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The Consensus Dodge

France is frustrated with America’s lack of leadership and indifference to a looming international threat. So is Britain. No, this isn’t backward day or a headline from the Onion. That’s the real-world situation in the Obama era:

President Obama wants a unified front against Iran, and to that end he stood together with Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown in Pittsburgh on Friday morning to reveal the news about Tehran’s secret facility to build bomb-grade fuel. But now we hear that the French and British leaders were quietly seething on stage, annoyed by America’s handling of the announcement.Both countries wanted to confront Iran a day earlier at the United Nations. Mr. Obama was, after all, chairing a Security Council session devoted to nonproliferation. The latest evidence of Iran’s illegal moves toward acquiring a nuclear weapon was in hand. With the world’s leaders gathered in New York, the timing and venue would be a dramatic way to rally international opinion.

President Sarkozy in particular pushed hard. He had been “frustrated” for months about Mr. Obama’s reluctance to confront Iran, a senior French government official told us, and saw an opportunity to change momentum. But the Administration told the French that it didn’t want to “spoil the image of success” for Mr. Obama’s debut at the U.N. and his homily calling for a world without nuclear weapons, according to the Paris daily Le Monde. So the Iran bombshell was pushed back a day to Pittsburgh, where the G-20 were meeting to discuss economic policy.

So what does this say about Obama’s search for “consensus”? It’s a very odd consensus that rejects the opinions of Britain and France (for more immediate and robust action) and waits for Russia and China to join in. This provides further evidence that the president’s favorite phrases—”multilateral action” and “international community”—exist only in the make-believe world of his own speeches. In the real world populated by actual nations with diverse interests, you can’t please them all, especially when it’s anything important. Waiting for some nations to finally agree with us is in itself off-putting to other nations who want prompt action.

This episode also suggests that the search for perfect consensus has a distinct air of excuse-mongering. But France and Britain are ready to act, the president’s impatient allies and frustrated critics point out. Well, Russia isn’t on board, so we can’t do anything, comes the reply. And then we’ll hear that China can’t decide. Because consensus is always around the corner, and the waiting undoes consensus among close allies for quick action, one gets the feeling that it’s all about delay. We’ll talk. And then we’ll have another deadline. And then Russia will decide. And then we’ll argue about the sanctions. And then . . . and then.

It’s not that the Obama team doesn’t know the limits of consensus. They seem perfectly willing to redesign 17 percent of the American economy and 300 million Americans’ health care without consensus from political opponents. In that case, you see, they really want to get something done, so they’re prepared to jam through a major policy measure with no consensus beyond the left-wing of their own party. (The vote-counting is problematic, but that’s a practical not an intellectual barrier to non-consensus policymaking.)

But on Iran we’re learning that an always far-off consensus is the perfect excuse to avoid a confrontation for which it appears the president has no stomach. Thanks to the Iranian self-disclosure, that unpleasant reality is now obvious to our closest allies and to Iran.



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