Revisiting Obama as Hamlet

I wanted to revisit this post on the growing meme of President Barack Obama as weak and vacillating, in which I said that on Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan and Iran, “there definitely seems to be a hesitation on following through on initial convictions and openings. . . . Obama has blinked.” Because in trying to address a number of interconnected trains of thought, I might have crossed some of the tracks up.

To begin with, on Afghanistan, I don’t think Obama is wrong to pause and consider the strategic objectives before signing off on the resources requested. The problem is that I was under the impression he had done that back in March. That is, before Gen. David McKiernan’s career was tossed under the MRAP. Now, the Afghan election might have shifted the calculus, but given the speed with which the U.S. and NATO are accepting Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s election, it couldn’t be the only thing causing the sticker shock.

From the beginning, there was a bit of a disconnect between the stated strategic objective of counterterrorism, and the stated tactical method of counterinsurgency. I thought that had been a political smokescreen for walking the mission back. But it looks like no one got the word to McChrystal. So better late than never, but getting it right the first time would have projected more resolve and strength, even if the ultimate decision was to draw down.

With regard to Iran, the argument is a bit more involved, and this is where I used shorthand to perhaps incorrectly lump it in with the other two examples. Because the events of the past week have not really presented Obama in a weak or vacillating or indecisive light. But the comparisons of his handling of the Iran portfolio — culminating in “busting” them over the secret nuclear installation — as “masterful chess” miss the point: In chess, there’s a very clear and indisputable way to win, and the challenge is to find it. With Iran, the challenge is finding the least bad way to lose. We’ll see how the negotiations go tomorrow, but grandstandingthe intel on the secret facility might just have painted Obama into thevery Bush-like corner of talking tough while holding very weak cards. (And as I argued here, they’re all weak cards.)

The common thread, though, is the sense that Obama didn’t follow through on his initial convictions, namely, to fully engage Iran across a broad spectrum of strategic issues, not just the nuclear program. There would have been some costs to that approach, specifically among the EU3 who would have felt endrun on the nuclear negotiations they’ve been handling for six years. And I don’t necessarily share the Leverett-Mann optimism for the outcome of such an engagement. But at least it would have been a bold, decisive and game-changing way to lose, as opposed to such a predictable and recycled one.

Again, the events of June altered the calculus on both ends, in ways that could not have been foreseen. But the effect on Obama’s image lingers.

In both cases, though, Obama had the chance to embark on a realist reappraisal of the limits of U.S. power, while wrapping the project in an image of strength and moral courage. And because he didn’t follow through on his initial convictions, he has now fallen into the trap of talking loudly and carrying a small stick.