Portents From the First
Press Conference

On Monday, Feb. 8, President Barack Obama gave his first prime-time press conference. The purpose was to make the case for his nearly trillion-dollar economic stimulus plan, but the discussion touched on foreign policy during the Q&A. What the president said is telling about what to expect from the Obama administration.

Diplomacy is back in vogue. According to Obama, "We should take an approach with Iran that employs all of the resources at the United States’ disposal, and that includes diplomacy. And so my national security team is currently reviewing our existing Iran policy, looking at areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can directly engage with them." That’s certainly better than the saber-rattling of the Bush administration or John McCain singing "Bomb, bomb Iran." Engagement may not be the answer for all that ails the relationship between the United States and Iran, but we know that isolating regimes hasn’t worked, as it didn’t prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear-weapon state. So instead of doing the same thing but expecting different results, it’s worth trying something different.

However, we should not be overly enamored of diplomacy and fall into the trap of style over substance. In other words, it’s not simply a question of diplomacy over bellicosity. Rather, the real question is "Diplomacy toward what end?" President Obama declared that he wants Iran to understand "that we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable." But without excusing terrorism, it’s also important to understand that the terrorist organizations Iran supports – Hezbollah and Hamas, according to the State Department – are not threats to the United States. Hezbollah was implicated in the 1996 Khobar barracks bombing in Saudi Arabia and the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing in Lebanon. But these are both instances of attacks in response to U.S. military occupation. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas has carried out an attack on U.S. soil. More importantly, Iran (a Shi’ite country) is not known to be supporting or providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda (a Sunni group), the one terrorist group that is a direct threat to America.

President Obama is also concerned about Iran becoming a nuclear power. Although Iran claims its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes and is not in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treat (it is important to remember that uranium enrichment is not prohibited by the NPT), there is every reason to suspect that Iran has nuclear aspirations. If we believe, as the president does, that those aspirations are "contrary to our interests" and hope to change the minds of the regime in Tehran, it’s important to understand the motivations for those aspirations. First and foremost, we need to understand how our own actions influence those motivations.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has employed significant military force on nine occasions (not including air strikes to enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq beginning in 1991):

  • the 1989 invasion of Panama
  • Operation Desert Storm in 1991
  • the ill-fated Somalia “Blackhawk Down” mission in 1992-93
  • Haiti in 1994
  • air strikes in Bosnia in 1995
  • missile attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998
  • air strikes in Kosovo in 1999
  • Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom

One thing that all of these have in common (as well as previous military operations, such as the invasion of Grenada – Operation Urgent Fury – in 1983) is that none of the countries against which the United States took action had nuclear weapons. So one lesson likely learned by Iran is that having a nuclear weapon is one good way to prevent preemptive U.S. military action – especially after the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of neighboring Iraq. The fact that the United States has not taken military action against North Korea only reinforces this lesson.

The best question of the press conference was asked by the venerable Helen Thomas (President Obama called on her by saying, "Helen. This is my inaugural moment. I’m really excited."): "Do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?" To which the president responded, "With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate." But if (as he stated on two occasions during the press conference) Obama is worried about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, he has to be willing to acknowledge that an impetus for one is that Israel is a nuclear power. (Israel will neither confirm nor deny its nuclear status and officially maintains that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but it is estimated – by the U.S. intelligence community, among others – to have as many as 200 nuclear weapons.) Thus, even if it’s not what we would prefer, it’s perfectly logical that Iran might seek nuclear weapons to offset Israel’s current monopoly. Trying to convince the Iranians not to continue down the nuclear path while continuing to pretend Israel doesn’t have any nukes is bound to be an exercise in futility.

And like President Bush before him, Obama does not appear to have a Plan B (other than the possible use of military force) should diplomacy fail to achieve the desired objectives. But war is not always the answer. Like it or not, we may have to learn how to live with a nuclear-armed Iran (just as we are learning how to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea). Yet Obama seems just as unwilling and unable as Bush to accept that possibility.

So what does all this portend for U.S. foreign policy for at least the next four years? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.