Mosaic Magazine

“I Don’t Bluff”

Suppose the president never intended to roll back Iran’s nuclear program. How then would he proceed?

  

President Obama has repeatedly promised to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. If there is no other choice, he says, he will resort to force. In a March 2012 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the president famously rejected the alternative policy, namely, allowing Iran to go nuclear and then trying to contain it. He emphasized the point dramatically: “[A]s president of the United States,” he said, “I don’t bluff.”

Really? Suppose this statement was just a show of toughness, timed to keep supporters of Israel on his side during the 2012 campaign season. Suppose that, when it came to Iran, in his heart of hearts, the president actually preferred a strategy of containment to a strategy of prevention. Suppose that was actually his policy aim from the outset—but, for obvious reasons, he couldn’t say so. How would he proceed?

He would proceed exactly as he has been proceeding—trumpeting his intention to roll back the Iranian nuclear program while actually avoiding confrontation at all costs.

 

To gain a sense of the president’s methods, consider first the saga of Syria’s use of chemical weapons that developed in 2013. Each time the situation called for a tough response, Obama telegraphed a punch—his famous “red line”—but then never actually delivered the blow. 

The White House first realized that Bashar al-Assad had employed chemical weapons in the spring of last year. Its immediate reaction, however, was anything but a rush to enforce the president’s announced red line. On the contrary, it stalled for time. When the political pressure to respond became unbearable, the White House announced, in June, an intention to increase aid to the Syrian opposition. The president, it now seemed clear, was going to force Assad to pay a price for his barbarity. But the announcement soon revealed itself as a ploy to buy still further time, the diplomatic equivalent of “the check is in the mail.” The aid never arrived.

Then came the August 21, 2013 chemical attack that killed around 1,500 Syrian civilians. This time, the administration reacted quickly. Within days it appeared absolutely determined to punish Assad. Any doubts about its resolve were dispelled on August 30, when Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the television cameras and delivered a Churchillian speech justifying immediate missile strikes against the regime. But then, instead of ordering military action, the president decided to seek congressional authorization for the use of force, knowing full well that such a bill had little chance of passing. In short, he punted.

  

Call it the case of the vanishing reprisal. It is a pattern that reflects the president’s deep aversion toward U.S. involvement in open-ended conflict in the Middle East. His legacy, he has made abundantly clear, is to end such involvement. And just as that dictated doing nothing to stop Assad, it has dictated a posture of complacency toward Iran.

Indeed, the failure—or, better, the refusal—to stand up to Assad in Syria was also a failure to contain the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their proxy, Hizballah. After all, these two actors did the most to turn the tide of the Syrian civil war. It was their direct intervention that broke the momentum of the insurgency and rescued the Assad regime from destruction. 

Here, too, the same pattern is at work. Few have noticed the degree to which, in dealing with Iran’s aggressive behavior in the Middle East, Obama has broken ranks with his predecessors in the White House. For the last 35 years, every other American president has defined countering Iran’s malign influence as a vital American interest. To be sure, Obama still pays lip service to this traditional policy. “We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hizballah, which threaten our allies,” he assured us again in this year’s State of the Union address. But the gap between word and deed has been glaring.

Recently, Obama went so far as to envision Iran as a constructive force in regional security. “[I]f we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion,” he told David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, “you could see an equilibrium developing between . . . [Sunni] Gulf states and [Shiite] Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

In poker terms, this would be known as a “tell,” a behavioral tic that inadvertently reveals a player’s bluff. In the case of Iran, as in the case of Syria, the president is looking for an exit.

 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the nuclear negotiations with Tehran that resulted in the interim deal reached in Geneva in November. Even strong supporters of the president’s policy are now publicly expressing doubts about that deal. Thus, Fareed Zakaria, the former managing editor of Foreign Affairs and former editor of Newsweek International, came away flabbergasted from an interview that he conducted for CNN with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. So impressed was Zakaria by the yawning gulf between the American and the Iranian positions that he called the interim deal “a train wreck.” 

Even more startling is the skepticism of Dennis Ross, who, until late 2011, was a senior official in the Obama White House with responsibility for the greater Middle East. A study group recently chaired by Ross assessed the interim deal as so “deeply flawed” as to “undermine the effort to prevent a nuclear Iran.” 

Obama himself has let it be known that he is not optimistic about the prospects of the next round of negotiations. In his interview with Remnick, he put the chance of success “at less than even.” These are low odds. But does that mean that the president has already worked up a tough Plan B? Is he preparing a response that will leave the Iranians in no doubt that they will be worse off if they fail to satisfy the minimum requirements of the United States and its partners? Or will we witness yet another instance of the vanishing reprisal?

The questions have already answered themselves. The outline of the real Plan B is fully visible in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) that emerged from Geneva. Technically, that deal lasts six months, but it can be extended indefinitely by mutual consent. While the parties to the agreement express the “aim” of reaching a comprehensive agreement within a year, they are also careful not to commit themselves in any way. The deal, in other words, is less interim than interminable.

Obama’s surrogates are already telling us to expect a very long negotiation. “I think it’s extremely unlikely that it will be possible to reach a comprehensive agreement in the next six months,” says Gary Samore. He ought to know; until last year, he served as the top arms control official in the White House. Samore thus spoke with authority when he concluded: “We’re in for a rolling series of extensions.” In short: endless process, no endpoint.

And consider where we’re already at in this process. Despite claims to the contrary, the JPOA does not “dismantle” any part of the Iranian nuclear program. It pauses some aspects, while others proceed apace. A “research” loophole allows the Iranians to continue work on advanced centrifuges. In short, Iran gets to have it both ways: to enjoy sanctions relief (the West’s part of the deal) while continuing to build up its nuclear program (Iran’s part of the deal).

