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Saber-Rattling by Proxy

Remember how liberals used to get apoplectic when members of the Bush administration said things like “all options are on the table with Iran”? This was beating the war drums, it was saber-rattling, it was exemplary of all that was wrong with the Bush administration’s approach to the world.

Of course it isn’t surprising that such accusations are not leveled at the Obama administration, which has also regularly employed the all-options-on-the-table formulation — mostly because everyone understands that it isn’t a true statement. But here is a better one: According to the Washington Post, President Obama sent two officials on an advance trip to China before his recent visit. Their message? Sign a toughly worded IAEA statement or the Israelis might attack:

If Beijing did not help the United States on this issue, the consequences could be severe, the visitors, Dennis Ross and Jeffrey Bader, both senior officials in the National Security Council, informed the Chinese.

The Chinese were told that Israel regards Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential issue and that countries that have an existential issue don’t listen to other countries,” according to a senior administration official. The implication was clear: Israel could bomb Iran.

One might go so far as to say that international affairs continues to be dominated by power and force, despite hopenchangey predictions of a new era of dialogue and cooperation. Even accomplishing something as modest as cajoling a Chinese signature on a largely meaningless IAEA statement necessitated the threat of force. “Soft power” and “smart diplomacy” didn’t quite cut it, did they?

China’s inclusion on yesterday’s IAEA statement will be hailed as a great accomplishment for the Obama administration, but it should be apparent that this victory actually represents the hastened disintegration of the administration’s preferred policy — an elegant and high-minded diplomatic campaign. The “Israel will attack” card has now been played, and quite early. What will the White House say to China and Russia when it wishes to pursue sanctions, or even a gasoline embargo? A repetition of the same threat? Wasn’t Obama’s presidency supposed to liberate us from the ugly business of making threats?