Obama doubles down

I had planned to write about something else this morning, but the simmering confrontation with Iran keeps intruding. For starters, President Obama is standing firmly behind the administration’s allegations, but without offering any new evidence to support them. This approach isn’t going to wash, however, especially if journalists do their job, start asking a lot ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

I had planned to write about something else this morning, but the simmering confrontation with Iran keeps intruding. For starters, President Obama is standing firmly behind the administration's allegations, but without offering any new evidence to support them. This approach isn't going to wash, however, especially if journalists do their job, start asking a lot of probing questions, and don't allow themselves to get spun by "anonymous" sources and inside leaks.

Add to the mix a New York Times story -- clearly based on briefings from U.S. officials -- that "militants trained and financed by Iran's Quds Force attacked United States forces in Iraq on Wednesday." As Time magazine's Tony Karon notes on his own blog, "Washington certainly seems to be scooping up everything it can find on alleged Iranian malfeasance to throw into the p.r. battle. U.S. and Saudi intelligence officials told the Washington Post that they believe that Iran was behind the May 16 killing of a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi."

Put it all together, and it looks like the Administration is making a concerted campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. Countries like Britain, Saudi Arabia and France are going along with that program, and no doubt Israel is happy to see this development too. But so far other countries appear to be at best agnostic about the whole business, which is still the only sensible response in light of the paltry public evidence offered to date. And as I said yesterday, if Obama & co. can't produce some smoking gun support for their assertions, the backlash could be formidable.

I had planned to write about something else this morning, but the simmering confrontation with Iran keeps intruding. For starters, President Obama is standing firmly behind the administration’s allegations, but without offering any new evidence to support them. This approach isn’t going to wash, however, especially if journalists do their job, start asking a lot of probing questions, and don’t allow themselves to get spun by "anonymous" sources and inside leaks.

Add to the mix a New York Times story — clearly based on briefings from U.S. officials — that "militants trained and financed by Iran‘s Quds Force attacked United States forces in Iraq on Wednesday." As Time magazine’s Tony Karon notes on his own blog, "Washington certainly seems to be scooping up everything it can find on alleged Iranian malfeasance to throw into the p.r. battle. U.S. and Saudi intelligence officials told the Washington Post that they believe that Iran was behind the May 16 killing of a Saudi diplomat in the Pakistani city of Karachi."

Put it all together, and it looks like the Administration is making a concerted campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. Countries like Britain, Saudi Arabia and France are going along with that program, and no doubt Israel is happy to see this development too. But so far other countries appear to be at best agnostic about the whole business, which is still the only sensible response in light of the paltry public evidence offered to date. And as I said yesterday, if Obama & co. can’t produce some smoking gun support for their assertions, the backlash could be formidable.

More to the point: what’s the endgame here? What is the positive purpose to be gained from this new campaign? If there really is hard and reliable evidence of a serious Iranian plot to bomb buildings in the United States and to kill foreign emissaries on our soil, then that’s one thing. But if this turns out to be a much more ambiguous business — either a rogue Iranian operation, a false flag scheme, or a case of FBI entrapment — then what are we trying to accomplish by rolling out a seemingly well-orchestrated round of new accusations, especially when there’s little chance of getting the sort of "crippling sanctions" that might actually alter Iran’s behavior? Are we just trying to divert attention from other issues (the economy, the "Arab Spring," the failed diplomacy on Israel-Palestine, etc.), or is this somehow linked to the 2012 campaign?

Last point: as one would expect, Obama is already facing pressure from the right to do more. He’s resisted their calls to attack Iran before, and if I had to bet I’d say he’ll do so again. But the overall pattern of his presidency has been to accommodate hardline pressure on a variety of fronts, without necessarily adopting their entire agenda. And if you believe half of what Ron Suskind and Bob Woodward have written about Obama, he is a president who is prone to being played by his advisors, especially on national security matters. He escalated in Afghanistan, extended the deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, ramped up the drone war, ratcheted up sanctions on Iran, kept Gitmo up and running, and went spineless on Israel-Palestine after a promising start. There was an obvious domestic payoff to this approach: by tilting so heavily to the rightwing status quo, he’s pretty much taken foreign policy off the table in the 2012 campaign. The GOP candidates can carp in various ways, but there’s so little daylight between their views and his policies that he’s not really vulnerable there.

But all that still leaves the more important question: where is this one headed? Like the alleged assassination plot itself, I’m still scratching my head on that one. 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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