Sending a clear message

On Sunday, the New York Times published a long interview with President Obama where the President described and advocated for a deal with Iran based on the framework recently agreed to in Switzerland. Obama defended his foreign policy doctrine which favors diplomatic engagement and taking calculated risks to try and move the dialog forward. The president asserted:

We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk. And that’s the thing … people don’t seem to understand… You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies. The same is true with respect to Iran, a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.

It sounds a lot like President Theodore Roosevelt’s diplomatic maxim to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” With one important distinction. People believed Teddy Roosevelt would use military force if necessary. President Obama has repeatedly shown he has no stomach for military action. This is the same president who said that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad would cross “a red line for us”, and then took no action in the face of compelling international evidence that chemical weapons had been used. This is the same president who stuck to his policy of “engagement” as Russia invaded Ukraine, in spite of Ukraine’s appeal that the the action was a violation of Article 1 of the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994. The Budapest Memorandum is a short agreement signed by four parties, the US, the UK, Russia, and Ukraine, in which the parties pledge to “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”, in exchange for which Ukraine would eliminate all of their nuclear weapons. The world knows that Mr. Obama just speaks softly, and carries no stick, which changes the calculus of the President’s risk proposition: we test his proposition of engagement at terrible risk.

Only a few hours prior to Obama’s interview, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the major US television networks to tell the American people that the deal with Iran is dangerous and pled for increased sanctions instead of a grand bargain, which he believes allows the Iranian nuclear program to proceed unhindered. So when the president says “if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there”, nobody believes him. When the president says “…what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.”, nobody believes him.

Message received Mr. President.