Shadow Government

It's showtime for Obama on Iran

By Peter Feaver

The announcement that Iran has been hiding a second uranium enrichment facility from the IAEA may seem like a "gambling in the casino" moment. But it is, I would argue, more important than that: it is a clarifying moment in which we will discern President Obama's true mettle. We will discern that in three ways.

First, look to see if the President and his team express any surprise in any way more profound than the gendarme's shock at finding gambling in the casino. No serious observer of the Iran file should be surprised that Iran has been withholding information, and no savvy diplomat should be surprised that this information is coming out now, just on the cusp of the long-awaited direct talks. Of course, the Obama team has known for a long time about this secret enrichment facility so they are not surprised or shocked by that fact.

But the more interesting test is whether they are rattled by the way this information interacts with the debate over the wisdom of having negotiations. The pros on the Obama team know this and shouldn't be surprised -- won't be surprised, I'd wager. But many critics of Obama's Iran policy have detected more naiveté than I have detected. If Obama really was approaching the negotiations suffused with hope that the nuclear issue has been all one big misunderstanding that can be cleared up by a little pixie-dust "smart power," then they will be rattled by this news. For my part, I don't think that is the case, and so I expect they have gamed out this contingency and have thought it through.

Second, look to see whether the Obama team treats negotiations as the end or as the means to an end. This has been the debate all along. Some in the debate treat negotiations as the end and are determined to knock down any hindrances that would prevent the negotiations from taking place -- whether those hindrances are pre-conditions Bush established, or diplomatic niceties about dining with Holocaust-deniers, or something more serious like the difficulty of imposing tough sanctions to establish the necessary leverage to give diplomacy a chance to succeed. Others, and I was in this camp when we had this debate in 2006, view negotiations as a plausible means to an end and so worth doing, but only if we had first established the necessary leverage. That leverage could come either with the reasonable precondition that Iran suspend its enrichment activities while diplomacy took place or with the imposition of severe economic/financial sanctions on the Iranian regime so that it would have an incentive to negotiate in good faith: the incentive would be the carrot of having the sanctions lifted.

If you see negotiations as an end, then you will see the Iranian announcement as one more hindrance that must be overcome -- in this case, denounced but otherwise ignored. If you see negotiations as a means to an end, then you will see the Iranian announcement as an opportunity: an opportunity to impose the severe sanctions before you begin negotiations so the negotiations have a chance to succeed. If Obama is in the first camp, he will issue the usual talking points about dismay and vague threats about sanctions in the distant future. If Obama is in the second camp, he will direct his diplomatic team to begin immediate work on the imposition of sanctions and will consider delaying (not abandoning) the direct talks with the Iranian regime until those sanctions have been imposed.

Which brings us to the third thing to look for: look at how well the Obama team manages the international coalition of "in-laws" (what used to be called "allies") and key players like Russia and China. Of late, the rhetoric on Iran has been harsher from Paris and London than from Washington, D.C. There might finally be some backbone in Europe for tougher action on Iran. And, of course, Obama did get Russia to make a rhetorical concession on sanctions once he gave up the missile shield in Poland. It is show-time for President Obama's 9 month stimulus package accumulating soft power assets

Now is when we will see whether President Obama and his team can persuade the international community to do things that President Bush never quite could get them to do: impose severe sanctions on Iran as a way to empowering the diplomatic track. Look also to how President Obama manages Israel. Those who were gleeful at the way President Obama slapped the Israelis around over the settlement freeze, and dismayed at the way he has walked back from that tough line, have never quite explained how they would manage Israeli concerns over Iran (beyond, of course, shooting down Israeli planes if need be). Well, a more serious explanation is needed now and will, I believe, be a top priority for the Obama team in the coming days.

We will get clarity on the President's mettle very soon, and that clarity may go a long way to establishing the Obama brand in national security.

