03/05/2012 10:02 am ET Updated May 05, 2012

Obama & Iran

The United States is on the brink of war with Iran with no more understanding -- or discussion -- of why than we understand or discuss why we are fighting an all-out war in Afghanistan. What has become a national habit of acting without public deliberation is a clear and present danger to the country's well-being -- not to speak of others' well-being. President Obama's remarks this past week in an interview in The Atlantic with Jeffrey Goldberg, together with his address to AIPAC, present a stark picture of this troubling state of affairs. Here are some thoughts on why both the substance of his views and the diplomatic modus operandi they represent should make us worried about our leadership in the White House.

Key premises unstated are now standard presidential fare in the absence of critical policy scrutiny and debate. The implicit, if unvoiced, preface to all comments is "as we all know." No one holds the White House to account by pointedly asking: "but do we all know that?" So Mr. Obama's leaves unexamined the core premise that the Iran government is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons despite his own intelligence agencies concluding otherwise. So Mr. Obama declares that his patience is running out in the light of Iran's refusal to accept the hand of negotiation which he has offered. Yet no such diplomatic hand has been extended -- unless we so interpret the offer of a handshake upon the Iranians accepting the onerous terms that we set as a precondition for further talks. So the president calmly states that there is no alternative to ratcheting up the pressure -- with war in full view on the table -- even though broadly cast talks on their concerns as well as ours never have been considered by Washington. So Obama presumes that a nuclear capable (something we have yet to define) Iran is inimical to American national interests without specifying what they are beyond the vague objective of maintaining stability in the region which, he declares, would be disturbed by a "nuclear Iran." Does "nuclear capable" mean possessing an actual weapon? Having "a breakout capacity? In what timeframe? Who applies the criterion -- Washington or Jerusalem? Who makes the assessment? No answers are given.

Failure to engage the public on matters of great national importance is fraught with danger. Woodrow Wilson's fate should stand as a signal example of what awaits a president who ignores that lesson. FDR, in the years leading up to WWII, clearly had made up his mind that it was critical to the country's well-being that the United States join the war against Hitler before making that judgment explicit. Still, a series of speeches associated with steps that brought America to Britain's side laid out the rationale. On Vietnam, JFK and LBJ were less than forthright about means and level of commitment; but there the explanation was rooted in the commonly held view that the spread of communism in Vietnam and threat worldwide provided sufficient reason and explanation. Even George W. Bush felt that he must define national interests endangered by Saddam's Iraq. Of course, the case was built on lies and some of the thinking was concealed from public view. Nonetheless, the Bush people did not limit themselves to ex-cathedra pronouncements that the situation was simply intolerable.

The theme line running through the Obama interview and speech is that somehow the United States is beholden to Israel -- that we have some indisputable obligation to indulge their fears and ambitions even if based on dubious judgments. This unspoken vow of fealty goes far beyond the commitment to come to Israel's defense in extremis. The companion notion is that the thinking and calculations of today's radical leadership in Jerusalem cannot be influenced by Washington. And, even if it were, the United States has "no say" in what another sovereign government decides is critical to its national survival -- as Mr. Obama stated a couple of weeks ago. He reiterated the point Sunday in speaking to the AIPAC conference: "We do not doubt Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.... I don't presume to tell them what is best for them." As if telling other countries what they should do is not a staple of American foreign policy. Again, there is no critical commentary on these odd pronouncements by an American president ready to take the country into a war carrying with it enormous unpredictable consequences.

Mr. Obama seems never to have fathomed that when a president expresses himself in public with multiple audiences in mind, all of them will hear everything that you say; there can be no compartmentalization. So the president, in his interview, is addressing at one and the same time: American voters, AIPAC, Netanyahu and the Iranian leaders. The phrase "I don't bluff" seems directed mainly at the American audiences with his electoral fortunes clearly in mind. This kind of empty verbal gesture is standard stuff on the campaign trail. Few take it literally. By contrast, it is taken seriously in the diplomatic realm. There, such a self-conscious statement reads as: "you have reason to wonder whether I'm bluffing, so I'm telling you that this time I really mean it." Netanyahu surely doesn't believe it if -- however unlikely -- Obama is referring to a possible reining in of the Israelis. Nor does Netanyahu believe those words if he sees them aimed at Tehran since he cannot imagine how a weakling president whom he so easily manipulates can be counted on to be tough with anyone. The Iranian leadership, for their part, certainly see in this remark further sign of kowtowing to Israel. That might indeed scare them -- but Obama's obeisance to Netanyahu doubtless has been recognized as a worrisome truth for quite some while.

"Words cannot harm me" is an American saying. So, too, is "ignorance is bliss." Let's remember, though, international affairs is mainly about words. There, they can and do have profound effects. That is a basic truth that Mr. Obama -- and we -- ignore at our peril. As to studied ignorance about Iranian thinking and the country's psychology, that kind of indulgence already has cost us dearly in the 9/11 decade. The cost will mount astronomically were we to continue to so act on Iran.

In this regard, we have been ill served by both the MSM and the institutionalized foreign policy community which has served as lead bottomed ballast keeping the ship of state on a hazardous course.