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The Problem with Communicating "Strength" to Iran

obamagettoughoniran.jpg

Walter Russell Mead claims that President Obama is signalling "weakness" to Iran, making a war more likely:

But over time the conviction seems to be growing in Tehran that President Obama is unwilling to take Iran on, and the fact that the President didn’t make the confrontation with Iran a centerpiece of his State of the Union message will be read in Iran as yet another signal. Their nuclear program isn’t a high enough priority for this President to lead to war.

We aren’t saying the Iranians are right about President Obama. Kaiser Wilhelm once thought that Woodrow Wilson was so determined to stay out of war that he didn’t have to worry about U.S. intervention in Europe. After Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Germany tended to discount Wilson’s threats.

But while Germany misread Wilson, that misreading made war more likely. In the same way, if President Obama is serious about opposing an Iranian nuclear bomb with force if necessary (and we both hope and believe he is serious), then the signals the White House is sending to Iran are unintentionally making war more likely, not less. Right now, the administration is heading pretty rapidly to a point at which it will either suffer one of the greatest humiliations in the history of American foreign policy as Iran achieves a nuclear capability in defiance of years of American warnings, or it will face another armed conflict in the Middle East. If the President wants to avoid this choice, he needs to start sending signals that convince even the hardest-line mullahs that he really does mean it.

So what will instill fear in Iran, you might ask? Mead lists several Obama administration policies that he claims Iran finds heartening, so presumably reversing those would be a first step (though he doesn't state this outright). So, to make Iran fear America, Obama would have to: not withdraw from Afghanistan, not remove a second aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf and scuttle the nomination of Chuck Hagel. The one concrete policy proposal Mead offers is for Hagel (if he can survive the nomination process) to give a "hard line" speech about Syria.

That will show 'em.

Arguments about cowing Iran with awesome displays of American resolve that are, upon closer inspection, not all that awesome, are pretty common among Iran war hawks and we're probably going to hear versions of this argument again and again until either there is a war or Iran goes nuclear.

But it's important to point out how utterly unserious this is.

What would convince Iran that the U.S. was serious about war was for the U.S. to actually get serious about a war -- the administration would have to mobilize public and Congressional support for a conflict, begin to position combat troops and material in and around Iran, go to the UN Security Council, rally allies in NATO and the Gulf and issue clear threats to the Iranian regime. It would have to sharpen the confrontation to the point where war really was inevitable unless Iran knuckled under completely. That's obviously a bridge too far for the Obama administration at this point (and for allies in NATO and the UN), but that is what real military pressure would look like, not "hard line" speeches from Chuck Hagel.

(AP Photo)