (examples here and here), Iranian leaders appear to have concluded that Washington has little stomach for fighting another conflict in the region.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s outgoing president, said as much in an interview last September.  And this assessment will only deepen if Saeed Jalili, the apparent front-runner and a protégé of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wins the country’s presidential election on June 14.  The New York Times observes that Jalili, formerly the hard-line negotiator in the intermittent nuclear talks with the West, “seems set to further escalate the standoff with the United States and its allies if elected president.”

Mr. Obama’s address will do nothing to give Tehran pause – indeed, quite the opposite.  In it, he warned against being “drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight” and spoke about shifting the country from a “perpetual war footing.”*  And reminding all once again of the urgent need to address domestic challenges, he declared that the wars of 9/11 have cost “well over a trillion dollars, helping to explode our deficits and constraining our ability to nation-build here at home.”

The same themes were sounded in the president’s inaugural address four months ago and they fast gaining intellectual currency.  Liberal hawks who pushed for U.S. intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s and in Libya more recently are now mainly silent on the Syrian civil war.  Even conservatives advocating a more robust approach on Syria are keen to avoid getting mired in the Muslim world.  And as the new book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home, by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, demonstrates, strategic retrenchment represents the prevailing wisdom in foreign policy circles.  This idea is even making headway within the Republican Party.

The leaders in Tehran seem to have it right: Mr. Obama is much more likely to accept an Iranian nuclear arsenal as a fait accompli rather than make good on his repeated vows to use military force to prevent it.  And a new report on the challenges of containing a nuclear-armed Iran underscores this point.  It notes that a policy of containment – something the Obama administration vociferously denies pursuing – “may eventually become the only path left.”  Significantly, the report’s co-author is Colin H. Kahl, who served as the Defense Department’s point person on the Middle East for much of the administration’s first term.

*Interestingly, U.S. military leaders dissent from this view and argue that the coming era will be one of continuous conflict.

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Obama in the Middle East: Fading Red Lines and Eroding Credibility

A post last month argued that President Obama was fast approaching a defining moment for his foreign policy in view of the mounting evidence that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria used sarin, a lethal nerve gas, in violation of Mr. Obama’s numerous warnings not to do so.  The day of reckoning has now arrived and it reflects badly on the president.

Speaking at a White House press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Obama made plain that he is now unwilling to enforce the red line he so recently staked out in Syria. Continue reading

Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s Day of Dissonance

ImageLast Wednesday was a day of extremes for the former Secretary of State, who was in Beverly Hills to pick up a public service award from a private foreign policy organization.  There her tenure at the State Department was lauded as activists from a group called “Ready for Hillary 2016” gathered nearby to round out the chorus.

Yet hours earlier and on the opposite side of the country, her legacy came under heavy fire in a hearing convened by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  There a trio of State Department witnesses offered gripping testimony calling into sharp question Clinton’s conduct and that of her senior staff in the run-up and response to the September 2012 jihadi assaults on the U.S. diplomatic mission and a CIA annex in Benghazi that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans.

The hearing did not live up to the hype (here and here) about exposing Watergate-style malfeasance, but it gave renewed vigor to criticisms about Mrs. Clinton’s actions in her final months at Foggy Bottom. Continue reading

Time for a North American Energy Initiative

UPDATE (May 14, 2013): In a report released today, the International Energy Agency predicts that surging North American oil production — driven by U.S. shale development and Canadian oil sands — will help transform the global oil market over the next five years.

—Original Post—

This blog regularly focuses on the foreign policy reverberations of the U.S. energy boom.  As discussed in earlier posts (here and here), these include the gradual paring back of U.S. strategic commitments in the Persian Gulf*, the diminution of Russia’s great power aspirations**,  as well as a boost to America’s soft-power prospects and global standing.  But it’s time to add another upshot to the list: The shale revolution will redraw the North American energy landscape, prompting in turn a renewed U.S. emphasis on its immediate neighbors.

President Obama was right to focus on enhancing cross-border commercial ties during last week’s visit to Mexico, Latin America’s second largest economy that has become a darling of foreign investors.  Important changes over the past few years in the global production process – including rising labor rates in China, higher shipping costs, and a growing desire by companies to locate manufacturing centers closer to the consumer markets they serve – have led to a manufacturing resurgence in Mexico.  The country now exports more manufacturing products than the rest of Latin America combined and HSBC predicts that it is poised to eclipse China and Canada as the chief supplier of merchandise goods to the United States by 2018.

And despite fears among U.S. military planners just four years ago that Mexico was fast becoming a failed state, a flourishing middle class has instead taken hold.  According to a World Bank report, Mexico’s middle class has grown faster than in most of Latin America over the past 15 years, with the result that over half of the population can now be considered in that socio-economic category.  This development helped expand U.S. exports to Mexico by some $50 billion over the last two years.

So it was a fine idea when Mr. Obama and Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico’s new president, established last week a high-level bilateral group focused on bolstering economic cooperation.  But Obama missed a shining opportunity while in Mexico City to do something even more visionary and consequential: Setting in motion the creation of a truly integrated North American energy market. Continue reading