Much energy on the part of the White House has been invested in painting a contrary picture. We are assured that real progress has been made; we are even told that Iran has embarked on a historic reconciliation with the West. The president, even as he admits to doubts about the prospects of success, deftly encourages exaggerated hopes for the ongoing negotiations in order to seize the moral high ground from skeptics. The White House has even taken to branding its critics as warmongers seeking to sabotage the chances for peace. “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so,” warned Bernadette Meehan, a White House staffer.

Thus the interim deal allows the president, too, to have it both ways. He makes concrete concessions to Iran in the present while promising get-tough policies in the future—at, that is, some very distant point in the future, which, as it draws nearer, will assuredly vanish in turn like a mirage in the desert.

 

“As I sat there,” writes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his new memoir, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander [on the ground] . . . , doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” Gates is describing a White House discussion about Afghanistan. But it might just as well have been about Iran—or, for that matter, Syria. The president doesn’t trust those who have traditionally managed the conflict with Iran, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the struggle to be his. He wants out.

Continuing to profess an unshakable resolve to roll back the Iranian nuclear program, the president has blunted every argument for a tougher policy and found plausible-sounding excuses to resist all calls for increased pressure on Tehran. While denying it vehemently, he has put the United States on a glide path to accepting a nuclear Iran—bluffing all the way.

_________________

Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.

Comments

  • Harry Taft

    From his very first utterances on practically any subject I have been struck by the similarity of his language to the street corner conversations of my youth when a group of teenagers gathered on a street corner and proceeded to solve the problems of the world in no time at all. None had any achievements, none had any talents or life experiences that suggested that their ideas held any merit at all. It was a growing and learning process so nobody was hurt by our juvenile behavior. Some of the guys on that street corner continued to mature and learn. They laugh at their foolishness of the past. My judgement of the President is that he is incapable of similar growth. At his age and place in life, he is still blaming others for what are his responsibilities. Just like I did when I was eighteen.

  • Daniel Schwartz

    Wasn’t it President Obama who famously told Eric Cantor “Eric, don’t call my bluff“?

    http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/171403-obama-warns-cantor-dont-call-my-bluff-in-debt-talks

    Saying “I don’t bluff”, from him, is itself a bluff… and is therefore also a bald-faced lie.

  • tim

    Duh. Thanks for stating the completely obvious.

  • http://villagers-with-torches.tumblr.com Epa Minondas

    At this point I think it would be hard to find anyone on this planet who would take as a deterrent any sort of serious sanction or direct armed force response by this president.
    Thus it makes one dangerous action, or the next, ever more safe in the minds of those who are inimical to us and our allies.

  • Brad Bettin

    “I don’t bluff.” President Barack Obama

    No, sir, you fold.

  • concerned citizen

    It is a coincidence that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were timed to come to a head during the Iranian six month period, which significantly diverts Netanyahu’s attention from a military strike while Iran moves to breakout?

  • Beatrix17

    When Obama took office, he made his Cairo speech expecting Muslims, his father’s
    people, to be as enthralled by him as his American audience was. The Mideast ignored him. He may have blamed America’s support of Israel for Muslim disdain of him.

    You need to read both Lee Smith’s and Michael Doran’s article in today’s Mosaic to
    understand Obama’s subsequent actions.

    As Doran points out, Obama’s negotiations with Iran about her nuclear program aren’t
    interim so much as they’re interminable. And he handled Syria by foisting the situation onto Russia.

    Smith thinks that Stephen Walt, a man he knew as a fringe academic, is the architect of Obama’s current Mideast policy. This may be true because Walt’s philosophy as shown in his book, “The Israeli Lobby,” written with John Mearsheimer (which I’ve seen reviewed, but haven’t read) seems to agree with Obama’s philosophy: The Israeli lobby must be cut down to size.

    As Smith says, Obama seems convinced by Walt that without the intrusion of Israel, the Sunnis and Shites can have geopolitical equilibrium with competition and suspicion, but no war. Of course, since Obama installed his hand’s off policy, the Mideast has seen nothing but warfare.

  • undertoad

    Yes, and I agree with all this, BUT he’s not left with many useful tactics when the entire nation is exhausted from long and unproductive wars.

    A US President has the strongest hand by definition, and can go all-in at any time… EXCEPT when his wife is texting him to go pick up the kids at daycare.

  • chenriii

    Doran writes: “The White House has even taken to branding its critics as warmongers seeking to sabotage the chances for peace.”

    Now, let’s see: S.1881, the bill being pushed by those skeptical of these negotiations, does NOT state that sanctions will be re-imposed if diplomacy fails. Rather it says that sanctions will be re-imposed absent many very specific conditions in the final deal. And the specific conditions enumerated in the bill are ludicrously unrealistic; everyone knows they are non-starters. In effect, therefore, if the bill becomes law the re-imposition of all sanctions becomes inevitable and the current diplomatic efforts are rendered completely moot.

    And the bill doesn’t stop there.

    It then goes on to COMMIT America to supporting Israel in any military action it chooses to take with regard to Iran. Basically the congressional responsibility to declare war is handed off to the government of Israel.

    Explain to me again how this is not warmongering?

  • ribchwi

    Iran cannot be stopped from enriching uranium. Not unless we are prepared to wipe at least 50% of the Iranian people of off of the map. Obama knows this and has made his goal convincing them not to create a nuclear weapon. This is no guarantee, but there can BE no guarantee. Except for turning Iran into dust.

    • Beatrix17

      We managed to keep Iran from enrichment for years without turning a single Iranian into dust. We worried about the financial effects on Iran from sanctions, yet Iran managed to spend millions, perhaps billions, to fund the war in Syria and to back Hezbollah. This is about power and Obama was the one to blink. Iran’s new power to wage war will turn a lot more Iranians into dust than sanctions did.

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