The Limits of Saber Rattling

Obama's policies are smart, but his loose talk could force military action in Iran and Syria

  • President Obama's recent trip to the Middle East was so effective that many of his most relentless, and often haywire, detractors were struck dumb. Even John McCain didn't go Vesuvius, for once. Obama rallied and reassured the Israeli people, propped up sagging Arab leaders in neighboring areas--like Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah--and, for good measure, nudged Israel and Turkey to re-establish some semblance of their alliance, an absolutely essential piece of the effort to contain the chaos coming in Syria. Obama's speech to Israeli youth was one of the best of his presidency. He made the classic American position clear: As a matter of historic justice, we vehemently support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. As a matter of historic fairness, we oppose the expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian lands.

    And yet, in that speech, there was a germ of a problem for the President. Once again, he said that an Iranian atomic bomb was "not a danger that can be contained," and he threatened military action to prevent it. This is part of an unfortunate pattern in Obama's foreign policy. His approach overall has been tough, realistic and thoughtful, but his rhetoric has sometimes been loose and grandiloquent. The saber rattling is unnecessary: U.S. military action is implicit, and inevitable, if Iran does something stupid. Also unnecessary have been Obama's series of Dictator X--Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad--"must"-go statements. He's been lucky in Egypt and Libya, but the pressure's building for him to make Bashar Assad go in Syria, which would be a potentially disastrous departure from his prudent reluctance to involve ourselves militarily in that unholy mess.

    The decisions that the President makes on Syria and Iran in the coming months may be the most important of his presidency. The Iranians have been making noises about finally negotiating a nuclear agreement after their presidential election in June. I don't believe them. They are the world's most frustrating negotiators--just ask any of the countries that have tried to make economic deals with them over the years. And there is considerable support among the Iranian public, including even those who detest their government, for a nuclear weapon. "We're a great and ancient civilization," a Tehran reformer, a woman, once told me. "Pakistan isn't even a country. They have the bomb. Why shouldn't we?"

    So what if the negotiations come a cropper? What if the Iranians move forward to a position similar to Japan's, where they have the ability to break out and quickly build a bomb if they're under threat? (This is where many experts think they're heading.) What if they take it a step further, perceive the U.S. as the threat because of Obama's rhetoric and build their bomb to deter Israel and the U.S.? Would Obama actually use military force against them? I doubt it. The U.S. military has traditionally opposed such a war on the grounds that it would prove even more of a quagmire than Iraq or Vietnam. It's far more likely that Obama would follow the sane course of containment and deterrence that past Presidents used against the Soviet Union--the course he is publicly ruling out now. But he will pay a price for that: his threats of military action elsewhere will have less bite. He will have lost credibility in the world.

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