President Obama’s claim that he would use military force to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon isn’t backed up by his track record of avoiding such unilateral action in international crises, national security analysts say.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Kenneth Pollack, a National Security Council official during the Clinton administration. “This president believes, not without reason, that he was elected to get America out of wars in the Middle East, not get them into new ones.”
In meetings with Israeli officials last week, Mr. Obama was under pressure to help the Jewish state launch airstrikes against Iranian facilities or not to stand in the way of Israeli action. Mr. Obama asked for more time for sanctions to work, but said he “won’t hesitate” to use force if necessary.
Mr. Pollack, who studies developments in the Persian Gulf for the Savant Center at the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Obama’s vow to use any means necessary against Iran would be taking a page from the national security doctrine of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.
“I’m skeptical about this. If he follows through with that statement on Iran, that he’s not bluffing and he’s willing to use force, it’s not the Obama doctrine, it’s the Bush doctrine,” Mr. Pollack said.
Critics say Mr. Obama’s defiant stance was undercut the same week by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the administration could initiate a no-fly zone over Syria without congressional approval, but it would seek “international permission” for such an action.
“Our goal would be to seek international permission … whether or not we would want to get permission from the Congress,” Mr. Panetta testified. Pressed by Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, about the administration’s “legal basis” for such action, Mr. Panetta said NATO could provide it.
In an interview, Mr. Sessions said Mr. Panetta’s testimony was “troubling” because it again showed the administration’s “mindset” to ignore Congress’ responsibility for authorizing the use of force. Lawmakers unsuccessfully challenged Mr. Obama’s decision in March 2011 to join NATO airstrikes against Libya without seeking congressional approval.
“This president’s thinking is far too internationalist,” Mr. Sessions said. “It’s part of the movement of the left that the way to end war is to turn decision-making over to institutions like the U.N. The gist of that conversation I had with Panetta was, that just like Libya, we’re seeking international permission, we’re seeking a legal basis abroad, and we will tell you what we intend to do and we may or may not bother to ask Congress for its input.”
Obama administration officials have said repeatedly he does not have a “doctrine” for when to use military force. In the case of Iran, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Mr. Obama’s path will not be influenced by Republican presidential candidates “beating the drums of war.”
“There is a great deal of discussion about approaches to Iran as part of the political debate in the United States, but if you look at what is actually being proposed, the president is doing all of those things and leading the effort for three years,” Mr. Carney said. “And all that remains, the implication is, is the launching of a war.”
In the year-long bloody revolt against the Assad regime in Syria, Mr. Obama has resisted calls to take military action. With Iran, the president is urging more diplomatic efforts to compel Tehran to allow thorough nuclear inspections by an international team.
Obama administration officials say the tactic is working, pointing to signals from Iran last week that it is willing to take part in new talks about its nuclear program. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised Mr. Obama’s comments as a “window of opportunity” for diplomacy.
But some analysts say there’s a danger that prolonged negotiations would simply give the Iranians more time to complete their nuclear ambitions.
“Diplomacy in Iran can’t work because you can’t negotiate with a regime whose only interest is in becoming a nuclear power,” said James Carafano, a national security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. If “your only interest is in negotiating with them not to become a nuclear power, that is a negotiation that’s going to fail.”
Mr. Pollack, a former CIA analyst, believes a bigger tip-off for the Iranians about the Obama administration’s thinking lies in the administration’s failure to respond to an Iranian plot last October to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in Washington.
The Iranians “know that … if they’d actually done it, we would regard it as crossing a red line. And yet we’ve done nothing about it, absolutely nothing,” Mr. Pollack said. “I just worry and wonder whether they aren’t looking at it and saying, ‘This is a clear sign that the Americans are so gun-shy, so afraid of taking us on, that we can afford to be a lot more aggressive.’ “