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Time for Obama to Act Like a President

President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown make a statement on Iran Friday at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.
President Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown make a statement on Iran Friday at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sooner or later it is going to occur to Barack Obama that he is the president of the United States. As of yet, though, he does not act that way, appearing promiscuously on television and granting interviews like the presidential candidate he no longer is. The election has been held, but the campaign goes on and on. The candidate has yet to become commander in chief.

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Take last week's Group of 20 meeting in Pittsburgh. There, the candidate-in-full commandeered the television networks and the leaders of Britain and France to give the Iranians a dramatic warning. Yet another of their secret nuclear facilities had been revealed and Obama, as anyone could see, was determined to do something about it -- just don't ask what.

The entire episode had a faux Cuban missile crisis quality to it. Something menacing had been discovered -- not Soviet missiles a mere 100 miles or so off Florida but an Iranian nuclear installation about 100 miles from Tehran. As befitting the occasion, various publications supplied us with nearly minute-by-minute descriptions of the crisis atmosphere earlier in the week at the U.N. session -- the rushing from room to room, presidential aides conferring, undoubtedly aware that they were in the middle of a book they had yet to write. I scanned the accounts looking for familiar names. Where was McNamara? Where was Bundy? Where, in fact, was the crisis?

In fact, there was none. The supposedly secret installation had been known to Western intelligence agencies -- Britain, France, the United States and undoubtedly Israel -- for several years. Its existence had been deduced by intelligence analysts from Iranian purchases abroad, and it was pinpointed sometime afterward. What had changed was that news of it had gone public. This happened not because Obama announced it but because the Iranians beat him to it after discovering that their cover was blown. They then turned themselves in to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and, as usual, said the site was intended for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. These Persians lie like a rug.

No one should believe Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran seems intent on developing a nuclear weapons program and the missiles capable of delivering them. This -- not the public revelations of a known installation -- is the real crisis, possibly one that can only end in war. It is entirely possible that Israel, faced with that chilling cliche -- an existential threat -- will bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. What would happen next is anyone's guess -- retaliation by Hamas and Hezbollah, an unprecedented spike in oil prices and then, after a few years or less, a resumption of Iran's nuclear program. Only the United States has the capability to obliterate Tehran's underground facilities. Washington may have to act.

For a crisis such as this, the immense prestige of the American presidency ought to be held in reserve. Let the secretary of state issue grave warnings. When Obama said in Pittsburgh that Iran is "going to have to come clean and they are going to have to make a choice," it had the sound of an ultimatum. But what if the Iranians don't? What then? A president has to be careful with such language. He better mean what he says.

The trouble with Obama is that he gets into the moment and means what he says for that moment only. He meant what he said when he called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" -- and now is not necessarily so sure. He meant what he said about the public option in his health-care plan -- and then again maybe not. He would not prosecute CIA agents for getting rough with detainees -- and then again maybe he would.

Most tellingly, he gave Congress an August deadline for passage of health-care legislation -- "Now, if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town . . . " -- and then let it pass. It seemed not to occur to Obama that a deadline comes with a consequence -- meet it or else.

Obama lost credibility with his deadline-that-never-was, and now he threatens to lose some more with his posturing toward Iran. He has gotten into a demeaning dialogue with Ahmadinejad, an accomplished liar. (The next day, the Iranian used a news conference to counter Obama and, days later, Iran tested some intermediate-range missiles.) Obama is our version of a Supreme Leader, not given to making idle threats, setting idle deadlines, reversing course on momentous issues, creating a TV crisis where none existed or, unbelievably, pitching Chicago for the 2016 Olympics. Obama's the president. Time he understood that.

cohenr@washpost.com


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