Commentary Magazine


Obama Talks From Weakness, Not Strength

After flubbing his plan for an attack on Syria and being trapped into a Russian-sponsored process designed to preserve the Assad regime, President Obama doesn’t have much foreign-policy credibility these days. But what little he has left is about to be spent on a new diplomatic initiative with Iran that will apparently be kicked off this week in New York with a face-to-face meeting between the leader of the free world and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Perhaps even more than Obama’s effective handing off of responsibility for Syria’s chemical weapons to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the appointment with Rouhani will make it clear that this administration has no appetite for a confrontation with its enemies, signaling a new era in the Middle East in which the tyrants of Tehran and Damascus and their terrorist auxiliaries need not fear the United States.

That is a conclusion that the president’s defenders reject absolutely. They claim that whatever the provenance of the Russian proposal or the lack of “style” points (to use the president’s own words) in his fumbling approach to Congress on Syria, if it results in Assad losing his chemical weapons it is still a good thing. They argue that Obama’s inability to pull the trigger on Syria will have no impact on Iran’s evaluation of American intentions on its nuclear ambitions. Further, they say the U.S. has nothing to lose in talking to Iran and much to gain, since failure in negotiations will simply strengthen the president’s hand when he then decides to use force.

If the administration was operating from a position of strength and with its intentions to uphold its interests undoubted, then these arguments might make sense. But the problem with both the Syrian fiasco and the opening to Iran is that it is no secret that the president has agreed to them out of weakness, not strength. What’s more, both the Syrians and the Iranians know it. The United States may be still be the world’s sole superpower and Syria and Iran midgets by comparison. But so long as these countries and their Russian friend know America is led by a man who choked when he could have struck Syria and is desperate for excuses to avoid the confrontation he has long threatened Iran with, they know who has the upper hand in talks.

Jeffrey Goldberg remains one of the more sensible of Obama’s defenders and he has rightly derided the president’s record on Syria as “disturbing.” He also rightly puts down Rouhani’s charm offensive as “nothing more than public relations until proven otherwise.” But he also continues to cling to the notion that what has brought about the unsatisfactory deal with Russia on Syria and enticed Rouhani to come calling was Obama’s “toughness.” But for any objective observer to categorize the U.S. stance in the Middle East as “tough” requires us to come up with a new definition for the word.

Goldberg concedes Obama looked bad on Syria but still insists that his threat of force made any deal possible. But what happened was damaging not just because it has resulted in what looks to be U.S. acquiescence to Assad remaining in power indefinitely but because it showed that the president wouldn’t follow through once he had threatened force. In other words, the world now knows the president lacks the will to act on his own authority and is also sadly aware that there is a bipartisan congressional majority opposing any use of force. That’s a worse blow to U.S. credibility than if he had never issued any threats at all. The notion that Obama will now be empowered to strike if the Syrians and Russians thwart accountability on chemical weapons is absurd. They know very well that no matter what John Kerry says, the administration has moved on and will never attack Syria.

As for Iran, Goldberg also gives Obama credit for imposing tough sanctions on Iran that has created pressure on the regime. He also thinks the team of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu playing “bad cop” to Obama’s “ambivalent cop” can force Iran to make a nuclear deal that will work. But the record of the last five years in which Obama’s actions have never matched his rhetoric has convinced the real boss in Tehran—Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—that what was needed was a soft voice to entice Obama into endless negotiations, not the cartoonlike harshness of Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By meeting with Rouhani, Obama is signaling that he is falling for this tactic. But rather than Rouhani being on the spot as Goldberg insists, it is actually President Obama who will feel the need to make concessions to keep the talks going so as to avoid being put in a position where he will be forced to act.

Iran wants sanctions lifted, but there is no evidence that the supreme leader is the one who thinks he’s in a corner. The ayatollahs have already observed that the one place Obama never wants to be is in a corner where he is forced to back up his threats. Meeting with Rouhani and treating this more presentable thug as an equal and a negotiating partner will send a signal throughout the Middle East that Iran is emerging from its diplomatic isolation. Combined with its triumph in Syria where, along with the Russians, it has saved Assad, that allows the Islamist regime to believe it can string out the West for as long as it needs to achieve its nuclear ambitions with no real fear that the U.S. will ever pull the plug on the talks or back up its threats.

Goldberg is right when he says that the only constant in the world is change. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned it is that President Obama and his foreign-policy team are incapable of reacting to the shifting sands of the Middle East or to present their positions to the world in a way that makes dangerous regimes fear us. Whatever follows from these diplomatic initiatives will be the result of the president’s weakness, not his strength.

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