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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