Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Obama the Bluffer

The president says he’s got Israel’s back regarding Iran. So, why hasn’t the White House readied the American public for a possible military strike?

Lee Smith
March 14, 2012
U.S. President Barack Obama departs the White House March 9, 2012, in Washington, D.C.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama departs the White House March 9, 2012, in Washington, D.C.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The president of the United States says he doesn’t bluff, but there’s nothing wrong with bluffing—especially when it comes to matters of war and peace. War is deception, said the prophet of Islam, and Western strategists agree. It is not raw strength that makes Ulysses a formidable opponent, but his cunning. In more recent times, the D-Day landing at Normandy was greatly facilitated by the Allies’ carefully plotted diversion, which convinced the Nazis that the invasion would be at Calais. For all real strategists, the game, to quote Captain Kirk, is not chess, but poker.

Obama has said that he thinks he’s a pretty good poker player, but to announce that you don’t bluff is about the most inept move conceivable. An experienced player would just keep his mouth shut.

No matter what the Obama Administration says about keeping all options on the table when it comes to Iran, it is very unlikely that the United States will choose to strike Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Why? Most importantly, it’s an election year. The president is committed to extrication from the Middle East, not further military involvement. He promised to get us out of Iraq and did so, and he will withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Like all incumbent candidates, he wants to show he keeps his promises—like killing Osama Bin Laden.

In reality, there’s a lot the Obama Administration hasn’t followed through on, especially in Middle East policy. The president said the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was the key to all other regional issues, and solving it would make it easier to achieve other goals, like winning Sunni Arab support to create a coalition to isolate Iran. But since Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab powers, like the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan, had already made it clear to American policymakers that they were united against the Islamic Republic, they, as the more experienced players at the table, must have regarded the president’s strategy with dismay.

To show he was serious, the president and his staff publicly confronted the government of Israel over settlements on several occasions. The White House even got Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call for a 10-month building freeze. But putting daylight between the United States and Israel proved futile, because the Palestinians expected Obama to further pressure Netanyahu. The result, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas put it, was that Obama sent the Palestinians up a tree and took away the ladder. At this point, there is no peace process to speak of.

The president’s June 2009 Cairo speech promised to support the political aspirations of Muslims around the region. And yet when pro-democracy Iranians took to the streets only a few weeks later to protest the fraudulent election that kept Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, Obama was silent. For a president who came to office endorsing the use of nonmilitary power—or “smart power”—to promote American values and U.S. interests, missing an opportunity to side against the mullahs was an astonishing failure.

Obama missed the boat again with the Syrian uprising, where the opposition threatens to topple Iran’s key ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But even now, the president has done little to ensure that the declared policy of the United States—that Assad step down—comes to pass. In fact, Obama seems to have adopted all of the Syrian regime’s messages to explain its own lack of action: The opposition comprises armed gangs and al-Qaida members; the Syrian military is too powerful; the opposition should negotiate with the regime that is murdering the Syrian people.

In fact, the president bluffs a lot. The tragedy is that his bluffs have not confounded American adversaries, but have revealed Obama’s inexperience while hurting American allies, from the Sunni Arab states to Israel.

Earlier this month, the president told AIPAC that he had Israel’s back, but he hasn’t played the one card that would indicate that he might actually wage a military operation against Iran. Namely, he hasn’t turned the American electorate against the Islamic Republic.

As the many errors of the Bush Administration in Iraq and Afghanistan reminded policymakers, a serious military campaign waged by a democracy requires the careful cultivation of popular support. It would not be very difficult to win such support from the American people regarding Iran, whether or not the president actually intends to attack. A recent Gallup poll shows that the American public already ranks Iran less favorably than any other country, at 10 percent, even lower than North Korea.

But rather than readying the American public for a possible strike on Iran, the Obama Administration has repeatedly warned that this would be a very bad move, whether carried out by the United States or Israel. Instead of highlighting the threat that Iran poses to American interests in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and the violence that Iran has done to the United States, the Obama White House, like previous administrations, has largely obscured it.

The U.S. intelligence community knows very well that Iran manufactured the IEDs that have been killing and maiming many thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But American policymakers have sat on that information perhaps for fear that it would enrage the American public and make them cry for revenge against the men in Tehran who have killed and wounded their loved ones. If Obama was serious about keeping a military option on the table, he’d go to the American public with that information.

This would put the president in a real bargaining position, as the only person capable of protecting the regime in Iran from the economic and military might of the United States. The American people want your head on a silver platter, he might tell Iran’s Supreme Leader, and there is little I can do to hold them back. Abandon your nuclear program and save yourselves, lest they force my hand. Only I can help you, but I serve at the pleasure of the American people. And after all, it is an election year.

But Obama is not playing poker with the Iranians. He’s running an information operation, and his target is the American Jewish vote. The same three-quarters of Jewish voters who voted for Obama last time will vote for him again because to these voters Rick Santorum is a Cossack and Mitt Romney is a cyborg whose suit pockets are stuffed with Wonder Bread. Obama knows that on the question of Iran’s nuclear program and Israel, the Jewish vote just wants its conscience eased a tiny little bit before voting for him again. Seen from this perspective, the president’s not bluffing; he’s just playing with house money.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.