No Verbs in Sight: Our Feckless Foreign Policy

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When President Obama spoke at American University on August 5 to promote his nuclear agreement with Iran, he was hoping to invite comparison to President John F. Kennedy through the choice of place, time, and language. President Kennedy too chose American University as the location for an important address about nuclear policy, and August 5th marked the 52nd anniversary of the day Kennedy finalized the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. President Obama made explicit the link between Kennedy’s achievements and his own diplomatic hopes noting, “With Kennedy at the helm, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully.” However, the overreach in President Obama’s comparison becomes obvious as we look to President Kennedy’s address to the nation in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In his speech on October 22, 1962, President Kennedy revealed the following grim facts, “Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established… that a series of offensive military sites is now in preparation on [Cuba]. The purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” Clear and direct, President Kennedy detailed exactly what the government would do to remove this egregious threat, steps that were ultimately successful in deescalating the crisis.

Kennedy’s speech was a public display of candor, courage, and resolve bearing very little resemblance to the Obama Administration’s approach to discussing the possibility of a nuclear Iran. President Obama prefers to hide behind linguistic sleights of hand that obfuscate the need for action. If he were truly seeking to emulate President Kennedy and project a strong foreign policy, President Obama could have condemned the 2011 plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S by bombing an American restaurant. This plot has been linked to Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani, a primary facilitator of Iran’s war against the U.S. in Iraq. As Senator John McCain testified at a July hearing, he is “the guy that sent the copper-tipped IEDs into Iraq,” which are believed responsible for the deaths of over 500 American service members.

Instead, President Obama attempted to cut off discourse amongst Americans by making ad hominem attacks against opponents of the deal, decrying them as those “backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising.” The President then asserted, “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.” In another example of the bitter rhetoric the President reserves only for congressional Republicans, he insisted that Iranian “hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’…are making common cause with the Republican caucus” in shared opposition to the deal.

The President spent a good portion of the speech outlining the deal’s terms, but he devoted just one paragraph to discussing, in vague detail, what would happen if Iran reneged on those terms. After six years in which his aversion to using military force has been on full display – most notably when Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad used chemical weapons against his citizens and Obama’s promise of a swift military response to the crossing of this “red line” did not come – it rang rather hollow when the President limply said, “Our military remains the ultimate backstop to any security agreement that we make.”

Recent polling sheds light on how Americans view Iran and the deal. In a Monmouth University poll conducted from July 30-August 2, 61% of respondents did not trust Iran “at all” to uphold the deal’s provisions and 41% thought Iran got more of what it wanted in the deal, versus 14% who thought the U.S. got more. Furthermore, in a Fox News poll from March 2015, 57% of participants thought the United States had not been aggressive enough in trying to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and 65% would support “the United States taking military action to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.” These results suggest that a majority of Americans desire a foreign policy that demonstrates a willingness to take action against Iran should events require it.

Unfortunately, rather than using strong, clear verbs to outline an action plan for responding to world events, our current foreign policy employs adjectives to describe reactions to them. For example, in late July, Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted a picture of President Obama holding a gun to his head, captioned: “…If any war happens, the one who will emerge loser will be the aggressive and criminal U.S.” Secretary of State John Kerry called the tweet “very troubling,” and White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes referred to the tweet as “a pattern of things that give us very serious concern about the Iranian government, whether it’s their support for terrorism [or] their threats to Israel and the United States….”

It gives me “serious concern” that “troubling” was the strongest adjective Secretary Kerry could muster to describe the aggressive posturing of a state with which he had just negotiated an agreement predicated on the assumption Iran will adhere to the deal’s provisions. When the Obama Administration describes “terrorism” and “threats to Israel and the United States” with language that could be used to describe daily nuisances, rather than language reserved for the harshest of condemnations, America’s credibility and standing in the world suffer.

