Looming Threat

War Looms for Obama in Iran, Syria, and North Korea

Military confrontations loom for Obama in Iran, Syria, and North Korea. And he can’t head them off with the usual duet of threats and talks, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP Photo

President Obama is being pushed and pulled into three conflicts–Iran, Syria, and North Korea–where the respective endgames could be either just more inconclusive blather or actual military confrontation. Events are being driven mainly by three bad guys. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, intolerably, is trying to keep open the option to build nuclear weapons. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, intolerably, is killing rebels to keep power. North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, unacceptably, is trying to have his nuclear cake and eat American food too. Slowly but inexorably, all three situations are becoming testier and riskier with little sign of being saved by warnings or compromise.

On the one hand, Americans can’t stand to deal with, let alone compromise with, bad guys like these three. None of these tyrants hesitate to spill the blood of their own people. It’s against the American character to look away from humanitarian tragedies. Americans always feel they have to do “something.”

On the other hand, polls show that American majorities oppose more wars. Sure, majorities also don’t want to see their country pushed around by the bad guys, and they want their president to be tough. But mainly they want to get their way without any real cost.

Typically, Mr. Obama is reacting like almost all his predecessors in presidential-election years: he is trying to simultaneously show strength and avoid war. He is walking the familiar tightrope; no matter which way he leans to keep some balance, his political adversaries will be trying to knock him off and will delight in his fall.

It is unusual for U.S. presidents to be facing so many potential war situations at the same time. Probably the last president to face this many nightmares was John F. Kennedy. He had to look down the barrel of potential Communist victories in Berlin and Indochina.

Make no mistake, Mr. Obama is being pushed and pulled into a confrontation with Iran. It’s hard to imagine a compromise acceptable to Israel and thus to the U.S. And without that, it’s very likely Israel will attack before the U.S. presidential elections. If Israel does strike, Mr. Obama is almost bound to take some action on its behalf. So the risks are high here.

With Syria, it’s possible that former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan will work a miracle ceasefire between al-Assad and the rebels. But if it happens, it’s not likely to last. With no viable political compromise in sight, the Obama team will find it increasingly hard to justify a policy of restraint. After all, they didn’t hold back when it came to humanitarian intervention against Col. Muammar Gaddafi, and he was killing far fewer rebels than al-Assad is. Conservatives and neoconservatives are trumpeting this issue as another example of Mr. Obama’s lack of leadership. But the president can probably resist as long as the Pentagon remains utterly opposed to putting its military toe into Syria’s unpredictable and dangerous civil war. Still, don’t discount temptations building for the U.S. to supply arms and intelligence, as starters, to appease American conservatives who see Syria as a grand opportunity to give Iran, Syria’s closest ally, a body blow.

Similarly, Mr. Obama seeks to avoid direct confrontations with the nutcases who rule in Pyongyang. There is no telling what these leaders would do in a game of chicken. U.S. intelligence expects that the North would up the ante to every American riposte. By week’s end, Washington expects the North to launch a satellite, meaning with a rocket in violation of various agreements. South Korean intelligence officials have warned that the North might follow this with a nuclear test. If Mr. Obama does nothing in response, Republicans will bash him for dangerous weakness. Yet if he retaliates with more economic sanctions or some military move, Pyongyang might start climbing the escalatory ladder. And what happens if Obama doesn’t escalate as well? Or maybe of greater significance, what happens if he does escalate?

White House officials are well aware that they stand at a threshold. Up till now, Republicans have found Obama’s foreign-policy record a near-unhittable target politically. Of course, they’ve been taking potshots at him over leaving Iraq too early and getting out of Afghanistan too fast. But Iran, Syria, and North Korea represent fresh meat, opportunities to charge the president with ineptitude in handling the nation’s power abroad. To be sure, these issues are fair political game. But it is up to the media to hold the critics accountable. It’s the media’s duty to know enough to press critics to explain what specific actions they would take if they controlled the White House and precisely how these actions differ from what the president is doing. It’s not nearly enough for journalists to ask a question about war and peace, get some vague or political response, and then follow up with that tried-and-true killer question, “What did you have for supper?”