Barack Obama's Commitment Problem

Abe Katsman
Jeffrey Goldberg is as attuned as anyone to the thought processes of the Obama White House.  So it is worth paying attention when he writes in Bloomberg View that President Obama's lack of enforcement of his Syrian chemical "red line" does not imply that there would be a similar lack of enforcement of his Iranian nuclear red line.  But his explanation carries serious implications for America's international commitments and diplomacy, nowhere more so than regarding Israel and the peace process.

Goldberg believes it is a mistake to assume that just because Obama is hesitant on Syria, he will be similarly hesitant on Iran. Why the difference?  Because, he says, the president has defined Iran's nuclear program as a core threat to U.S. national security. He maintains that Obama has made it clear that only two Middle East issues rise to the level of core American national interests: destroying al-Qaeda and stopping Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.

Goldberg sums up with this formulation: "Not all red lines are created equal. Not all national security challenges are equally dire. It is not analytically sound to assume that Obama's hesitancy in one area equals hesitancy in another. It would be a mistake on the part of the Iranian regime to believe that the president won't strike their nuclear facilities if he judges them to be near the nuclear threshold."

Perhaps.  But assuming Goldberg once again has his finger on the pulse of this administration, American allies should be alarmed.  The implication is that there are "core threats" to American national security against which Obama can be counted on to act; and then there is some lesser category where enforcement of clearly stated American commitments is unpredictable, at best.  Which commitments are which?   The ostentatiously public declaration of a "red line" by the President of the United States is apparently no longer sufficient to know America's actual intentions.  There is evidently no actual commitment to some commitments.

It is anybody's guess which American commitments Obama considers to be "core," and therefore worthy of protection by American action, and which are not.  Is there any "Obama doctrine" which indicates which American commitments will be carried out at all costs?  Into which category falls protection of Taiwan?  Or of South Korea?  Or Israel's defense? 

The Czechs and Poles learned the hard way that Obama is selective in which American commitments he keeps when he unilaterally abrogated their missile-defense treaties with the U.S.  Apparently, as can be seen from Obama's backing away from his own Syrian red line, that was no fluke.  Obama has no problem making commitments; it's keeping those commitments where he's wobbly.

If the seriousness of American red lines and commitments are legitimately open to question, then just how much do they deter the world's forces of aggression?  Obama's indecisiveness regarding whether to follow through on his own Syria commitment will only inflame those world hot spots where American commitments keep the peace.  His reticence undoubtedly has our allies sleeping less soundly in Taipei and Seoul. 

And in Jerusalem.  There are obvious implications the Syrian episode has for undermining American deterrence of Iranian nuclear development.  But Obama's devaluation of American commitment is also likely to crush whatever slim chances there are for any substantial agreement to emerge from the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  In all likelihood, the only hope of bridging the parties' irreconcilable respective positions is some combination of American guarantees, especially regarding Israeli security and defense capabilities. 

Israel already experienced Obama reneging on commitments made by the Bush administration regarding U.S. support for Israeli retention of major settlement blocs in "road map" peace process negotiations, as well as for scrapping the indefensible 1949 armistice lines.  But as bad as not honoring the commitments of one's presidential predecessors may be for maintaining trust between countries, Obama's waffling over the red line he himself painted cuts to the core of whether he can relied upon to keep even his own commitments anywhere else.  Would you buy a used peace plan from this man?

The president who cancelled America's manned space program has found a new vehicle for achieving weightlessness: American foreign policy commitments now based on airy pronouncements and evanescent promises.

At this point, in terms of U.S. credibility, it doesn't matter much whether Congress ultimately passes a resolution authorizing American force in Syria.  And it doesn't matter much anymore whether Obama finally orders the firing of a handful of Tomahawk missiles at Syrian military targets, or whether Russia assumes control of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.  Obama's zigzagging response to a direct challenge to his very own red line undermines the reliability of every other challenging commitment America has made.  It is the dithering itself that causes the damage; and that damage has already been done.