A better way to discuss policy would be to identify specific actions the Obama Administration plans to take in response to these “troubling” developments, just as President Kennedy did in explicitly detailing the government’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are numerous benefits to speaking plainly about global challenges and offering immediate, actionable steps to resolve those challenges.

A “verb-based” foreign policy matters because it tells our allies what they can expect from us. If our friends only hear how the U.S. feels about an issue, rather than what the U.S. will do, they may conclude that American actions (or lack thereof) will not align with their own interests and subsequently pursue policies that are detrimental to broader global peace. For example, many commentators believe it is likely Saudi Arabia will seek to obtain nuclear weapons to counterbalance Iran’s newly sanctioned path to a bomb, setting off a nuclear arms race in the region. If the deal with Iran were stronger or if the U.S. provided explicit and enforceable security assurances to our allies in the Middle East, nuclear proliferation might be avoided.

Just as a candid discussion of world affairs reassures jittery allies, it also deters our enemies from aggression. Under President Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength,” defense spending increased 35% during his two terms. It was because of President Reagan’s ability to project American power that his famous call, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” was successful and brought about the liberation of East Berlin and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union. Clear and credible military options, a far cry from President Obama’s vow to not put boots on the ground to fight ISIS or his passivity when Assad crossed the chemical weapons “red line” in Syria, are a significant deterrence against violence and all the more reason why a more muscular linguistic approach to foreign policy is necessary to keep America safe.

Finally, a more direct and frank manner of discussing world challenges is important to the American public. It speaks to the notions of accountability and responsibility at the heart of American democracy. We cannot hold politicians accountable when they simply indicate they are “troubled” by world events, nor can we be fully informed about the scope of those events and their potential dangers. And indeed, it is ever more important for Americans to understand foreign policy in a chaotic world.

In particular, they should understand the following about the Iran deal. July 10 was Iran’s annual Quds Day festival, in which many took to the streets chanting “Death to America” while burning the American flag. Just days later, on July 14, came the announcement of a completed nuclear deal with the rogue regime. Restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment program last only 10-15 years, after which time Iran will be left unfettered to conduct nuclear policy. As Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York observes, “If Iran’s true intent is to get a nuclear weapon, under this arrangement, it must simply exercise patience.” Thus, the question is no longer whether Iran will ever obtain a nuclear weapon, but rather if it will cheat on the deal’s provisions and acquire a weapon in the near term. In the words of Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif, given Iran’s “refusal to allow inspection [and] refusal to accept any restrictions in the defense and missile spheres,” it is doubtful the international community will be able to appropriately monitor Iran’s compliance. Finally, Iran receives a significant financial boost in the form of $150-billion in sanctions relief, at least some of which is expected to finance its state-sponsored terrorist activities.

The deterioration of Iran policy is just one of many examples of the global disorder that has accelerated since President Obama took office. Let us not shy away from recognizing that the current threats, brought about by the Administration’s foreign policy failures, are numerous and deeply concerning. In addition to the risk of Iran’s potential nuclear weapons, Americans have lost their lives at the hands of the brutal terrorist army ISIS, trade and commerce have been affected by Russian and Chinese aggression in Ukraine and the South China Sea, respectively, and cyber attacks against the U.S. have grown in frequency and severity.

Economist Frédéric Bastiat once wrote, “The socialists…generously confer on themselves the title of ‘forward-looking’ men, and there is a real danger that usage, that tyrant of language, will ratify both the word and the judgment it implies.” We see here the same abuse of language on the part of the Obama Administration. An adjective-based description of foreign events conveys that while the President is “troubled” by world affairs, he is not so moved as to offer specific policy plans or take action. Our allies question our intentions, our enemies grow more confident, and the public is left confused or dangerously unaware of the deterioration around the world. Americans and our country’s position in the world have suffered under President Obama’s watch and will continue to do so unless he speaks, and then acts, with greater purpose and clarity.

Allison Berger is a sophomore from Madison, New Jersey, tentatively majoring in the Economics Department. She can be reached at alberger@princeton.edu.

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