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Obama's tough talk on Iran: All about the presidential election?

Pundits say President Obama is ramping up the foreign policy rhetoric ahead of 2012, and foreign policy experts agree. But it comes with less action, as is typical before a presidential election.

By Staff writer / October 26, 2011

President Obama arrived at a Libya Contact Group Meeting at the United Nations on Sept. 20. Presidents tend to see foreign policy moves as posing a risk to reelection, so they often postpone international initiatives.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Washington

Foreign policy, say hello to the 2012 presidential campaign.

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That was the conclusion of several political pundits this month when President Obama offered uncharacteristically tough words on Iran in the wake of accusations that Tehran was involved in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.

After all, isn’t this the same president who came into office advocating dialogue with America’s adversaries, in particular Iran, but is now saying that a military response to Tehran’s covert actions is not off the table?

Add to that the spotlight the Obama administration has been shining on the “success” of the US intervention in Libya (especially after the death of Muammar Qaddafi), not to mention Mr. Obama’s announcement Oct. 14 that he is dispatching 100 military advisers to central Africa to take on a gruesomely violent irregular army. Together, some political analysts say, it paints a picture of a president acting to blunt any campaign accusations that he is soft when it comes to foreign policy and national security.

But foreign policy experts offer a different view: As elections approach, presidential tough-talking ramps up even as the willingness to take on substantial foreign policy diminishes – and Obama so far appears to be no different.

“The thinking is never, ‘If I do this, I’ll get these votes,’ but instead it’s always, ‘How can this hurt us?’ ” says Douglas Foyle, an expert in the interaction of domestic politics and foreign affairs at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

“Sure, he’s going to talk tough on Iran; he’s certainly going to talk about Osama bin Laden and how ‘I got him and the Republicans didn’t;’ [and] he’s going to continue to portray himself as being strong,” says Professor Foyle of Obama. “But that’s more about avoiding a criticism than about using foreign policy as an attribute.”

Why take the risk?

The fact is, Obama has little to worry about on the foreign policy front and therefore has little incentive to take a hard line pre-2012, these experts say.

First, much of what he has done – from drawing down US troops in Iraq to taking out bin Laden – sits well with Americans. Moreover, with economic issues foremost in voters’ minds, foreign affairs is expected to play a minor role in deciding the next president. In that way, a bold foreign policy initiative could become a campaign distraction more than an asset.

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