President Obama has repeatedly promised to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb. If there is no other choice, he says, he will resort to force. In a March 2012 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the president famously rejected the alternative policy, namely, allowing Iran to go nuclear and then trying to contain it. He emphasized the point dramatically: “[A]s president of the United States,” he said, “I don’t bluff.”
Really? Suppose this statement was just a show of toughness, timed to keep supporters of Israel on his side during the 2012 campaign season. Suppose that, when it came to Iran, in his heart of hearts, the president actually preferred a strategy of containment to a strategy of prevention. Suppose that was actually his policy aim from the outset—but, for obvious reasons, he couldn’t say so. How would he proceed?
He would proceed exactly as he has been proceeding—trumpeting his intention to roll back the Iranian nuclear program while actually avoiding confrontation at all costs.
To gain a sense of the president’s methods, consider first the saga of Syria’s use of chemical weapons that developed in 2013. Each time the situation called for a tough response, Obama telegraphed a punch—his famous “red line”—but then never actually delivered the blow.
The White House first realized that Bashar al-Assad had employed chemical weapons in the spring of last year. Its immediate reaction, however, was anything but a rush to enforce the president’s announced red line. On the contrary, it stalled for time. When the political pressure to respond became unbearable, the White House announced, in June, an intention to increase aid to the Syrian opposition. The president, it now seemed clear, was going to force Assad to pay a price for his barbarity. But the announcement soon revealed itself as a ploy to buy still further time, the diplomatic equivalent of “the check is in the mail.” The aid never arrived.
Then came the August 21, 2013 chemical attack that killed around 1,500 Syrian civilians. This time, the administration reacted quickly. Within days it appeared absolutely determined to punish Assad. Any doubts about its resolve were dispelled on August 30, when Secretary of State John Kerry stood before the television cameras and delivered a Churchillian speech justifying immediate missile strikes against the regime. But then, instead of ordering military action, the president decided to seek congressional authorization for the use of force, knowing full well that such a bill had little chance of passing. In short, he punted.