Iran and Obama's Threat Calculus

May 9, 2013 Topic: DefenseGrand StrategyNuclear ProliferationSecurity Region: Iran Blog Brand: The Buzz

Iran and Obama's Threat Calculus

At Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt has a good piece in which he examines (and praises) President Obama’s view of the global threat landscape. In Walt’s words, “The bedrock foundation of Obama's foreign policy is his recognition that the United States is very, very secure.” In this assessment, there are few scenarios that threaten American security or interests to a degree that they require an aggressive U.S. response, especially in the form of military action. As a result, “Obama has reacted slowly and in a measured way to most international events. He takes his time, remains calm, and prefers to pass the buck to others whose interests are more directly affected.”

Walt ends with this wish:

I wish he could give one of his trademark speeches explaining this logic to the American people. He probably can’t, alas, because this sort of realism cuts against the rhetoric of “global leadership” that has been part of the Establishment echo-chamber for decades, not to mention the self-conceit of American exceptionalists. So Obama will continue to sound like his predecessors when he talks about America's global role; he just won't do most of the foolish things that most of them would have.

Walt is certainly correct that we are never likely to hear a presidential speech extolling the virtues of “buck-passing” or “leading from behind.” Nor are we likely to hear any president tell us that by any objective standards, the United States remains very secure.

But if this analysis misses anything, it’s that the rhetoric Obama has employed sometimes cuts against the kinds of policies that would naturally follow from Walt’s threat assessment. Consider one example that is not mentioned in this piece: Iran. Walt has previously argued that the potential effects of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons have been vastly exaggerated. The United States should surely continue to try to dissuade Iran from getting the bomb, he tells us, but it’s not worth going to war over it.

Thus far, however, President Obama has taken the opposite tack—at least verbally. His administration has loudly and repeatedly declared that a nuclear Iran represents an unacceptable threat and that it would go to war to prevent such an outcome. Of course, this rhetoric is not by itself inconsistent with the approach Walt outlines. Even if the president did plan to implement a regime of containment and deterrence rather than wage a preventive war, he might now bluff aggressively in order to try and prevent himself from ever having to make this choice in the future.

Yet there’s some reason to think that it’s not just a bluff. In an excellent reported piece in Time in March, Massimo Calabresi revealed that in its first term, the Obama administration conducted an extensive series of debates on the question of “prevention vs. containment.” He wrote that Obama had decided in favor of prevention, persuaded that the possible consequences of Iran’s nuclearization—among them heightened regional tensions and the collapse of the NPT regime—were too great. In effect, the president signed on to the “consensus” view of the threat a nuclear Iran would pose held by elected officials in both parties.

Hopefully, we will not get to the point where Obama faces this choice in real time, in its purest binary form. But if so, it will present perhaps the ultimate test case of whether his actual view of the global threat environment is closer to the one Walt attributes to him, or to the more conventional one he has presented in public statements so far.