Talk of air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities is rife. Washington atmospherics suggest that the dogs of war soon will be unleashed. So, too, does the ominous background music. A series of reports speak darkly of this weapons program or that; the tentative agreement on the disposition of low enriched uranium has crumbled; the Israelis bluster; the airways and op ed pages brim with Cassandra warnings that the only answer to the intolerable prospect of a nuclear capable Islamic Republic is a massive assault to obliterate everything that could contribute to its supposed weapons project -- that is, everything we know about. Then, there is the country's descent into a bloody and inquisitional autocracy.
These telltales of military action notwithstanding, there are reasons for skepticism that Barack Obama will pull the trigger. They are rooted in his political character. Its two most prominent traits are an absence of conviction and a lack of policy/political courage. The past year has provided abundant evidence to confirm this contention. Together, they militate strongly against high risk behavior. What line of reasoning leads to this judgment?
Let us look first at the facilitating factors. One is the high ambiguity as to current realities and future dangers. Iran's progress toward acquiring the capability to build a nuclear weapon is obscure. There are serious technical gaps, challenging thresholds to cross and no signs of urgency on Tehran's part. That allows for the period of decision to be stretched out -- if there is motive to do so. Second, any threat to the United States' forces and core interests in the region is not only well into the future but purely conjectural. This is unlike the immediate direct threat to Americans -- if not the country's core interests -- posed by terrorists. Third, Obama's public remarks about Iran have pointed in all directions: an invitation to talks; cries of havoc; a diplomatic campaign to mobilize backing for stricter sanctions. Finally, there is the mounting political turmoil inside Iran that adds an element of uncertainty as to who is in charge, who will be in charge and how military action could affect internal dynamics -- including the prospects for regime change.
These circumstances allow Obama to temporize, in a number of respects. One, he approaches big policy choices with an adaptive mind unburdened by pronounced beliefs. On foreign policy, he operates without a finely etched cognitive map. There is no overarching strategy or underlying philosophy. He navigates with few or any fixed reference points. Images of him as a strong willed person with dedicated purpose are belied by his conduct on every matter of consequence -- domestic as well as international.
As I have argued on another occasion, it is erroneous and unavailing to seek understanding of the taproots for Obama's foreign policy in his Oslo or West Point speeches. What he decided to do in AfPak, in Palestine, in Somalia, on extraordinary rendition and open-ended detention did not arise from some well defined conception of the world -- much less a 'doctrine.' It will be no different when he makes his fateful decision about Iran. We should look instead at the interplay of pressures -- whether originating out there or, equally important, among some of his strong willed advisers. That interplay will take place within a presidential mental space that is constantly active but without direction. The style of earnest conviction is a constant; its content is in perpetual flux.
Will not those pressures push his thinking in the direction of war? They admittedly are quite strong. The proponents include David Petraeus and his troop of warrior monks who have held Obama spellbound, the loud right wing chorus, the Israeli lobby, and the anxious Gulf states who seem (almost) ready to resolve their agonized doubts in a spasm of air strikes -- especially since Washington has not presented a serious diplomatic alternative. The first is most significant. For Obama instinctively defers to established power centers and their propriety wisdom. The Pentagon shares this status with the Wall Street barons, the health care industry and the intelligence apparatus. Obama always sounds tough. But his words only have follow through when aimed at those he sees as weak and of low standing, e.g. Karzai, most Pakistani leaders, liberal Democrats.
Yet, despite the Pentagon's exalted standing in White House eyes, the outcome will not accord with their importuning advice. That is not because of any onset of foreign policy wisdom in the White House. The key is Obama's personality. His much noted aversion to confrontation is one element. A deep seated reluctance to do anything that could put his political fortunes beyond his control is another element. He is by nature an undeviating partisan of the path of least resistance. Obama has neither the temperament nor the stomach to be a war president. The presidential commands to shoot at half dozen Somalis in an open boat, to fire cruise missiles into the wilds of northern Yemen or to ramp up drone attacks in Waziristan require little more than Nintendo game bravura. Even the Afghan escalation was treated more as an exercise in intra-mural politics than a grave historic decision. A statesman feeling that his country's fate rests in his hands does not senselessly set dates for exit strategies and map off-ramps before his escalated campaign has even begun. Nor does he allow senior officials to contradict him within days in ways that dissolve his authority in Washington while shredding his credibility among parties in the region parties. Moreover, Obama could commit to Afghanistan in the confidence that whatever happened, the outcome could be spun. Short of an improbable decisive defeat, there would always be opportunity to craft the narrative and to skew the meaning of what happened.
Iran is of a different order. The Iranians are stubborn and willful. Instinctively, Obama may realize that they are more Bibi Netanyahu than Mahmoud Abbas. War there opens a Pandora's box. It would be militarily uncontrollable, diplomatically uncontrollable, and -- above all -- politically uncontrollable. Confidence in the power of spin could reach its limits. Obama's political future itself could spin out of his control. Those disconcerting realities are to be avoided at almost all costs. What of the costs encountered in stymieing his generals? Of offending hawkish sentiment at home and in the Middle East?
There are two things to say on this point. First, the political survival instinct trumps all. Especially so when your convictions about what American security dictates are so ductile. Second, Obama has another security card to play -- his grammatically correct war against terror. Its value has been markedly increased by the underwear bomber incident and ensuing wave of fear. Here is the crucial factor that will serve as Obama's get-out-of-jail pass from the Iranian box he finds himself in. An energetic, high-publicity campaign to safeguard America from the terrifying, hydra-headed al-Qaida can distract the public from the war cries of the air strike hawks. It can burnish his image as a stern leader earnest in protecting his fellow citizens. It is steroids for muscular postures. Results are immeasurable. It avoids a point of no return. Rahm Emanuel will whisper it seductively into a receptive ear. The White House stays in control. It is a natural for this president at this time. Obama will grab for it.