The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama’s foreign policy stall game isn’t working

President Obama’s foreign policy of half-measures, appeasement of foes and retrenchment depends on his ability to get out of office before devastating crises erupt. His overriding preference, if not his goal, is to leave to his successor the messy job of confronting dangers that he would not. Unlike President George W. Bush, who vowed to leave a stable Iraq to his successor (and on the domestic front, a car industry still alive), Obama is content to leave a chaotic and dangerous world to the next president.

Someone else can deal with the “eradicating” part of his promise to “degrade” and “eradicate” the Islamic State. Someone else can deal with a nuclear threshold state in Iran. Obama conducts holding actions, enough to quell demands for effective action and prevent immediate catastrophes, but knotty problems and serious threats will not be addressed, let alone resolved, on his watch. He won’t be the one to devote necessary forces to defeating the Islamic State, to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or to strike Iran if it does not capitulate. Nor will he be moved — if can possibly avoid it — to enact any real price for Russia’s occupation of Ukraine or even to rebuild armed forces.

Aside from the lack of courage and responsibility, the kick-the-can-down-the-road foreign policy is not working. The world won’t cooperate. Instead, things seem to be going off the rails right now. Obama can’t delay the inevitable disasters long enough to run out the clock on his time as commander on chief.

Most painfully, we see the Islamic State is not going to stop beheading Americans. No one told the barbaric jihadists to lay low for the next two years. Obama’s half-baked war strategy is barely holding critics at bay, but if more Americans are barbarically murdered — or God forbid an American jihadist returns to carry out a plot in the homeland — how will he avoid ordering a significant number of boots on the ground? He deems the latest gruesome murder to be “an act of pure evil,” but apparently not evil enough to warrant a sufficient contingent of ground forces. Americans can see that, yes, it will take years to defeat the Islamic State at the rate we are going, but that the president could take more expeditious action. He simply chooses not to.

Likewise, his attempt at detente with the world’s largest state sponsor of terror is faltering. His chances of reaching a phony deal with Tehran that, like the North Korea deal, allows the rogue state quietly to go nuclear is diminishing. It seems Obama has been too feckless to compel the Iranians to give up anything, no matter how trivial, so that he can wave a nuclear agreement and declare victory. While the mullahs won’t give him even a lopsided deal slanted in their favor, Congress won’t let him give away the store.

Iran is dug in, so the president in desperation writes a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But alas, there is little sign that the regime is budging. The New York Times reports, “Mr. Obama’s top national security advisers put the chance of reaching an agreement this month at 40 to 50 percent.” Worse yet for the stall game, the Saudis are taking action to deter a lowest-common-denominator deal. (“No one has been more outspoken on the issue than Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal, who in recent weeks has warned that the Saudis will build uranium enrichment facilities to match whatever Iran is allowed to retain — even if the kingdom has no use for them. That has raised the specter of an arms race, even if a deal is struck.”)

Israel will not abide by a deal that fails to remove the Iranian nuclear threat and openly derides the notion that the United States can cuddle up to the Iranians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday explained:

Iran is not your ally. Iran is not your friend. Iran is your enemy. It’s not your partner. Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel just as the P5+1, the United States and the world powers are negotiating with Iran on nuclear agreement. The Ayatollah Khamenei, the ruler of Iran, calls for the annihilation of Israel. He just did that four days ago. He specified nine ways and reasons by which Israel should be destroyed. He has participated in rallies and chants of death to America, death to Israel. This is not a friend. Neither in the battle against ISIS nor in the effort, the great effort that should be made to deprive them the capacity to make nuclear weapons. Don’t fall for Iran’s ruse. They are not your friend. . . .
I want to be clear what has to be achieved. It’s not merely preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons today, it’s to prevent them, Bob, from having nuclear weapons tomorrow. That means that Iran should not be left with the residual capacity to enrich uranium that you need for an atomic bomb nor to have the long-range ballistic missiles, the ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles to launch them. Why has Khamenei developed? Why have they developed ballistic missiles? They don’t need them to reach Israel, they need them to reach the United States. Now they’re asking for the capacity to make in very short order the nuclear bombs to put on those missiles that can reach the United States. They should be deprived from having that capacity to make those weapons. And I think that’s what’s on the table. I think it’s important to continue the sanctions. The alternative to a bad deal is not war. The alternative to a bad deal are more sanctions, tougher sanctions that will make Iran dismantle its capacity to make nuclear bombs.

And now Congress is insisting that the deal must actually achieve the administration’s own aims, namely preventing a nuclear breakout. As the Times pointed out, the “rebellion” against Obama’s obsession for a deal, no matter how awful, is underway and is now bipartisan. (“Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois issued a statement saying that ‘as co-authors of bipartisan sanctions laws that compelled Iran to the negotiating table, we believe that a good deal will dismantle, not just stall, Iran’s illicit nuclear program and prevent Iran from ever becoming a threshold nuclear state.’ They would enact new sanctions ‘if a potential deal does not achieve these goals.’ “)

No one told Iran, the Saudis, Israel or Congress that the administration’s aim here was to let Obama off the hook and find something to claim as a foreign policy success. Instead, events are conspiring to deprive Obama of an escape hatch.

His foreign policy is so disastrous that it cannot hang together for two more years with the diplomatic equivalent of tape and chewing gum. If Obama imagined that simply providing the appearance of a war against the Islamic State and the appearance of a diplomatic achievement in Iran would suffice to shut his critics up, he badly miscalculated. More likely, he will be faced with a Congress that won’t play along with his Potemkin village foreign policy, enemies who think they can roll over him now with little cost and allies who, if he falters, will act independently. He might actually have to do something about the multiple disasters he has allowed to flourish. He does know they are disasters, right?