For those Americans who wonder whether Barack Obama’s bumbling response to the crisis in Syria is an indication of what he will do about Iran, Jeffrey Goldberg says not to worry. In an article published in Bloomberg last Wednesday, Goldberg makes the argument that the president’s feckless behavior on Syria that culminated in his shifting of responsibility to a divided Congress shouldn’t inform our expectations of what he will ultimately do about the Iranian nuclear threat. Though a firm supporter of the president, Goldberg has at times been rightly critical of his behavior on Syria, so that, along with his good sources in the White House, gives him some credibility on the issue. While, as he notes, the administration has itself made the argument that America’s willingness to step in on Syria will have an impact on Iran’s behavior, Goldberg argues such an assumption is mistaken. According to the writer, the president always viewed the Iranian issue as a fundamental threat to U.S. security and therefore should be trusted to act accordingly no matter how uninspired his leadership proves to be on Syria.
But while Goldberg is right when he cites the fact that Obama’s strident rhetoric on Iran has left little wriggle room for him to be able to punt on the issue, asking us to believe the president’s Hamlet-like inability to bridge the gap between his words on Syria (“Assad must go” and the use of chemical weapons constituting a “red line”) isn’t indicative of future problems strains credulity. It’s not just that the spectacle of an administration that spent two years dithering about Syria before deciding on action and then shifting the decision to Congress will reinforce Tehran’s belief that Obama is a paper tiger. It’s that over the course of the past five years the president’s actions on Iran have been as disconnected from his words as they have been on Syria. Even before the president choked when he could have legally ordered a strike on Syria, everything he has done with regard to the nuclear issue has given the world and the ayatollahs good reason to believe he will be equally unable to order action on Iran’s nukes.
Let’s stipulate that, as Goldberg argues, the president has always been clear about his view that an Iranian nuke constitutes a direct threat to U.S. interests and the security of its allies. Obama said as much during his first presidential campaign in 2008 and went even farther in 2012 when he explicitly rejected “containment” of a nuclear Iran as an option and even said in one of his debates with Mitt Romney that any deal with Tehran would be predicated on the end of the Islamist regime’s “nuclear program.”
But he has also spent his time in office also making it clear that confrontation with Iran is something that he will go to virtually any lengths to avoid. Ignoring the history of Iran’s diplomatic deceptions he has wasted precious years on equally futile efforts at engagement that did nothing but buy them more time to get closer to their nuclear goal. The administration was slow to move to tough sanctions and only did so at the insistence of Congress. Though the president continues to talk tough, his willingness to ignore the repeated failure of the P5+1 talks and to invest more months, if not years, on outreach to new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and to buy into the spin that this veteran of the Islamist regime is a genuine moderate presages more indecision to come.
But the problem here is not just that there is a pattern of behavior here that cannot be ignored. It’s that, as Goldberg rightly concedes, when the moment of truth on Iran arrives (if such a moment on Iran ever arrives before Tehran is able to announce that it has a viable weapon) the evidence will probably be more inconclusive than the open-and-shut case that currently exists about Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Even though we know that Iran has been amassing large amounts of enriched uranium that could be quickly converted to military use while Obama delayed and talked, the Iranians have moved their massive nuclear program underground into hardened bunkers that shields their contents from scrutiny as well as possible attack from the air.
That means the same pressures and doubts that caused the president to repeatedly stumble on Syria will be even greater if he is ever able to admit that diplomacy has conclusively failed on Iran. Like the administration, Goldberg continues to insist that there is still plenty of time for diplomacy and sanctions to work before the use of force on Iran should be contemplated. That is highly debatable. But even if we were prepared to accept this dubious assertion, everything the president has done on both Syria and Iran would lead a reasonable person to conclude that decisive U.S. action on the nuclear threat is highly unlikely. While Goldberg may still believe in Obama’s promises on Iran, the ayatollahs and their intended victims in Israel cannot be faulted for drawing the opposite conclusion.
Syria and the Perils of Partisanship
President Obama’s path to intervention in Syria has been a compendium of every possible mistake a leader can make in terms of diminishing America’s credibility and influence. His last-minute decision to turn to Congress rather than to act on his own authority as he could have and should have and his signals that U.S. strikes would not alter the military equation in Syria have undermined his authority and emboldened isolationists on both the left and the right to oppose his policy. All this has made it difficult if not impossible for many people to view the question of intervention as one of endorsing or opposing the president. For some (though not all) Democrats, who have generally opposed the use of U.S. power abroad to defend American interests or human rights, that means backing Obama on Syria simply because he is the head of their party. On the other hand, that has encouraged some on the right, who have not previously been knee-jerk isolationists, to oppose intervention in Syria simply because it is Obama who is asking for it.
The notion that politics stops at the water’s edge has been largely observed in the breach for decades, yet the openly partisan matter with which this current debate is being conducted may have struck a new low. It is time for conservatives who are saying they can’t support military action under the leadership of Barack Obama to understand the terrible cost such a stand will have not only for American interests but also for the world. Though the country deserves a better leader, he’s the only one we’ve got for the next three years. If Republicans are going to take the same attitude toward the use of force by Washington during this time period in much the same manner they would like to obstruct the implementation of ObamaCare, then it isn’t just Obama who will suffer. Such a position will be a signal to not just Bashar Assad and his use of his chemical arsenal but to the ayatollahs in Iran and their nuclear ambitions that the U.S. is paralyzed.
There are good reasons to worry about whether the president’s proposed intervention in Syria will be effective. The president’s desire to placate his left-wing base has led him to promise that any action will be limited and that he isn’t interested in regime change. Yet at the same time, he continues to say that Assad must go and winks at foreign-policy hawks like Senator John McCain to lead them to think that the plan will have a significant impact on the Syrian regime’s ability to continue slaughtering its people, whether with chemical or conventional weapons. The clear lack of enthusiasm for the mission that has been demonstrated by Joint Chiefs Chair General Martin Dempsey further reinforces the impression that this is a halfhearted effort that will not accomplish much.
Throw in an isolationist movement on the right that has already flexed its muscles on the question of the National Security Agency’s counter-terror activities and the use of drones and its hard to see how the president can find the votes in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives for his resolution. But as our Abe Greenwald wrote on Wednesday, just because the president has, at least so far, failed to make an argument for intervention, doesn’t mean there isn’t one to be made. We must, as Abe wrote, decide what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of America we want to be. If we are now so war-weary or too timid to act against mass murderers then those conservatives who are saying they won’t back force ordered by Obama are consigning the country and the globe to a period in which insanity will be sovereign.
To listen to conservatives now echoing the cynicism of the left during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is disheartening. The issue in Syria really isn’t Barack Obama’s credibility since we already know he hasn’t much to start with. What is at stake in the vote on Syria is whether the United States is prepared to restrain out-of-control regional actors who transgress the norms of international behavior. If we aren’t, then while the GOP is waiting for a president they can respect, the world will become a lot more dangerous than it might otherwise be.