Obama’s Disingenuousness on Iran: An Update

My last post claimed vindication for my long-standing position that President Obama was being disingenuous when in the run-up to the Iranian nuclear negotiations he insisted he was prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran’s atomic ambitions.  In my view, the tough talk was a show intended more to restrain the prospect of Israeli military action rather than coerce Iranian behavior, especially in the key 2012-2013 period.

As I noted in a series of posts back then (see hereherehere and here), a chorus of distinguished Middle East experts had lined up on the other side of the argument.  Among them was Dennis Ross, who oversaw White House policy toward Tehran for a good part of Mr. Obama’s first term.  Three years back, he asserted that “I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails [to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons] — to use force.”

Mr. Ross elaborates on this point in his just-published book, excerpts of which appear in Politico.  He reports that President Obama early in his administration directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and that measures were taken to strengthen the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.

Yet the evidence Ross proffers cuts both ways, as when he acknowledges that the additional deployments of missile defenses and naval forces were motivated in part by a desire to be ready for Iranian retaliation in the event Israel undertook its own military action against Tehran, a contingency that much worried the Obama White House.  He notes too that the Israeli government regularly suspected that the Obama administration had gone wobbly on Iran.  In fact, by late 2013 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded (wrongly, Ross insists) that Mr. Obama had lost the personal will to keep up the military and economic pressure on Tehran.

Ross also outlines the sharp lack of consensus within the Obama administration over the ultimate aim of U.S. policy – that is, whether Washington should be prepared to back up its rhetoric with military force in the event Iran did develop nuclear weapons or acquiesce to this event and work to contain the regional military consequences.  As he puts it …

… there was debate over whether we should use force to prevent the Iranians from crossing the threshold if crippling economic sanctions, isolation and diplomatic pressure and negotiations failed to do so. [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, made it clear that we were in two wars in the region and that was quite enough. They were not soft on Iran, but they were not in favor of the use of force if all other means failed to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit.

(By the way, this debate found public expression in a May 2013 report on the challenges of containing a nuclear-armed Iran, which was put out by a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. It argued that a policy of containment “may eventually become the only path left.” Significantly, the report’s co-author was Colin H. Kahl, who had served as the Defense Department’s point person on the Middle East for much of the administration’s first term.  Noteworthy too is that Kahl rejoined the administration a year ago as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor.)

Where Mr. Obama came down in this internal debate is unclear.  Ross contends he urged the president in early 2010 to jettison the vague statement that Iran nuclear proliferation was “unacceptable” in favor of a stiffer formulation along the lines that the U.S. was “determined to prevent” this outcome.  Obama finally accepted the more definitive language but only after thinking about it overnight.  It is striking though that even this formulation is not as robust as the bold redline the president drew in mid-2012 regarding Syrian chemical weapons use and then ultimately abandoned when his bluff was called.

Indeed, looking at the contours of Mr. Obama’s current policy on Syria – especially the conspicuous doubts about the efficacy of U.S. military power and the obvious desire for strategic retrenchment from the Greater Middle East – it remains difficult to pay any credence to Mr. Obama’s earlier words on Iran.

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Obama and Syria: Red Lines Redeemed?

I’ve contended in previous posts (here, here and here) that President Obama’s failure to enforce his numerous threats against the use of chemical weapons by the Bashir al-Assad regime in Damascus is a significant reason to doubt the credibility of his repeated vows to use military force to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.  So is my argument undermined now that Mr. Obama has decided to provide light weapons to rebel forces in Syria, ostensibly in reaction to the use of sarin, a lethal nerve gas?  Quite the reverse: As I see it, his actions and the ambivalent manner by which they were signaled provide further support for my case. Continue reading

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

Red Line Blues: North Korea, Iran and Syria

A defining moment for Mr. Obama’s foreign policy legacy is fast approaching

From the Levant and the Persian Gulf to the Korean peninsula, events in recent weeks have offered a clinic in the difficulty of enforcing red lines on rogue regimes and their weapons of mass destruction, as well as how U.S. credibility suffers when presidents continue to stake out red lines they ultimately are not prepared to act on.

The past month has served up a triple dose of proliferation trouble. Continue reading

A Test of U.S. Credibility on Iran

Shifting red lines in Syria undermine the tough rhetoric toward Tehran

Obama Tough 2Many observers have connected the civil war raging in Syria to the broader U.S. standoff with Iran.  Critics of the Obama administration’s extremely cautious approach on Syria argue that pushing more forcefully for the demise of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Tehran’s main ally in the Arab world, would bring about Iran’s further strategic isolation.  But another link is less noticed: Washington’s shifting red lines on Assad’s use of chemical weapons is undermining President Obama’s tough talk on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In earlier posts (here and here), I argued that Mr. Obama is more likely to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as a fait accompli rather than make good on his repeated vows to use military force to prevent it.  My reasoning is two-fold: First, as the depressing track record with North Korea over the last two decades demonstrates, it is exceedingly difficult for Washington to stop a rogue regime determined to develop nuclear weapon capabilities.

A second reason is more specific to this White House: The Obama administration’s threat to pick up the cudgel of military action has always an air of unreality.  After all, as I wrote earlier, “a president determined to wind down George Bush’s wars in the Greater Middle East is quite unlikely to initiate a third one.”  Continue reading