- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

During his March 11 news conference at the White House, President Obama declared, “When it comes to U.S. military actions, you know, I don’t take these decisions lightly.”

It is true that news conferences have long been a tool of perception management in the hands of their holders, and this one was no different.

To his supporters, who began suspecting that Mr. Obama’s foreign policies are not much different from those of his predecessor, George W. Bush, the president was saying that any association with his predecessor was gratuitous - his decisions are not taken lightly. He also implied that because his decisions on military action are not taken casually, the final outcome is superior. This way, he justifies his judgment a priori. Unlike previous military decisions, those made by the Obama administration are guaranteed to serve the U.S. national interest as well as the men and women who will have to carry them out. Finally, he cunningly interjected “you know,” as if these claims are indeed facts that have long been recognized universally.

Yet, if the Obama administration’s decision-making were indeed of higher quality, the administration would have studied the potential impact of its Libyan intervention on Iran. Ostensibly, Iran’s leaders should be alarmed by the action against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. After all, a mighty international coalition has been gathered and has intervened forcefully in a conflict of a purely domestic nature in Libya. Thus, the argument goes, Tehran may conclude its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the face of repeated international censures could be a risky affair indeed. In short, Mr. Obama’s strategy has enhanced Western deterrence generally and vis-a-vis Iran, specifically.

However, on closer examination, Iranian leaders are likely to draw comfort from Mr. Obama’s modus operandi. First, it is clear that the Obama administration will not act militarily unless there is an international sanction behind it - preferably a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. Moreover, any attack on a target inside a Muslim country also will need the endorsement of some Arab and/or Islamic body. Preferably, the U.S. role in any military action will be “supportive” rather than central. Finally, any military action will have to be short-lived and involve minimum cost in American lives, not to mention civilian casualties in the target country.

None of these conditions is likely to exist when it comes to Iran. Therefore, the likelihood that the Obama administration will pre-empt the Iranian nuclear program militarily is nil.

Nor were Mr. Obama’s statements at the news conference particularly helpful to the U.S. deterrence posture in general. In today’s environment, in which the efficacy of deterrence is put to the test repeatedly, the questions should be asked: Is it beneficial for a president to speak as if U.S. military action is an option of last resort, an anathema he is most reluctant to contemplate? Is it advisable for the leader of the United States to insist on portraying himself as measured and deliberate? The need to be seen as coolheaded was a cardinal requirement when the U.S.-Soviet nuclear rivalry was the central feature of the global strategic balance. Each side was seeking to signal to its opponent that it was rational, in control and unlikely to take any hasty action that might trigger a nuclear holocaust.

But today, when the superpower rivalry has waned and instead the U.S. is grappling with mounting concerns over suicidal mega-terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of fanatical and unstable regimes, the perception of the United States as a sensible, calm and collected power might not be the one the American commander in chief might want to push.

After all, it was the “rash” actions of his predecessor - especially the invasion of Iraq under the banner of disarming a dangerous dictator of his WMD - that persuaded Col. Gadhafi to give up his chemical arsenal and nuclear-weapons program. Otherwise, if today the Libyan leader felt his days were numbered, he surely would have used his forsaken chemical weapons to attack his fellow countrymen and likely put Mr. Obama’s coalition-warfare model to ridicule.

Sadly, Mr. Obama has confirmed that he may be a grown-up when it comes to playing politics, but his strategic grasp is certainly in its infancy.

Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of “The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence” (Yale University Press, 1999).

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