It may help to think of North Korea and Iran as part of a single larger problem—dangerous actors are doing dangerous things irrespective of views expressed by Washington. Usually it is a mark of cleverness or sophistication to be able to make careful differentiations between selected objects or events. But sometimes, it is better to aggregate things into larger baskets.
The Obama administration seems to be carefully evaluating its Tehran and Pyongyang conundrums—considering these and other problems to be quite separate affairs. This has forced them into a position of following independent strategies with each. However, viewed collectively, there is an image that the United States is undecided at best on some fundamental points. The largest of all: Will America act to eliminate Iranian nuclear facilities?
Opponents around the world are behaving as though the answer is no. They see the United States withdrawing from Iraq. They see us anxious to get out of Afghanistan. They see the U.S. economy struggling and vulnerable. There is little evidence to suggest that America will do anything other than argue for more sanctions. Consider what answer Iranian leaders would get if, for example, they inquired of the Chinese, “What do you reckon Washington will do in the next couple years?”
Sorting through each differentiable element of the international-security agenda can be instructive, but also paralyzing. Washington has been criticized for not being sufficiently energized over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This may be explained by the fact that in the hierarchy of problems in the White House, if you don’t know what you are going to do about Iran, why get too wrapped up in the peace process? Why go to great lengths to forge some delicate deal if it may collapse after a military strike against Iran? Or not.
An intelligence analyst trying to fathom a difficult opponent bears in mind that the observed behavior and indicators are simply the reaction to how they perceive us. And opponents can have a very confused image of the Washington. The perception of careful reasoned analysis and debate, with phrases like “teaching moments” and “we need to have that conversation” can sound like a lot of dithering or worse to the ears in Tehran, Pyongyang or elsewhere.
In conversations with Saddam after the war, it was clear he had great difficulty understanding or predicting Washington. That accounted for some of his major miscalculations that ultimately cost us, and the world, dearly. On July 25, 1990 Saddam Hussein summoned the U.S. ambassador to discuss the ongoing disagreement with Kuwait. Policy makers in Washington drafted what they thought were strong talking points. Well, strong words by U.S. standards were not strong by Saddam’s standards. When asked after the war what he remembered of that meeting, he said all he recalled was being relieved that the U.S. would not get involved.
Imagine if we had stated clearly that if Iraq moved into Kuwait, America would deploy five hundred thousand troops, one thousand four hundred military aircraft, six carrier battle groups, etc. Saddam would have never gone in and the world would be a much different place today. A senior Iraqi complained to me after the Persian Gulf War that Washington should have warned Baghdad that we would deploy massive force. They could only assume that this was a clever obfuscation trick by the United States, not a failure to communicate the strength of our will in words Saddam would understand.
This president, who is known for his careful, intelligent and reflective nature may pay a price for that image. The previous administration, with its apparent lack of nuance and tough declaratory image of “you’re either with us or against us” did not have credibility problems in communicating consequences to audiences. Indeed, it appears Iran halted or suspended some of its nuclear weapons efforts following the Iraq invasion, and Libya came clean on its programs.
President Obama needs to take some concrete actions or he will find that all the different problems he has carefully separated and analyzed have become a single web that can draw the United States into a mess that will ultimately be far more costly to escape. Iran and North Korea are part of the same problem. Their leaders believe it is in their interest to continue robust nuclear programs and Washington has done nothing that has caused them to recalibrate their calculations.
Indeed, it may be that they implicitly (or even explicitly) coordinate as they inch forward with their nuclear programs in defiance of Washington’s declarations. Worse yet, explicit technical cooperation may now exist given the common efforts to produce enriched uranium with centrifuge cascades.
The Obama administration faces a series of worsening security crises over the remaining years of this term. They will all be affected by decision on Iran. North Korea will view the administration through its own strange lens once it sees where Washington is heading. Less directly, whether Iran is attacked will also affect calculations of those who could topple the tentative success in Iraq as U.S. forces ineluctably withdraw. And the Taliban in Afghanistan will smell weakness and conclude they have only to run out the clock until the U.S. leaves.