Punditry is easy. Policy is hard.
OK, to be fair, writing articles and speeches that are powerful and persuasive is a demanding job. But crafting sound policy adds layers of complexity.
Example: President Kennedy pledged that Americans will "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." Very inspiring. But try translating that into policies toward Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Russia, China and Venezuela. That’s tough.
It is a fact, not a criticism, that President Barack Obama is a neophyte foreign policy maker. During his short but spectacularly successful political career he has given powerful and persuasive speeches about foreign policy. Not surprisingly, translating fine phrases into action has proven challenging.
Example: During last year’s campaign, Obama told crowds: "I recall what John F. Kennedy once said. We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate." That begs the question: How do we negotiate with hostile and extremist regimes and reach beneficial outcomes? What do we offer? What do we threaten?
Just a few weeks ago, Obama’s advisors could argue that Iran was relatively democratic, and that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei enjoyed widespread popular support within Iran. However, the blatantly fraudulent election results announced by the regime, the mass demonstrations that followed, and the regime’s despotic response — scores killed, mass arrests, beatings, government goons "trashing entire streets and even neighborhoods," and dragging wounded protestors from their hospital beds — reveals a reality very different from what those advisors had perceived.
Can anyone still believe it’s possible to sweet talk Iran out of developing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorists beyond its borders? Can anyone seriously imagine lifting a glass of pomegranate juice and offering a toast to the so-called Islamic Republic?
This brings us to the hard task of formulating an effective policy toward Iran. I’d argue that such a policy needs to include five key initiatives:
— 1) Express strong moral support for Iran’s dissidents. Between those in Iran getting their heads cracked and those doing the cracking, there is no equivalence.
— 2) Provide funds and communications assistance to the rebels, much as the U.S. did in support of Polish anti-communists in the early 1980s.
— 3) Persuade our European allies to recall their ambassadors from and suspend trade with Iran. Obama deputy David Axelrod said recently that the clerical regime’s actions are isolating Iran "in every way from the community of nations." For now, that’s just wishful thinking.
— 4) Sharply increase the economic pressure on the regime by cutting off its gasoline imports. This can be accomplished through legislation now pending in Congress (and based on research conducted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies). In particular, the Iran Petroleum Sanctions Act would give the president the authority to impose sanctions on any entity that provides or helps Iran obtain refined petroleum. The bill is strongly backed by more than 60 Senators and 200 House members from both parties.
— 5) Build a comprehensive missile defense system so Iran’s rulers understand that the nuclear weapons and missiles they are developing are a waste of resources: The United States will have the means to prevent them from reaching their targets.
Iran becoming a nuclear-armed, state sponsor of terrorism, openly vowing "Death to America!" while meddling in Lebanon, Gaza, Latin America, Europe and Asia, and threatening genocide against Israelis: Obama can not want such change to take place on his watch.
By contrast, the successful use of "leveraged engagement," coupled with the administration’s muscular policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, would constitute nothing less than an Obama Doctrine — neither Bush redux nor a return to "realism," the hoary theory that all nations act rationally and in pursuit of similar visions of self-interest.
Instead, as former National Security Advisor Robert "Bud" McFarlane recently — and perhaps hopefully — wrote, it would be: "a doctrine of effective realism, a doctrine that advances our own interests and those of democratic aspirants throughout the world."
Is that not the kind of policy-making for which Obama would like to be known? Is this not what’s best for the nation?
Link to piece with Obama quote: https://www.politico.com/news/stories/0208/8625.html
Link to pieces on government crackdown, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports: https://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSTRE55Q1V720090627
Link to McFarlane op-ed: https://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB124597229537457063-lMyQjAxMDI5NDI1NjkyNzYyWj.html
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)