If You're Bluffing, It's Best to Avoid the Question

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I wonder if I'm alone in wondering quite where US policy on Iran now stands. Jeff Goldberg's fascinating interview with Obama apparently supports very different interpretations. My own unguarded reaction was surprise and even alarm. Did Obama just commit the US to military action if that is what it takes to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons? Iranian nuclear weapons are "unacceptable"; an Iranian nuke is a "profound" threat to US national security; "I don't bluff." Where's the wiggle room in that?

The Wall Street Journal seemed to see it the same way and gave a qualified welcome to "Obama's Hawkish Iran Turn", noting:

[A] President who says he doesn't "bluff" had better be prepared to act if his bluff is called.

I turned to James Fallows to see what he made of it, expecting to find him worried by this turn of events. He doesn't seem to be. First he praised Obama's intellectual force, while acknowledging that this doesn't guarantee success. (I agree on both counts.)

[T]ry to imagine how Obama's predecessor would have fared in a comparably probing 45-minute one-on-one session. Obama's responses included historical allusions, easy references to the internal dynamics in all of the affected countries, an understanding of how the same issue might appear in different guises from different countries' perspectives, analysis of the successes and failures of past efforts at controlling nuclear proliferation, a balance between specificity and deliberate ambiguity, a willingness to talk through move-and-countermove in various scenarios, and on through a list of other intellectual qualities.

As I argue in my current article about Obama, a richly analytical -- even a historian's or strategist's -- cast of mind by itself doesn't ensure a president's success. But when we see evidence of a particular president displaying his particular strength, it is worth noticing. This is Obama on his game.

Then he says:

The part of the interview to which I give least weight is Obama's claim that he is "not bluffing." What else would he say? It's like the famous "Liar's Paradox" in logic studies. If you ask someone, "Are you a liar?," an honest person will answer "No." A liar will also answer "No." So too with a bluff. There is no circumstance in which it makes sense to say, "OK, I'm bluffing," since the entire exercise depends on uncertainty.

I don't really buy this. If Obama wanted to maintain ambiguity and didn't want to be pressed, he was foolish to give Jeff Goldberg (of all people) an interview in the first place. Then, in the interview Goldberg offers the president the chance to maintain his previous position--"all options are on the table"--or ramp up the rhetoric, as he puts it. Surely Obama decides to do the latter.

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say. Let me describe very specifically why this is important to us.

In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel, one of our strongest allies in the world; in addition to the outrageous language that has been directed toward Israel by the leaders of the Iranian government -- if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation.

Goldberg later asks, "Why is containment not your policy?"

It's for the reason I described -- because you're talking about the most volatile region in the world. It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe.

The only analogous situation is North Korea. We have applied a lot of pressure on North Korea as well and, in fact, today found them willing to suspend some of their nuclear activities and missile testing and come back to the table. But North Korea is even more isolated, and certainly less capable of shaping the environment [around it] than Iran is. And so the dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world.

I don't see that this leaves very much "uncertainty" about Obama's stated position. If Iran gets the bomb and the US lets it happen, all this will be thrown back in his face. He won't just have to explain why his policy failed, he will have to explain why he broke his word. That's the problem with "I don't bluff", as opposed to "all options are on the table, and don't ask me to say more than that." Quite possibly, as the Wall Street Journal suspects, Obama is bluffing. Fallows presumably hopes he is, and so do I. But this interview and the AIPAC speech have made it far harder for him to choose containment if diplomacy and sanctions do in the end fail.

Fallows recommends this article by Paul Pillar, We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran.

[W]e find ourselves at a strange pass. Those in the United States who genuinely yearn for war are still a neoconservative minority. But the danger that war might break out--and that the hawks will get their way--has nonetheless become substantial. The U.S. has just withdrawn the last troops from one Middle Eastern country where it fought a highly costly war of choice with a rationale involving weapons of mass destruction. Now we find ourselves on the precipice of yet another such war--almost purely because the acceptable range of opinion on Iran has narrowed and ossified around the "sensible" idea that all options must be pursued to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Given the momentousness of such an endeavor and how much prominence the Iranian nuclear issue has been given, one might think that talk about exercising the military option would be backed up by extensive analysis of the threat in question and the different ways of responding to it. But it isn't. Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping. There are indeed good reasons to oppose Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, and likewise many steps the United States and the international community can and should take to try to avoid that eventuality. But an Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine.

Obama either agrees with this analysis or he doesn't. If he agrees with it, of course, you wouldn't expect him to say so, because that would take the pressure off Iran's government. But you also wouldn't expect him to say, as he now has, that if US military action is what it takes in the end to stop Iran then so be it. If on the other hand Obama disagrees with Pillar's analysis--which is what he tells Goldberg in fairly plain words--then Fallows and others opposed to war with Iran ought to be more worried about Obama's position than they seem to be.


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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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