Depending on one’s perspective, President Obama’s address at American University earlier this month was either a rousing defense of the Iran nuclear agreement or an egregious instance of political demagoguery. But one thing the speech underscores with certainty is that Mr. Obama’s earlier vows that he was prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran’s atomic ambitions were disingenuous.
These were pledges Obama issued with regularity as the multilateral negotiations with Iran got underway. In his 2012 State of the Union address, he stated that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.” In a media interview shortly afterwards, he emphasized that he was not bluffing about the military option and that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” “I don’t bluff,” he emphatically insisted. The president then followed this up by delivering a hard-hitting address to the American Israel Political Action Committee, an influential lobbying group in Washington, stressing that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.”
A chorus of administration heavyweights seconded Mr. Obama. Vice President Joe Biden reiterated the “no bluffing line. In a television interview Secretary of State John Kerry pushed back against those who argued that Obama was blowing smoke by pointing to the unequivocal nature of the president’s statements. And Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who was the chief U.S. negotiator in the Iran talks, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “We will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and there should be no doubt that the United States will use all elements of American power to achieve that objective.”
Yet the Obama administration’s threat to pick up the cudgel of military action has always an air of unreality. After all, a commander-in-chief who proudly trumpeted that he had extricated the country from George Bush’s wars in the Greater Middle East was quite unlikely to initiate a third one. Mr. Obama made clear his determination on this issue in his cautious approach toward the civil wars in Syria and Libya. The “red line” he communicated numerous times regarding the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons turned out to be extremely equivocal. And he later acknowledged that the 2011 limited intervention in Libya was a “51-49 decision” because he feared the political narrative of “how a president elected to extract us from a war in one Arab country got Americans killed in another.”
Further evidence of the disconnect between administration rhetoric and actual policy was the emphasis Obama placed on the overriding urgency of his domestic agenda. During his re-election campaign, he justified the withdrawals from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan by saying that “I think we all recognize we got to do some nation building here at home.” His regular declarations about how that “the tide of war is receding” – a theme trumpeted in the 2012 Democratic National Platform – also underscored this point. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suspect that Obama’s tough talk at the time was more about restraining the prospect of Israeli military action than Iranian behavior.
Now that the Iranian nuclear agreement is complete, Mr. Obama’s lack of sincerity is equally apparent in his insistence that the deal’s rejection would put America on the path toward another major conflict in the Middle East. In his AU remarks, he framed things this way: “Let’s not mince words. The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy or some form of war – maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon.” He made the same point via Twitter later in the day, saying “There’s no such thing as a ‘better deal.’ Walking away risks war.” This argument has also been propagated by prominent supporters of the agreement.
But what is the logic of this argument? A day before his AU address, the president told a White House gathering of Jewish community leaders that without the agreement in place, America would eventually be pressured into a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. And in his speech, he reiterated that he was keeping “all options – including possible military options – on the table.”
Yet the entire thrust of his AU remarks undercut this contention by telegraphing his extreme reluctance to exercise the military option. He once again spoke of the need to get America off a “perpetual war footing,” a regular theme throughout his presidency. He declared that one of the lessons “we’ve learned from over a decade of war” is to resist “the drumbeat of war.” And he followed up afterwards by warning a group of journalists that military action results in “unintended consequences.”
Bob Corker, the centrist Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has it right when he says, “Does anybody in America believe that if we turn down this deal, this president is going to engage in war with Iran? That’s one of those straw men that demeans the debate.”
At AU, Mr. Obama insisted that, “I’ve had to make a lot of tough calls as President, but whether or not this deal is good for American security is not one of those calls. It’s not even close.” If that is truly the case, he can dispense with the canards.
David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative and former director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy. He can be reached via Twitter @DavidJKarl.