Terms of Engagement

Threats and Promises

Do Obama’s red lines with Iran and others really mean “or else”?


Have you had it up to here with supposed allies who issue ultimatums to Washington? Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, seems to come up with a new one whenever he’s in a bad mood. Last week’s was: Hand over all the prisoners in the main detention facility in Parwan within a month. And what about the Pakistanis? In the aftermath of the NATO raid that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the military leadership ordered the C.I.A. to close the Shamsi airbase it uses to launch aerial drones — this from a country whose military we train and finance, and whose pockets we deeply line. And it’s not just the allies: Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz if the West doesn’t suspend its program of sanctions.

Remember when it was the United States that was issuing all the ultimatums? Those were the days. Right after 9/11, according to Bob Woodward’s book, Bush At War, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage handed a list of seven demands to Pakistan’s intelligence chief — cut off support to al Qaeda and the Taliban, give the United States overflight and landing rights, etc. — and Pakistan complied. President George W. Bush gave the world a clear choice: stand with us, or stand with the terrorists. And remember when British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America’s closest ally, said that he could only join the U.S. war effort in Iraq if the allies got a resolution at the United Nations authorizing the use of force? Bush decided against seeking the resolution, and gave Blair the same choice: in or out. And Blair went in.

So what’s gone wrong? How come the United States is suddenly on the receiving end of so many ultimatums? Conservatives know the answer: Because we’re weak, of course. Because Barack Obama insists on engaging countries that only understand force. Iran rattles its sabre because it knows Obama will never use the supreme sanction of war. Karzai threatens us because — well, that’s different.

Afghanistan is our ally. So is Pakistan. They don’t issue ultimatums because we’re weak; they do so because they’re weak. The only way either Karzai or Pakistan’s military leaders can shore up their fading support at home is by standing up to Washington, which needs them and therefore cannot afford to call their bluff. Come to think of it, the same is true of Iran, which surely knows that blocking oil shipments could provoke a devastating retaliation. But it’s the best card they’ve got.

Historically, of course, the ultimatum is a tool of the strong against the weak: open up the gates or we’ll raze your city, rape your women, and enslave your men. But nowadays, powerful countries wish to be seen as rule-abiding, and are less inclined to shake their fist at weaker states. The ultimatum has become largely a tool of the weak — a form of asymmetric warfare. Stop violating Afghanistan’s sovereignty, Karzai seems to be saying, or we’ll do something suicidal. After all, he’s also threatened to join the Taliban if the West continues to press him to reform his government. He might never carry out any of these threats, of course: The ultimatum is issued publicly because it is aimed at the domestic public as much as it is at the adversary. But the power he has over the West is the power to harm Western interests — even if that means harming himself.

It’s an infuriating situation. You’d like to be able to say, "Fine: join the Taliban for all I care." You’d like to tell Pakistan’s Gen. Ashfaq Kayani to get lost. But, as both leaders know, it’s not in the U.S. interest to call their bluff. So the White House instead dispatches Sen. John Kerry to talk one or both of them off the ledge. There’s really no good alternative: Even the Republican candidates for president, who uniformly scorn Barack Obama for failing to credibly threaten Iran with war if it doesn’t end its nuclear program, have very little to offer on Afghanistan or Pakistan.

The real reason the United States has been the target of these vexing ultimatums is that over the last decade it has meddled deeply with the sovereignty of brittle states, which in turn react with intense resentment. The solution is to stop provoking this form of asymmetric warfare. By accelerating the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington will put an end not only to the insoluble relationship with Karzai but also to its dependence on Pakistan, whose hinterland serves as a staging area for attacks on American troops in Afghanistan. The United States has already muted its neuralgic relationship with Iraq by withdrawing its troops there altogether. And one of the side-benefits of the White House’s planned pivot to Asia is that the United States will have less frictional relationships with allies like Japan and South Korea than with Afghainstan and Pakistan.

In these matters, Barack Obama is, of course, the consummate grown-up. He neither issues ultimatums nor takes the bait when others do so. He is elaborately respectful of the sovereignty of other states (except, perhaps, when he authorizes drone strikes). At some deep intuitive level, Obama believes that he can persuade adversaries that their true interests lie in cooperation. But his presidency has offered him an education in the limits of this principle, domestically as well as abroad. He has learned that congressional Republicans don’t actually want to cooperate for the greater good, and so he has belatedly started to issue demands — extend the payroll tax cut, or else.

You can be too forbearing, as you can be too peremptory. Engagement does not work if it’s one-sided. Indeed, Obama now seems to have applied this lesson to foreign affairs: According to the New York Times, the president has responded to the Iranian ultimatum with one of his own: the United States will treat any attempt to block the Straits as a casus belli. Unlike Iran, the United States delivered this message privately: The goal was to clarify the consequences of Iran’s action, and to give them a chance to quietly back down, rather than to bully them into compliance.

If you deliver a threat in private, does that make it a diplomatic demarche rather than an ultimatum? Maybe; I won’t quibble. It still comes with an "or else" attached. And if the threat to Tehran has the intended effect, perhaps it will embolden our ever-cautious president to try out this tactic elsewhere — in Egypt, for example. Over the last week, Egypt’s military government has engaged in a crackdown on civil society unprecedented even during the long rule of Hosni Mubarak. The time has come for Obama to tell Egypt’s rulers that he will withhold some of the $1.3 billion in military aid, and then more, if they continue to send Egypt back towards autocratic rule. He should convey this threat privately, of course. And he should be prepared to make good on the "or else."

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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