03/23/2009 02:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's test

Joe Biden was wrong when he stated that he expected President Obama to be tested within six moths of his taking office by some foreign power. Not just Obama is going to be tried. The whole soft power, multilateralism, diplomacy-will-open-all-doors liberal foreign policy is on trial.

Iran has nominated itself as the first foreign tester. President Obama appealed to Iran in a powerful, evocative, noble message. He referred to Iran by its full name, dear to the Mullahs, "The Islamic Republic of Iran." He celebrated Iran's contributions to culture, art, poetry, and history, among other great treasures. He addressed Iran with the respect that Mullahs long demanded, stating: "We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world."

And he called for turning a new page, in the eloquence that is uniquely his:

Within these [New Year] celebrations lies the promise of a new day, the promise of opportunity for our children, security for our families, progress for our communities, and peace between nations. Those are shared hopes, those are common dreams.

How did Iran respond? By spitting in his face and showing him the finger. Ayatollah Khamenei stated "[Obama] insulted the Islamic Republic of Iran from the first day. If you are right that change has come, where is that change? What is the sign of that change? Make it clear for us what has changed." Global headlines: Obama rebuffed by Iran.

The liberals were left utterly undaunted. What spitting? Maybe a few drops of rain. They dug deep into the insult and claim to have found a hint that if the Obama Administration will do Iran's bidding--lift the economic sanctions, and halt accusations that it is sponsoring terrorism and manufacturing nuclear weapons---it may stop insulting us. And they pointed out that after 30 years of mistreating Iran and the "last eight years," it will take much more than one appeal by an American president to open the doors to diplomacy. (Though, to its credit, The Economist suggested that Obama should try only one more time).

These good liberals ignore three matters, one minor, one far from minor, and one about as major as they come. First, Iran could have responded to Obama's overture with its typical list of demands and litany of complains--without disrespecting the President and the United States, without the dismissive, humiliating tone they struck. Second, the last eight years were very rough on Iraq, Iran's greatest enemy, whom Iran fought for eight years but failed to vanquish. Iran itself, however, was in effect indulged. The U.S. did nothing other than holler when Iranian sophisticated roadside bombs and other arms were delivered to Iraqi insurgents; when Iranian agents were caught training Iraqi insurgents; and when Iran urged the Shia to undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize the new Iraqi regime. Moreover, when Iran was found supplying arms and funds to terrorist organizations in Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and other parts of the world--the US largely looked the other way. The US continued to do so when it discovered that Iran was financing Syria's efforts to build a nuclear bomb. True Cheney talked a big stick, but the only military action the Bush Administration took regarding Iran-- was to prevent Israel from attacking it, late in 2008.

Iran has strong, valid historical reasons to complain about U.S. conduct--a generation ago. Madeline Albright already apologized for these ill deeds. Still, one could argue that these beefs should be aired further. However, if Germany and France can put aside their historical differences, one could expect Iran to allow those complaints to recede, given a new administration that seeks to turn a page in the Middle East.

By far the most important issue is the one of ticking clocks. There is some evidence that Iran is developing nuclear bombs and soon will have some. If this is the case, Iran is likely to play tough, to expect more courting, make some very minor concessions (a somewhat more conciliatory speech, for instance, would make the liberals dance in the aisles and sing with hope), and try to drag things out until their bombs are good and ready.

The test for Obama and liberal foreign policy is hence what they will do if diplomacy, soft power, and multilateralism are continuously rebuffed. One can--as I do--strongly favor the liberal approach and still urge that the U.S. stop acting like a one-move chess player; one must think ahead to what the other side will do and what our next step is then going to be. More American gestures? Sure. Opening diplomatic relations with Iran (if they are game)--good idea. Meeting at various international gatherings--please remember over tea, not scotch, and bring a Koran, not a Bible--by all means. But there is a good reason to consider now what the Obama Administration will do if all these gestures yield precious little.

The main reason to consider these future steps now is that Iran is thinking about them. Iran was most interested, keenly interested, in solving its differences with the US in May 2003. What was distinct about this time period? The US had just trounced Sadam's military with minimum American causalities in a few short weeks, something that Iran could not accomplish in eight years. The Mullahs had good reason to believe they may be next in line. That threat of hard power got their attention. (And that of Libya, which gave up its support for terrorism and its WMD program.) In the years that followed, as the U.S. got mired ever more deeply in Iraq and Afghanistan--Iran became ever more intransient.

All this is not, I cannot stress enough, a call for threatening Iran. It is to call attention to the relationship between soft and hard power. Soft power works much better when those involved realize that if it fails, other powers may come into play. This is the test Obama and liberal foreign policy now face. Can they make soft power work? (Which would be indeed a global blessing.) And are they clear, at least in their own minds and councils, what will they resort to if Iran just plays them for one month after another, until their nukes are placed at the top of their missiles?

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. For more discussion, see his book: Security First (Yale, 2007) or go here.