The Magazine

The Obama Retreat

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By JAMIE FLY, LEE SMITH and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Last week, we wrote on this page that given the Obama administration’s lack of leadership on Iran in this “period of consequences,” Congress should step in to fill the void. As our editorial went to press, a bipartisan group of 44 senators began to do just that. In a letter organized by Senators Robert Menendez and Roy Blunt, the group outlined a series of steps Iran would have needed to take at the June 18-19 Moscow talks to justify further negotiations. These included shutting its previously covert enrichment facility near Qom, freezing enrichment above 5 percent, and shipping its stockpile of uranium enriched above that point out of the country.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Newscom

The letter noted, “Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it advances toward nuclear weapons capability.” And the senators called on the president to “reevaluate the utility of further talks at this time and instead focus on significantly increasing the pressure on the Iranian government through sanctions and making clear that a credible military option exists.”

With the subsequent failure of the Moscow talks, President Obama should heed this sensible advice from nearly half the Senate. At this point, the futility of further talks is pretty clear to any honest observer. The United States and our allies have made proposal after proposal, imposed sanction upon sanction, and even apparently deployed covert tools which we learn about on an almost daily basis as administration officials desperate to burnish the president’s image leak sensitive national security information. Despite all of this, the centrifuges continue to spin, the stockpile of enriched uranium grows, and Iran gets closer and closer to a nuclear weapons capability.

As “technical experts” meet in the coming weeks, and the Obama administration clings to a “process” that is going nowhere, Iran will undoubtedly use the intervening period to create additional facts on the ground, install more centrifuges, enrich more uranium, and continue to wreak havoc in Syria and plot attacks against U.S. interests and those of our allies. Iran’s strategic calculus remains unaffected.

Stephen Rademaker, one of the witnesses at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on June 20, testified that Iran has not been “sufficiently persuaded that military force really is in prospect should they fail to come to an acceptable agreement to the problem.”

The key to changing that is a serious debate about the military option. But even in the wake of the collapse of the talks, far too many otherwise serious people continue to hold out hope for a negotiated settlement brought about by increased economic pressure. All additional sanctions should be explored and enacted as soon as possible, but what the track record of more than a decade of negotiations with Iran tells us is that this is not a country about to concede. This is not a regime on the ropes or on the cusp of compromise, as many would have us believe.

This is a regime committed to developing nuclear weapons, despite the cost to the Iranian economy and the toll on the Iranian people. Time is running out and the consequences of inaction for the United States, Israel, and the free world will only increase in the weeks and months ahead. It’s time for Congress to seriously explore an Authorization of Military Force to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

Jamie Fly & William Kristol


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In Moscow last week for the third round of talks with Iran over its nuclear weapons program this year, the Obama administration came up empty​—​again. So the White House, with nothing to show for investing in talks with Tehran, now has nothing left to say. The negotiations​—​aside from a scheduled round of meaningless low-level “technical discussions”​—​are over.

 

Perhaps the only surprise is that Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili offered the administration no concessions, no fig leaf, nothing that the White House might be able to package as a breakthrough, or even a building block. But then again, why should the Iranians give Obama anything when he has already given them gratis what they most sought​—​more time?

So what’s next? Already there is bipartisan consternation on the Hill, where there is movement for yet more sanctions in addition to those that kick in this week targeting Iran’s energy and banking sectors. But sanctions aren’t going to stop the Iranians. The conventional wisdom has it that all eyes are now on Israel, to see if or when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attack Iran. Obama has promised that he has Israel’s back, that all options are on the table, and that he doesn’t bluff. But the real question is why the responsibility to act is seen to be Israel’s. Why has Obama made Israel the focus when the United States has its own considerable stake in the outcome? And that stake isn’t just preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, important as that is. It’s also preserving American hegemony in the Persian Gulf.

For more than 60 years the Persian Gulf has been an American lake, and protecting its vast energy resources has been a cornerstone of U.S. strategy, through the Cold War, two wars in Iraq, and another in Afghanistan. If the Iranians are now fearless in dealing with the Obama administration, it’s because they have recognized that Obama is shockingly unconcerned with maintaining America’s longstanding commitments in the Gulf.

Let’s look at Obama’s Middle East policy the way Tehran must. Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and has scheduled a similar exit from Afghanistan, exposing the region to Iranian influence that the United States will have little ability to check. Instead the administration has left U.S. interests in the hands of largely incapable allies. The Obama administration did sell $30 billion worth of F-15s to Saudi Arabia—as if hoping that with enough hardware Riyadh would be capable of defending itself.

But consider how the White House has treated its regional partners when the going gets tough. During the course of the Arab Spring, Obama turned his back on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, angering the rulers of Saudi Arabia, America’s key Gulf allies because they happen to sit on the world’s largest known reserves of oil. At the time that might have been defensible. However, now it simply looks incoherent. When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has plagued the Saudis for years, was targeted by a popular uprising, Obama did nothing to topple Iran’s lone Arab ally. Instead, he backed a Russian-inspired diplomatic process that has served only to buy Assad time​—​just as three rounds of nuclear talks have helped protect Iran from an Israeli strike. So the net effect of Obama’s Middle East strategy has been to protect Tehran’s regional security interests​—​Syria, Hezbollah, and the bomb.

Sure, U.S. sanctions hurt the Iranian economy, but not the nuclear program. And the strictest sanctions were imposed only because Congress gave the White House no choice. Every signal that Obama has sent suggests the president believes the United States no longer has vital interests in the Gulf. This marks a profound reversal of American strategy. The Obama Doctrine amounts to a repudiation of the Carter Doctrine, which declared control of the Persian Gulf and its energy resources to be a vital U.S. interest.

The free flow of Gulf oil has been central to the stability of the world economy. But it wasn’t until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that American policymakers spelled out just how far they were willing to go. As Carter explained in his 1980 State of the Union address: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Ronald Reagan’s corollary, pursued by succeeding administrations, was that Washington would use force to protect Gulf security from internal threats as well as external ones. The George H. W. Bush administration expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait before he could make a run at Saudi Arabia. Clinton maintained no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq and added a 1998 bombing campaign to further contain Saddam.

Perhaps most significantly, the George W. Bush White House recognized in the wake of 9/11 that Saudi Arabia itself, or segments of it, could not be relied on to uphold the stability of global energy markets. The American troops whose presence in Saudi Arabia had served as one of Osama bin Laden’s rallying cries were withdrawn, and the White House sought an alternative security pillar in Iraq.

The Gulf’s enormous reserves of oil make it one of the world’s great prizes​—​as has been recognized by those most hostile to the United States, from the Nazis and the Soviets, to Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. What has compounded the danger for Washington is that the political order of the Gulf is inherently unstable, as has been abundantly clear ever since the collapse of the shah’s regime, which had once been an American security pillar in the Gulf, in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

That responsibility to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout may have now fallen to Netanyahu is not an indication that Israel’s sphere of influence has expanded but rather that under the Obama administration America’s has contracted. It’s a startlingly narrow focus for an American president after more than 60 years of American hegemony in the Persian Gulf. If, as we believe, control of the region remains a vital U.S. interest, the United States must be prepared to defend it. The Obama Doctrine seems to suggest it is not and we won’t.

 

​—​Lee Smith

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