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The biggest danger is with Iran. Mr. Obama’s repeated overtures could easily lead Tehran to conclude that the U.S. would never use force to stop its nuclear program. Iran discloses a secret nuclear enrichment site, and the U.S. responds with not only an overture for direct talks but also with a concession on certain types of enrichment. Tehran cracks down on opposition groups after fraudulent presidential elections, and Mr. Obama is slow to condemn — another sign the U.S. wouldn’t respond forcefully to Iran’s transgressions.

Ironically, this approach most likely will encourage Iran to act in more destabilizing ways, possibly until it pushes the administration past its breaking point. In the Iranian hostage crisis, Mr. Carter initially ruled out use of force, but ultimately, he was forced to reverse course. Mr. Carter’s failures were the result of diplomatic confusion born from good intentions.

Mr. Obama’s conciliatory gestures and apparent resistance to the use of force could embolden the Iranian regime to challenge us further. And that could provoke a desperate reaction from the Israelis. Should Tel Aviv feel abandoned by the White House, it may decide its only option is to take matters into its own hands.

Preconceived notions can blur understanding of our opponents’ motivations. The miscalculations allow ideology, rampant in internal political debates, to trump realistic assessments of facts on the ground.

Bottom line? Mr. President, be careful about what you think you know about those folks sitting across the diplomatic table.

Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state for international organizations, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation ( and author of “Liberty’s Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century.”