- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Barack Obama’s administration is under the gun to produce a "final" agreement justifying its six-month sweetener for Iran. In return for cessation of progress in the country’s nuclear programs, Iran has received some sanctions relief. The White House is trumpeting this as a great advance toward eliminating Iran’s nuclear threat, even hinting it could dramatically reshuffle American alliances in the Middle East. What the Obama administration appears not to understand is how much the interim deal highlights its incredible — literally, lacking in credibility — declaratory policy.
President Obama has stated unequivocally that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. His closest aides have defended the interim deal as forestalling military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In fact, the administration has explicitly tied the negotiations to forestalling "another war in the Middle East."
After watching the debacle of the president’s aborted military strikes on Syria and hearing the audible sigh of relief from the White House when Russian President Vladimir Putin gave him an exit strategy, the Iranian government would be stupid to think that the American people would back "another war in the Middle East" or that Obama would launch one without the public plebiscite he allowed to dictate his policy. And the Iranian government is not stupid.
The Obama administration seems genuinely to believe public opposition to "another war in the Middle East" is caused by George W. Bush’s administration invading Iraq. The American public opposes all wars until persuaded that they need fighting and that their government has a reasonable plan to achieve its goals at an acceptable cost. Team Obama seems genuinely not to understand that its incontinent policies are responsible for the current malaise. Choosing not to win wars is responsible for it. Inability to build common cause with the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan is also responsible. Presidential inattention to the subject is responsible. Having no predictability to when the United States would intervene and when it would not is responsible. Turning on a dime from opposing to advocating intervention is responsible. Advocating tiny little strikes is responsible. Treating military intervention as though it isn’t going to war is responsible — responsible for public resistance, irresponsible as government policy.
And that’s the problem with national security policy by plebiscite: What the public wants may not be what the public needs. That’s why the United States has a representative democracy with legislators and an executive to govern. That’s why presidents spend time talking about national security policy: The public needs to have the arguments presented and time to think and debate the alternatives. They need to know the alternatives are worse, because the president has no business taking the country to war if there are better alternatives.
Obama’s White House operatives — the policy people, not just the political people — excuse their failures by treating public opposition as an act of God or a legacy of Bush rather than a function of their ill-conceived and hastily sketched policies. The best arguments against Obama’s Syria strategy were presented by his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff two days before the president announced his reversal of course. The defense secretary sat in silence before Congress rather than defend the administration’s course. That’s no way to take the country to war.
The administration is right that the Iran deal "put time back on the clock." It has given Iranian President Hassan Rouhani time to try to persuade the supreme ruler and criminal cabal in charge of Iranian foreign policy to make a fundamental change in Iran’s orientation: to end its hostility to the West and fomentation of violence to destabilize its neighbors. Giving up its nuclear weapons program would be the indicator of a different kind of Iran taking shape, an Iran the United States could support and help to prosper.
The deal has also given Obama time to patiently, sequentially make the case for destroying Iran’s nuclear program if Iran won’t bring itself into line with U.N. Security Council resolutions it is violating. He needs to make that case both to the American people and to the international community. Both those audiences have a deep skepticism about his approach and will need to have their specific concerns addressed. The Obama administration should have a campaign to convince Americans this needs doing; otherwise, his policy is unexecutable.
These six months of the interim deal should be filled with persuasion that the United States can and will carry out its threats. Despite Iraq, despite public war weariness, despite cuts to military spending, despite the cantankerous political mood, despite his panicky choices about Syria, Obama will take the country to war to prevent Iran from continuing on its current path to threaten the United States and throw the Middle East into a frenzy of nuclear proliferation. Re-establishing the credibility of the U.S. deterrent ought to be the central foreign-policy objective of this administration.
For all its derogation of the Bush administration, the Obama administration is doing nowhere near the public persuasion campaign we ancien régime undertook to justify the 2003 Iraq war — much less the virtuoso campaign carried out by Bush the Elder in advance of the 1991 Gulf War. Where are the selective intelligence leaks about the growing nature of the threat? Where are the presidential speeches gravely intoning the president’s responsibility for protecting the nation, even if doing so is an unpopular course of action? Where are the swarm of presidential appointees explaining why the United States can allow North Korea to go nuclear but not Iran? Where are the magazine articles about the presidency being the loneliest job in the world, fed with intimate details about the president’s thinking? Where are the visits to military forces tasked with the weighty responsibility? Where is the patient fielding of questions from concerned Americans in town-hall meetings? Where are the high-level consultations on the margins of the G-Whatever and NATO ministerials? Where are the reliable allies making the case to their publics? Where are the estimates of oil market disruption so that stocks have time to factor it in long in advance? Where is the secretary of state’s U.N. briefing on Iran’s violations of Security Council resolutions? Where is the James Baker-patented worldwide tour collecting participants and funding? Where are the John Kerry handshakes of allies agreeing to fight alongside the United States? Where is the Treasury secretary explaining how we’ll manage the global economic consequences?
The last several presidential administrations have actually had a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. They have hoped that the nature of the Iranian government will change before the Iranian government can go nuclear. They have given hortatory sail to the military option but have given little indication of willingness to actually undertake the military measures or political preparations necessary to carrying out that policy. And the gap between America’s decla
ratory policy and its actual intent is now so wide as to be unbridgeable without a level of effort that would crowd out everything else the Obama administration might want to achieve in the remainder of its term in office. That’s why it’s so desperate for a deal with Iran: Not even we believe our threats.