Influencing Iran and Obama

If you thought the president’s lack of seriousness about our fiscal crisis and entitlement reform (my colleague Michael Gerson explains just how unserious he is) was worrisome, you should brace yourself for what is going on with national security, specifically Iran.

Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama last March (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

I’ve previously explained that the Obama administration is playing a dangerous game of lowering its demands, trying to lure the Iranian regime into some sort of deal on its nuclear weapons program. This is a recipe for either a phony deal that really doesn’t halt Iran’s program or no deal at all as the mullahs push for more and more concessions. (The Post editorial board similarly concludes: “That raises the possibility that the regime will simply pocket the easier terms and return to its stonewalling, with the expectation that another crumbling of the coalition position will ensue.”) Frankly, considering that one of the architects of the failed North Korean policy (built on North Korea’s unenforceable and unverifiable commitments and characterized by wholesale cheating) is heading up the U.S. delegation, this is entirely predictable.

Is it possible to restrain the administration and force it to live up to its own declaration that the United States will not permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability? It is very hard to constrain the executive branch in matters of diplomacy, and several factors make it doubly difficult to influence this administration.

Former Obama administration official Rosa Brooks quotes one of her former colleagues in describing the administration. “Nepotistic hiring leads to ‘increasingly poor performance, groupthink, lack of knowledge and expertise, and the most pernicious of all government diseases, which is telling the boss what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear. The agencies are becoming demoralized.’” What Brooks doesn’t say is that this is by design. There are few independent actors with real authority in the administration. Decision-making on anything significant resides with the president who surrounds himself with people only willing to reinforce his preexisting beliefs. Therefore, it is especially difficult to inject urgency and/or alter the administration’s course. There is no one worth influencing other than the president, and he is largely immovable.

In addition, this administration is rarely influenced by outside criticism. To the contrary, dissent is viewed as disloyalty, as we saw only too clearly in the sequestration battle. Former White House adviser Pete Wehner explains while examining National Journal’s Ron Fournier’s experience with White House bullying, “Mr. Fournier’s experience is, I think, a good barometer of the cast of mind of the Obamacons. They are a rather thuggish, thin-skinned group who tend to view criticisms as a declaration of war. Many of them seem to view their opponents as enemies. . . . [Obama] is himself quite thin-skinned and closed-minded, so it makes perfect sense for his staff to be as well. And while the press coverage they get often ranges from favorable to fawning, it is never good enough for them.”

This perception affects not only the press but also players outside government who are seeking a more robust Iran policy. Multiple times I have heard officials in Jewish organizations say that they can’t criticize the president openly because he has such a thin-skin and therefore their efforts will only backfire. Maybe this is a self-serving explanation for doing nothing, but given how Obama reacts to dissent, it’s a reasonable calculation. Moreover, whether well-grounded or not, the self-censoring also reduces the amount of pushback the president gets.

So what can be done to stop the slow-motion appeasement, increase a sense of urgency and make the threat of military force more believable?

Last August former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams made a suggestion:
Have Congress pass a resolution authorizing use of force by the president against Iran. Although written during the presidential election, most of it is exceptionally relevant today. Abrams wrote:

First, the very presentation of such a resolution by the White House would show a new level of clarity and commitment. This would be likely to affect both Iranian and Israeli calculations far more than statements like “all options are on the table.”

Second, should such a resolution fail, everyone would be clear that the United States was not going to act and that Israel need delay no longer so as to leave it to us.. . .

[And] seeking such a Joint Resolution now would be a useful acknowledgement by the United States that we do not have perfect knowledge of when, as Iran advances toward a bomb, a military strike might be needed—so we will start getting ready now.

Those who believe that a negotiated deal with Iran is still theoretically possible should welcome this congressional expression of intent. The Iranian regime still believes it can get nuclear weapons and is not negotiating in good faith. Only if it is persuaded that it will never get those weapons—that the choice is between a negotiated agreement and an American military strike—is a deal possible.

Now we know from the sequester fight that Obama often doesn’t want power to act because that makes him, well, responsible for acting. Nevertheless, would he publicly reject such authorization? (Understand the resolution would not compel action, just give the president the green light when and if needed.) It would be highly problematic to reject an offer to support what he has said he may have to do. (In any case the president doesn’t get to sign or veto resolutions.)

Congress is already nibbling around the edges on Iran policy. Additional sanctions legislation has been introduced by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). And in the Senate there is a separate resolution from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) co-sponsored by 15 senators, including Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Graham’s office provides a summary:

Declares that the United States has a vital national interest in and unbreakable commitment to, ensuring the existence, survival, and security of the State of Israel.

Reaffirms the United States support for Israel’s right to self-defense.

Urges that if Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States will stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.

That is welcome, but it may create the impression the Senate is off-loading military action on Israel. An addition to that resolution also authorizing the president to use force would cure that. In other words, if the president determines we should act he’s got the green light; if Israel does, we’ve got the Jewish State’s back.

As a purely political matter this sort of resolution would get a number of Chuck Hagel Democrats out of the dog house with the pro-Israel community. But aside from domestic political concerns, it would get the Iranians’ attention.

The president will go to Israel in a couple weeks. He should give an unequivocal statement of willingness to use force when needed. And meanwhile Congress can make such a threat meaningful by authorizing force when and if the president needs it.

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