Monday, March 31, 2014

"As President of the United States, I don't bluff"

Back in March of 2012, Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed President Obama about Iran and Israel just prior to a visit by Netanyahu. In explaining his strategy with respect to Iran and nuclear weapons, the President said this:
It means a political component that involves isolating Iran; it means an economic component that involves unprecedented and crippling sanctions; it means a diplomatic component in which we have been able to strengthen the coalition that presents Iran with various options...and it includes a military component. And I think people understand that.

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.
Later in the interview, President Obama explained that placing military intervention as the last alternative was not simply because of an aversion to war, it was actually pragmatic.
...our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table.
However, he's not about to apologize for doing everything he can to avoid war.
Look, if people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they're lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me -- I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn't mindful of the costs of war shouldn't be here, because it's serious business. These aren't video games that we're playing here.

Now, having said that, I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks.
Of course anyone who doubted any of this must have missed his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech where he said:
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." 
Those human institutions the President referred to are what is captured in the Obama Doctrine: a strong commitment to international laws/principles, wielding of the power of partnership in defense of those laws, and a diplomacy that works towards meeting national self-interests in an effort to resolve conflicts.

Of course the hawks among us continue to espouse the idea that military dominance is the only tool we ultimately have. And in the midst of the current situation in the Ukraine, they are deeply troubled that in his speech in Brussels, the President said this:
Of course, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, in part because of its close and complex history with Russia. Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force.
Unlike his strategy with Iran, in this instance the President has taken military intervention off the table. But Leslie Gelb - like many who are disturbed by that - betray their own embrace of the power of dominance by saying things like this:
Economic sanctions are a good tool, but not a substitute for a credible military option. Even potent economic sanctions over decades have not brought Cuba, Iran, and North Korea to their knees.
The reason economic sanctions haven't worked in Cuba is because they were enacted bilaterally - without the power of partnership. And while the President's goals tend to be focused on finding solutions rather than bringing opponents to their knees, Fareed Zakaria has explained that is precisely why President Obama has used sanctions effectively in Iran.
The Bush administration largely pressured that country bilaterally. The Obama administration was able to get much more effective pressure because it presented Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to global norms of nonproliferation, persuaded the other major powers to support sanctions, enacted them through the United Nations and thus ensured that they were comprehensive and tight.
Contrast that with the ineffective use of military force over the last few decades in Vietnam, Afghanistan (both U.S. and Russia) as well as Iraq, and you begin to see that its difficult to make a pragmatic case for military intervention over territory - beyond even the moral case.

And so once again we see that the President of the United States isn't bluffing. Blustering about the use of military force is off the table at this point. Whether it stays there is an open question that President Putin will have to answer. Right now, the odds look good.


  1. The reason that President Obama's actions are greeted by acceptance among the nations of the earth (at least most of them), is that they are grounded in earlier treaties - they are not something some policymaker in Washington, D.C. thought up:

    1. Eliminating chemical weapons in Syria: Because we (around the world) already decided (after WW I) that chemical
    weapons were a bad idea.

    2. Stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program (initially by stopping their enrichment of Uranium to weapons grade
    material: Because we decided after WW II that nuclear weapons were a bad idea.

    3. Punishing Russia with economic sanctions for occupying Crimea with the pretext that "Ethnic Russians" were
    being suppressed: Because we have seen this before (Sudetendeutsche) and it led to a disastrous war, which
    - in the end - killed 2 % of the world's population.

    Do I need to go on ?

    1. That's stage 1 of the Obama Doctrine - upholding international laws/principles.

  2. Military intervention with Russia would be insane. At this point, the President's critics are eating their own excrement. Why would anyone talk tough with Russia? It's time for the President's critics to utter the phrase "do you want fries with that?"



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