Abe Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Jerusalem.  More of his work is available at http://abekatsman.com

Jeffrey Goldberg is as attuned as anyone to the thought processes of the Obama White House.  So it is worth paying attention when he writes in Bloomberg View that President Obama's lack of enforcement of his Syrian chemical "red line" does not imply that there would be a similar lack of enforcement of his Iranian nuclear red line.  But his explanation carries serious implications for America's international commitments and diplomacy, nowhere more so than regarding Israel and the peace process.

Goldberg believes it is a mistake to assume that just because Obama is hesitant on Syria, he will be similarly hesitant on Iran. Why the difference?  Because, he says, the president has defined Iran's nuclear program as a core threat to U.S. national security. He maintains that Obama has made it clear that only two Middle East issues rise to the level of core American national interests: destroying al-Qaeda and stopping Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.

Goldberg sums up with this formulation: "Not all red lines are created equal. Not all national security challenges are equally dire. It is not analytically sound to assume that Obama's hesitancy in one area equals hesitancy in another. It would be a mistake on the part of the Iranian regime to believe that the president won't strike their nuclear facilities if he judges them to be near the nuclear threshold."

Perhaps.  But assuming Goldberg once again has his finger on the pulse of this administration, American allies should be alarmed.  The implication is that there are "core threats" to American national security against which Obama can be counted on to act; and then there is some lesser category where enforcement of clearly stated American commitments is unpredictable, at best.  Which commitments are which?   The ostentatiously public declaration of a "red line" by the President of the United States is apparently no longer sufficient to know America's actual intentions.  There is evidently no actual commitment to some commitments.

It is anybody's guess which American commitments Obama considers to be "core," and therefore worthy of protection by American action, and which are not.  Is there any "Obama doctrine" which indicates which American commitments will be carried out at all costs?  Into which category falls protection of Taiwan?  Or of South Korea?  Or Israel's defense? 

The Czechs and Poles learned the hard way that Obama is selective in which American commitments he keeps when he unilaterally abrogated their missile-defense treaties with the U.S.  Apparently, as can be seen from Obama's backing away from his own Syrian red line, that was no fluke.  Obama has no problem making commitments; it's keeping those commitments where he's wobbly.

If the seriousness of American red lines and commitments are legitimately open to question, then just how much do they deter the world's forces of aggression?  Obama's indecisiveness regarding whether to follow through on his own Syria commitment will only inflame those world hot spots where American commitments keep the peace.  His reticence undoubtedly has our allies sleeping less soundly in Taipei and Seoul. 

And in Jerusalem.  There are obvious implications the Syrian episode has for undermining American deterrence of Iranian nuclear development.  But Obama's devaluation of American commitment is also likely to crush whatever slim chances there are for any substantial agreement to emerge from the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  In all likelihood, the only hope of bridging the parties' irreconcilable respective positions is some combination of American guarantees, especially regarding Israeli security and defense capabilities. 

Israel already experienced Obama reneging on commitments made by the Bush administration regarding U.S. support for Israeli retention of major settlement blocs in "road map" peace process negotiations, as well as for scrapping the indefensible 1949 armistice lines.  But as bad as not honoring the commitments of one's presidential predecessors may be for maintaining trust between countries, Obama's waffling over the red line he himself painted cuts to the core of whether he can relied upon to keep even his own commitments anywhere else.  Would you buy a used peace plan from this man?

The president who cancelled America's manned space program has found a new vehicle for achieving weightlessness: American foreign policy commitments now based on airy pronouncements and evanescent promises.

At this point, in terms of U.S. credibility, it doesn't matter much whether Congress ultimately passes a resolution authorizing American force in Syria.  And it doesn't matter much anymore whether Obama finally orders the firing of a handful of Tomahawk missiles at Syrian military targets, or whether Russia assumes control of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.  Obama's zigzagging response to a direct challenge to his very own red line undermines the reliability of every other challenging commitment America has made.  It is the dithering itself that causes the damage; and that damage has already been done.

Abe Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Jerusalem.  More of his work is available at http://abekatsman.com