Friday, March 02, 2012

The president who doesn't do sound bytes

Quite a tribute to Jeffrey Goldberg to be singled out by President Obama as honest broker enough to receive the most precise and nuanced briefing on a vital foreign policy issue by a sitting president that I have ever seen or read.

While rapport is evident in this interview, with Obama's respect for Goldberg's ability to consider the interests and perspectives of all players plain, there is also a tension: Goldberg is looking for a couple of sound bytes.  And Obama doesn't do sound bytes. What he does, instead, is lay out guiding principles with precision, while maintaining strategic ambiguity on the crunch points.  Here are the key takeaways as I read them:

No ramping up of war talk.  The buzz is that Netanyahu wants new red lines: "all options are on the table" has been cast as a tired cliche. But it's good enough for Obama:

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say. Let describe very specifically why this is important to us...
Focus off of Israel.  Obama is politically boxed in insofar as he cannot hint at punishment for Israel from the U.S. if Israel unilaterally attacks Iran.  And just as he has to say "all options on the table" endlessly, so must he repeat ad nauseam that America's bond with Israel is indissoluble -- or sacrosanct, as he put it to my dismay last night. But here, he is at pains to emphasize and detail why it is in the vital interests of the U.S. and the world that Iran not obtain nuclear capacity:  
But I want to make clear that when we travel around the world and make presentations about this issue, that's not how we frame it. We frame it as: this is something in the national-security interests of the United States and in the interests of the world community...

If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, "We are going to start a program and we will have nuclear weapons." And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound. You essentially then duplicate the challenges of India and Pakistan fivefold or tenfold.
Cast Netanyahu as a "head of a modern state that is mindful of the profound costs of any military action."  So get off the Amalek schtick, Bibi:
I am certain that the history of the Holocaust and of anti-Semitism and brutality directed against the Jewish people for more than a millennium weighs on him when he thinks about these questions.I think it's important to recognize, though, that the prime minister is also head of a modern state that is mindful of the profound costs of any military action, and in our consultations with the Israeli government, I think they take those costs, and potential unintended consequences, very seriously.
Appeal to Israel's interest in a permanent solution: It's a truism in Israeli discourse -- albeit denied by some -- that a strike against Iran would set Iran's nuclear program back only a few years at best. So:
In that context, our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That's what happened in Libya, that's what happened in South Africa.
No new red lines, but a faint green line for Iran:  in the search for a permanent solution, several layers of nuance regarding what Iran might realistically agree to and how to get them there:
And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel's security (my emphasis).
[added 3/5]:  Note the double qualifier (whatever, potential) to what's traditionally glossed over as a simple concept: breakout capacity.  Is this a DADT for enriched uranium?

Appealing to Iran's rational interests and need to save face: Confronted by Goldberg with competing statements that Iran's leaders are "messianic" crazies or rational actors, Obama threaded the needle -- saying in effect that they defined their interests by an ideology alien to the U.S. but "are sensitive to the opinions of the people" and " able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective." Most crucially, their own stance has left them a negotiable out:
I think the question here is going to be: What exactly are their genuine interests? Now, what we've seen, what we've heard directly from them over the last couple of weeks is that nuclear weapons are sinful and un-Islamic. And those are formal speeches from the supreme leader and their foreign minister.

GOLDBERG: Do you believe their sincerity?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: My point here is not that I believe the sincerity of the statements coming out of the regime. The point is that for them to prove to the international community that their intentions are peaceful and that they are, in fact, not pursuing weapons is not inconsistent with what they've said. So it doesn't require them to knuckle under to us. What it does require is for them to actually show to the world that there is consistency between their actions and their statements. And that's something they should be able to do without losing face.

Man of peace/man of war: In cashing in the bin Laden chip, Obama uses it to strengthen his bona fides as a peace-through-strength-maker:
Look, if people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they're lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me -- I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn't mindful of the costs of war shouldn't be here, because it's serious business. These aren't video games that we're playing here.

Now, having said that, I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks. And obviously, the bin Laden operation is the most dramatic, but al-Qaeda was on its [knees] well before we took out bin Laden because of our activities and my direction.
Kicking the GOP chihuahuas: that was Romney's term for Obama and Hillary in 2008. Now the steel-tipped shoe is on the other foot. And the bid is to swat away the GOP-generated perception that Obama is soft in support for Israel:
there is no good reason to doubt me on these issues.

Some of it has to do with the fact that in this country and in our media, this gets wrapped up with politics. And I don't think that's any secret. And if you have a set of political actors who want to see if they can drive a wedge not between the United States and Israel, but between Barack Obama and a Jewish-American vote that has historically been very supportive of his candidacy, then it's good to try to fan doubts and raise questions.

But when you look at the record, there's no "there" there. And my job is to try to make sure that those political factors are washed away on an issue that is of such great strategic and security importance to our two countries. And so when I'm talking to the prime minister, or my team is talking to the Israeli government, what I want is a hardheaded, clear-eyed assessment of how do we achieve our goals.
No new sound bytes: As noted above, Obama foreclosed (for this moment anyway) on the pressure to draw a new "red line" for Iran.  He also refused to pander to doubts about his commitment to Israel:
GOLDBERG: Wait, in four words, is that your message to the prime minister -- we've got Israel's back?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: That is not just my message to the prime minister, that's been my message to the Israeli people, and to the pro-Israel community in this country, since I came into office. It's hard for me to be clearer than I was in front of the UN General Assembly, when I made a more full-throated defense of Israel and its legitimate security concerns than any president in history. Not, by the way, in front of an audience that was particularly warm to the message. So that actually won't be my message. My message will be much more specific, about how do we solve this problem.
Precision of language: Obama may be the only elected official in the history of the republic to phrase this metaphor accurately:
The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
For me, at intervals, that is true when drinking in his words.

There is no knowing whether Israel will strike Iran, or whether Obama has any real leverage to prevent them. But to the extent that Netanyahu is the rational actor Obama credits him with being, he has a powerful brief  to wrestle with here.

Update/afterthought/caveat: I want to add that personally, I am not entirely convinced either that the world could not live with an Iran that has achieved breakout capacity or that the administration has really exploited all potential for substantive negotiation with Iran. It is hard to separate immovable political constraints on a U.S. president from those of his own making.  I am responding to the quality of Obama's thought and articulation given the frame he has and accepted and in some measure created.

1 comment:

  1. I think that is a very helpful summary of this interview--thanks