In the wake of his dizzying reverses over chemical weapons in Syria, President Obama has been blasted as inconsistent, impulsive and amateurish in his conduct of foreign policy. In 2009, when Iranians rose in rebellion against the mullahs in Tehran, Obama gave their ill-fated “Green Revolution” rhetorical support. But he also went on negotiating with the Tehran government, because his first priority was making a deal over Iran’s nuclear program. In 2011, when Egyptians rebelled, Obama gave that uprising rhetorical support too, and even urged Hosni Mubarak to step down. But he maintained a strong relationship with the Egyptian military, because his first priority was keeping peace with Israel.
Later that year, when Syrians revolted, Obama gave the rebels more rhetorical support and declared that Bashar Assad had to go. But he balked at sending the rebels military aid, and this month, he made a deal that could help Assad stay in power, because Obama’s first priority was eliminating chemical weapons. What’s the common thread? That Obama’s rhetoric tends to outrun his willingness to use U.S. power, and that’s a problem, because it can lead to dangerous misunderstandings.
Obama may like the idea of promoting democracy, but his first priority has been reducing U.S. commitments around the world, especially in the Middle East. Benghazi. The experience only reinforced Obama’s skepticism about military intervention. Since then, the president has returned to resisting new military commitments abroad, but his rhetoric has remained ambitious and idealistic. And in the case of Syria, that gap turned into a self-constructed trap for Obama. Obama’s reversals made it difficult for anyone — allies and adversaries alike — to know what he might do next. Most of the time, that’s a defect in a foreign policy, because it shakes allies’ confidence and makes it easier for adversaries to misjudge our intentions.
Obama still hasn’t quite reconciled the two faces of his policy for American voters or anyone else, including Syria’s disappointed rebels and Iran’s ruling clergy. Obama wants the mullahs to believe that if they cross his “red line” of building a nuclear weapon, they will face a U.S. military strike — unlike Syria’s Assad, who crossed Obama’s “red line” with chemical weapons but was spared.
“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” he said. “They shouldn’t draw a lesson that … we won’t strike Iran.” Instead, he suggested, “what they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”