Road to War
Obama Sure Sounds Like He's Bluffing Iran—David Frum
In my column for the National Post, I explain why I am skeptical that Obama will use force against Iran:
This week, the U.S. President offered his most detailed answer to date, via an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly. The piece is headlined: “As President of the United States, I don’t bluff.” He insists again that he has taken nothing off the table, and talks about his readiness to fight if he must. But the real news in the piece (or so it seems to me) occurs deeper in the body of the text.
Obama: “Our argument [to Israel] 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. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel’s security.”
Let’s decode those words. The president is conveying five ideas:
1. He believes that any military strike against Iran will be merely a temporary solution. He not only states that belief explicitly in the first quoted sentence, but he goes on to imply that a strike will open the way to “constant military intervention.” That strongly suggests that the answer to the question at the top of this column is “no.”
2. The president is claiming that the “only way” — not the cheapest way, nor the fastest way, but literally the “only” way — to reach a permanent solution is for Iran to abjure weapons “themselves.” Which again suggests that the answer to the question at the top of the column is “no.”
3. To persuade Iran to abjure weapons, the United States will have to make some kind of deal. “It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have.”
4. The president believes persuasion of Iran to be feasible because the Iranian leaders are at bottom rational actors: “Without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested.”
5. But even if the deal does occur, the best case scenario is not very good. Iran will be stopped just short of “breakout” — i.e., the actual ability to manufacture a weapon. Nor will Iran exactly be stopped. It will more be “paused” — its breakout capacity pushed “to the right,” i.e., into the future.
You may wonder: Doesn’t the mention of Libya give the game away? Eight years after Muammar Gaddafi struck a deal with the United States to end his nuclear program, Washington supported an insurrection against the Gaddafi regime. Aren’t the Iranians likely to draw the lesson: Deals with the Americans cannot be trusted, and so we will never voluntarily relinquish our bomb program?