Obama's Inner Neocon

The president's denunciation of the Iranian regime Tuesday showed his potential to get tough, writes Reihan Salam. But to deal with the mullahs, Obama must embrace the Reagan within.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

After watching President Obama’s latest press briefing, I’ve reached a troubling conclusion: For the good of America and the world, the man badly needs a regular supply of nicotine.

Though smoking will undoubtedly put the president at grave risk of developing a serious illness, it also will keep him from lashing out at innocent reporters and, behind closed doors, any number of worshipful subordinates.

Rather than reassure the Iranians with a wink and a nod that we’re ready to do business, President Obama should be building an international coalition to isolate a recalcitrant Iran.

As America’s most beloved president in a generation, Obama has, you get the sense, grown accustomed to adulation. And when he doesn’t get it, he has a tendency to snap. Or he’s just going through nicotine withdrawal. Either way, it’s not pretty.

The heart of the briefing came at the start, when the president issued a blistering denunciation of the brutality of the Iranian regime. Like millions of Americans, Obama, celebrated for his Spock-like detachment, was moved by the harrowing last minutes of Neda Agha-Soltan’s life.

For those of who’ve wanted Obama to crank up the rhetorical temperature, this was a thrilling moment—a clear indication of Obama’s tremendous potential as a transformative foreign-policy president. As Chip Reid of CBS News gently suggested, this is exactly the kind of unambiguous message John McCain has been urging the president to send the mullahs.

And though Obama couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge McCain’s influence, or even that his script has changed at all as events have unfolded, it’s clear Obama has come around to a darker view of Iran’s rulers. Just as Obama was hilariously reluctant to concede that he might have been wrong to oppose the military "surge" in Iraq in 2006, he now insists that his statements have been utterly consistent.

Yet his statements haven’t been consistent for the good and understandable reason that the White House is trying to thread an unthreadable needle. No one doubts that the president wants to condemn the crackdown in Tehran, yet he’s also hoping to cut a deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The trouble is that Obama fundamentally misreads the Islamic republic, just as he once misread Iraq and Afghanistan. To his credit, however, the president eventually reversed course on both fronts, without ever saying so. On Iraq, he retained many of the architects of George W. Bush’s post-surge strategy. In Afghanistan, he abandoned early efforts to “lower our sights” in favor of a robust expansion of the American role in strengthening the country’s security forces, winning him praise from his erstwhile neoconservative enemies.

Slowly, the president’s embrace of crabbed realism is coming undone. Throughout the presidential campaign, the Obama foreign-policy team was quick to draw a contrast between the alleged messianism of George W. Bush’s first term with the sober realpolitik of Bush the Elder, which they enthusiastically embraced.

But though Bush 41 was in many respects a smashing foreign-policy success, he also made a number of egregious missteps, including the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he essentially endorsed the survival of the multinational Soviet empire and not the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europe.

The great danger of Obama’s response to the street protests in Iran has been that he’d choose Iran’s thuggish ruling class over Iran’s masses on the grounds that Serious People don’t fret about human rights when grand strategy is at stake.

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Now, however, at least some of the engagers are coming to understand that the violence in the streets is clear evidence that Khamenei’s gang is less pragmatic than they enthusiastically believed. After all, Mousavi is not a tie-dyed revolutionary who wants to replace the Koran in Iran’s public schools with mandatory viewings of The L Word. He is an only slightly less crazy theocrat than Ahmadinejad, who thinks, I’m guessing, that the wily thing to do is to stone slightly fewer people so that Iran can build bombs in peace.

If the regime can’t do business with the likes of Mousavi, they certainly can’t do business with Obama, no matter how many barbecues he invites them to.

The peculiar truth is that Barack Obama, for all his realist convictions, is at his best when he embraces his inner neocon. In August 2001, two brilliant neocon foreign-policy thinkers, Jeffrey Gedmin and Gary Schmitt, wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times that blasted President Bush for not being multilateral enough. They compared him unfavorably with neocon icon Ronald Reagan, who, in their words, “linked American interests to the greater international good.” Though written before 9/11, Gedmin and Schmitt’s piece anticipated the trouble Bush’s rhetorical unilateralism would eventually cause.

Obama, like Reagan, is a master at linking American interests to the greater international good. Whether he likes it or not, his engagement strategy with Iran has been revealed as a hollow hope, one that rested on an overoptimistic interpretation of Iranian intentions. As former Bush foreign-policy adviser Peter Feaver has explained, Iran is far more likely to negotiate from a position of weakness than of strength. Rather than reassure the Iranians with a wink and a nod that we’re ready to do business, President Obama should be building an international coalition to isolate a recalcitrant Iran as thoroughly as the the West once isolated apartheid-era South Africa. Bush, to the chagrin of the neocons, could never pull this off. But Obama can.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.