06/20/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

Obama's Brandenburg Speech Full of Empty Promises

President Obama's speech in Brandenburg, Germany, could easily have been mistaken for a music festival. The mostly youthful crowd broke into applause at the slightest provocation and there was a giant gap between perception and reality. Rather than psychotropic drugs, the Brandenburg crowd was deluded by optimism, so strong they could not recognize the disconnect between the outcomes Obama wants and the policies he pursues. In the world Obama described, Iran does not realize its nuclear ambitions; America "moves beyond a mindset of perpetual war" while still ensuring Afghan girls can go to school; and oppressed Syrians tear down their government just as Germans tore down the Berlin wall while America negotiates arms control with the Russians. These are admirable goals, but the first has been made less likely by Obama's foreign policy and the other two are impossibly contradictory.

There is no doubt that President Obama wants to hold the nuclear nonproliferation line against Iran, but he is unwilling to take the only approach that would actually change this rogue regime's behavior: drawing a nuclear red line backed up with a credible threat of military force. Instead of taking this hardline position, the Obama administration has relied on economic sanctions to force Iran away from its nuclear program. After years of sanctions, Iran is closer than ever to having nuclear capability. The sanctions have crippled Iran's economy, reducing oil output to its lowest levels in 23 years and collapsing Iranian currency, but this has only harmed Iran's citizens as the government shifts increasingly scarce resources towards the nuclear program.

Realist foreign policy experts, most notably Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, argue that America can accept a nuclear Iran just as we accepted a nuclear Soviet Union, because nuclear deterrence theory would prevent Iran from using their nukes. This is realism at its most unrealistic, incorrectly assuming that the only reason to have nuclear weapons is to use them. Offensive deployment is not the only reason, or even the primary reason, to develop nuclear capability. Iran is willing to endure a crippled economy in exchange for a nuclear weapon because having one would immediately make it the preeminent Middle Eastern military power. Its government would be able to engage in proxy wars, such as the one Iran is currently fighting in Syria, with renewed impunity since it could ward off retaliatory military action with nuclear threats.

President Obama is rightly worried about military action against Iran turning into a repeat of George W. Bush's Iraq War. America has neither the budget nor public will for another years-long military misadventure in nation building, but that wouldn't be needed to destroy Iran's nuclear capacity. Instead, the campaign would resemble the first Iraq War, the one that barely lasted one hundred hours and resulted in an effortless American victory. During that war, the goal was stopping Iraq from conquering Kuwait -- an objective that only required military victory in the field of battle -- not nation building and long-term commitments.

Stopping Iran's nuclear program would similarly require only a military victory, a guaranteed outcome given the discrepancy in technology and training, followed by a short-term presence to dismantle the nuclear sites. Although Iran could theoretically rebuild them, America would have proven that our red line is credible, and Iran would not waste resources rebuilding something that would simply be destroyed again.

While President Obama fears beginning a long-term military engagement with Iran, he is ending our involvement in Afghanistan after five years of renewed fighting that yielded no clear victory. Running for president in 2008, Obama called Afghanistan the "good war," promised to commit more soldiers to the Afghanistan War and blamed the war in Iraq for squandering an opportunity to stabilize Afghanistan. As campaign rhetoric, this was an understandable strategy to protect Obama from charges of being weak on national defense. Following through with this strategy after being elected has been a disaster.

In 2008, the Afghan army was corrupt, underequipped, and disloyal to the central government; large sections of the country were controlled by warlords; and drug trafficking was rampant. Five years later, all of these conditions remain unchanged as negotiations with the Taliban begin. Regardless of the outcome of these negotiations, when America withdraws, the central government will lose control of even more territory and will likely be overthrown shortly thereafter. This doesn't mean American soldiers should stay in Afghanistan, but Obama should be honest about what American withdrawal means. When America leaves, women's educational opportunities will leave with us, as the Taliban or other Islamist factions take control of Afghan's provinces.

Similarly, America cannot achieve nuclear arms control with Russia while giving meaningful support to Syrian rebels. The Assad government is a major Russian ally in the Middle East, and Russia has promised arms to Assad while staunchly opposing any attempts to help the rebels. If America were to provide the Syrian rebels with aid that would enable them to overthrow the government, either by establishing a no-fly zone or giving them anti-aircraft weaponry that would neutralize Assad's air superiority, Russia would bolt from the New START nuclear treaty and could even move military assets near the Syrian border to counterbalance the American planes in Jordan. Just like with Afghanistan, Obama can't have it both ways on Syria and Russian nuclear treaties. Either the Syrian rebels lose or we lose our nuclear arms control deal.

Obama's empty promises on foreign affairs may seem like harmless political puffery. But when people have unrealistic expectations about geopolitics, namely that objectives can be achieved without sacrifice and even contradictory goals can be realized, disappointment inevitably results. In a democracy, where policymaking depends on popular support, this disappointment can actually constrain the options open to the president. Impossible promises earn applause now, but Obama will regret them when he looks at his foreign policy approval rating once reality proves him wrong.