Sunday, July 18, 2010

Will Obama Bomb Iran?

It feels like someone just turned up the volume. Most of us had assumed that President Obama would never resort to military action against the Iranian nuclear program. His policy has been engagement, mixed with feckless appeasement.

Recent remarks by savvy commentators are telling a different story. Joe Klein, Walter Russell Mead, Michael Totten, and Fidel Castro are all suggesting that Obama is preparing to bomb Iran.

We grant that the administration might well be orchestrating these leaks in order to increase the diplomatic pressure on the mullahs.

Yet, the prospect makes its own sense. Countries in the region, from Israel to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, are terrified of the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Israel has suggested that it is prepared to attack Iran on its own, if necessary. If it did, then the United States, the world's last remaining superpower, would be relegated to the sidelines.

Walter Russell Mead offers the most interesting policy-related explanation for a prospective attack. He sees Obama suffering from an idealistic will to transform the world by removing all nuclear weapons. In his mind Obama wants to create an international community based on comity, not a balance of power.

This may well be true. It may be an important justification, or even a rationalization for a pending strike. And yet, I do not think that Obama is a very sophisticated foreign policy thinker. I believe that he is more interested in Obama than he is in a Woodrow Wilson's vision.

I prefer to offer an analysis that is based on the notion that Obama is cynical, manipulative, and weak.

Keep in mind that Obama is much better at ordering drone attacks than he is at commanding troops in an extended military operation.

A series of bombing runs designed to cripple the Iranian nuclear program would be more appealing to him than a naval embargo of refined gasoline.

And keep in mind, November's elections look like they are going to be wipe-out for the Obama-led Democratic party.

Would it not be the mother of all October surprises if Obama orders a series of bombing runs against Iran in the weeks preceding that election. Such an event would make him look decisive, strong, in charge, and effective. It would, even if only momentarily, erase the impression of a president who is a weak, ineffectual ditherer.

Is it possible or reasonable to see a president initiating military action in order to buck up his flagging reputation? If you remember or have studied John Kennedy, you know that it is.

The parallel was initially laid out by Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins in a New York Times op-ed from May, 2008. Their article was entitled: "Kennedy Talked, Khrushchev Triumphed." Link here.

In the spring of 2008 then Senator Obama was trying to defend his proposal to engage diplomatically with Iran. Feeling the need to respond to Pres. Bush's assertion, offered before the Israeli Knesset, that negotiations with Iran would amount to appeasement, Obama evoked President John Kennedy's negotiations with Soviet premier Khrushchev in Vienna in June, 1961.

Thrall and Wilkins explain: "Senator Obama defended his position by again enlisting Kennedy's legacy: 'If George Bush and John McCain have a problem with direct diplomacy led by the president of the United States, then they can explain why they have a problem with John F. Kennedy, because that's what he did with Khrushchev."

One does not recall whether Bush or McCain responded to Obama's extraordinary display of ignorance.

To be fair, Obama was just trying to score political points. And he must have been reasonably confident that no one would call him on it.

Yet, that is what Thrall and Wilkins did.

They begin by noting that experienced foreign policy hands had advised the young and immature John Kennedy not to hold direct talks with Nikita Khrushchev. Kennedy ignored their advice: "... he embarked on a summit meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, a move that would be recorded as one of the most self-destructive American actions of the cold war, and one that contributed to the most dangerous crisis of the nuclear age."

Of course, Khrushchev was simply trying to take the measure of the young American president. He was not impressed: "Khrushchev's aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed 'very inexperienced, even immature.' Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was 'too intelligent and too weak.' The Soviet leader left Vienna elated-- and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world."

Kennedy understood that he had done very poorly. In his words: "He just beat the hell out of me. I've got a terrible problem if he thinks I'm inexperienced and have no guts. Until we remove those ideas we won't get anywhere with him."

The consequences were dire. Two months after the meeting, Khrushchev began planning to erect the Berlin Wall. In the spring of 1962 he began sending nuclear missiles to Cuba, thus precipitating the nuclear missile crisis.

As Thrall and Wilkins explain: "And while there were many factors that led to the missile crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the impression Khrushchev formed at Vienna-- of Kennedy as ineffective-- was among them."

How did John Kennedy plan to recover the prestige and respect he had lost in Vienna? New York Times columnist James Reston reported on a conversation he had had with Kennedy: "It was now essential to demonstrate our firmness, and the place to do it, he remarked to my astonishment, was Vietnam!"

Senator Obama may have believed that he was going to become another John Kennedy. One can only wonder whether he understood the perils of trying to conduct foreign policy when you are weak and ineffectual.

And one can only wonder whether the American people really understood that weak leaders are dangerous leaders.


Anonymous said...

This is a GREAT article.

I've been visiting your website for about a month now, initially very curious to see whether you were the author of the (excellent) book on Lacan I had read while writing my dissertation on Flaubert many years ago!

I suppose it's all speculative at this point, but your argument is so compelling (or maybe I just hope it's true) that I can't help taking it as a foregone conclusion, and am now wondering whether Obama's re-do of the meeting with Netanyahu, or even the quick exchange of the Russian spies is related to this.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Susan, for the kind words, about the post and the book.

As you say, it's all speculation now, but I think that the only real question now is the timing.

If enough people call Obama on it, I think that that will make it less likely that it happen this year.

If it does not happen this year, I can certainly see it as part of a re-election strategy.

If the Reps win Congress and the economy and markets continue their downward slide, Obama would certainly need something dramatic to sustain his political viability.