Shadow Government

What would Obama do? (A thought experiment on Afghanistan)

By Christian Brose

Let's say you're President Obama. You campaigned for an increased U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, but you hadn't really kicked the tires on that problem. And when you did, upon taking office, you felt a serious twinge of buyer's remorse. Meanwhile, your commanders were clamoring for more forces, and before having a chance to conduct a proper policy review, you agreed to deploy 17,000 more troops. And then they came back and asked for more, so you agreed again to deploy 4,000 trainers and enablers. This did not make your left-wing base happy at all.

Once you finally got around to conducting that policy review, your commanders were more or less unanimous in their call for a fully-resourced counterinsurgency strategy. Many others agreed. And ultimately, you did too. So you rolled out new goals and a new strategy that played to your domestic audience as a significant escalation of the war, which it was. This made your base even angrier. But you pressed on. You changed your entire military leadership in Kabul, bringing in a team that most everyone agreed was the ideal choice to execute the counterinsurgency campaign you were now calling for.

Then came summer. Your left-wing base grew more and more frustrated with you for what seemed to them like your unwillingness to fight for greater government intervention in the health care system (especially a public option), your perceived capitulation to the likes of Glenn Beck, and not least, the growing concern that you were getting America deeper into an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. After all, your base asked, weren't you the antiwar candidate? They didn't carry you to victory to get us out of one war only to immerse us in another. Public support for the fight in Afghanistan began to crater, especially among liberal Democrats. And this was before the whole corrupt business of the Afghan election, which only hardened the views of your base that you were becoming Lyndon Johnson.

So now, the general you chose has produced the assessment you asked for and devised a strategy to achieve the policy goals you set for him, and the kicker: He is likely to ask for even more troops and resources, possibly a whole lot more -- to say nothing of a real commitment from you to take this issue before the American people, to make the case for it and spend your precious and fleeting political capital on it, to buy the time needed at home for your forces in the field to begin showing real signs of progress. After going through all of this, are you really going to reverse course now, pull the plug on this thing, and open yourself up to charges that you are ignoring the advice of your commanders and endangering America?

Let's assume you're not. And because this is a thought experiment, let's say that you realize that the right course of action is to get General McChrystal what he says he needs to be successful. How would you go about rolling that out to a skeptical, war-weary public and a left-wing base that is already disenchanted with you -- a base that will go full postal if you send 10, or 20, or even 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan?

Would you take a good deal of time responding to McChrystal's assessment and even order your commander to hold off on sending his request for more troops and resources so you can seriously mull over the assessment, or at least give the appearance of mulling, as opposed to blithely signing off on whatever the military asks for? Yes.

Would you go on as many Sunday shows as possible to remind the American people that you want to make absolutely sure that we have the right strategy in Afghanistan, that we are there to defeat the people who carried out the attacks of September 11, that you have no interest in being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan, and that you won't send any additional troops into harms way until you are confident that the loss of their lives would not be in vein? Yes.

Would you let it be known, both by saying so yourself and by leaks from others, that you and your national security team are going back to the drawing board and doing a hard scrub of your war policy, making sure that it's absolutely right, sending hard questions back to your commanders, making rigorous demands of the local allies on whose behalf we'll be fighting, and signaling that you have left no stone unturned? Yes.

In short, would you do everything possible to demonstrate to your base that you are not repeating the same mistakes you alleged of the last guy --rushing to war and committing thousands of lives and billions of dollars without an airtight and fully scrubbed plan to succeed? Again, yes.

And then, having demonstrated that you've weighed every option, explored every alternative, listened to every side, done all of this a second time, and nonetheless come to the conclusion that your commanders are right -- that your strategy needs more troops and resources to succeed -- having done all this, will it be any likelier that the country, let alone your antiwar base, will support your decision? Maybe.

It's worth entertaining the possibility that Obama is doing what's necessary to align his domestic politics before going through with an unpopular escalation. But, then, it's far from clear that the present signs of shifting goalposts and reluctant, delayed decision-making should not be taken at face value, as the preparations to scrap the new strategy that Obama correctly laid out in March before it even has a chance to work.