Obama, Right and Wrong

Another thing about Giovanni Grevi’s notion of an interpolar world is that it seems very consistent with the Obama administration’s emphasis on a “multipartner” world.Significantly, in this context, the major objective in internationalrelations shifts from advancing individual interests toward identifyingcommon ones, in order to convince the increasing number of players thatnow wield de facto vetos to lift them. Obama seems to get the importance of this kind of consensus-building, even if his knee-jerk criticsdon’t.

The most recent case in point is China’s vote at the IAEA to censure Iran, which is apparently a direct result of Obama’s allegedly “deliverables-free” China visit.

But what many of Obama’s knee-jerk defenders have missed, in particular with regard to Iran policy, is that this also places greater importance on the soundness of the consensus being built. Setting aside the as-yet unanswered question of whether or not China will eventually come on board for tough sanctions against Iran, it’s worth pondering whether trying to isolate Iran is an advisable consensus to begin with. It’s being sold as a fast track to multilateral pressure, but it seems to me more like a fast track to an Israeli strike. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, that means a fast track to an American strike.

Like most of the thorny foreign policy challenges the Obama administration inherited, Iran policy is characterized by a daunting combination of political and strategic difficulty. Engagement has been complicated by the confusion resulting from Iran’s domestic political turmoil, and it was already a difficult political sell for Obama domestically. Meanwhile, a nuclear Iran has significant strategic implications in the region, but our ability to actually prevent it is realistically very limited.

Still, it’s odd to see Obama’s defenders applaud him for essentially pursuing the Bush administration’s carrot and stickapproach more effectively. My sense is that there’s a confusion here between containment and isolation. Containment is a “do no harm” approach that implicitly acknowledges the limits of one’s power while identifying a long-term strategic line, and is probably the best we can do with Iran. By contrast, isolation is increasingly obsolete in an interdependent, interpolar world. And by making it the “pressure” component in a binary Iran policy, the Obama administration is explicitly calling attention to the limits of American power.

So while he might have scored some points in terms of Chinese “concessions,” in this case, he’s deployed them poorly.