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.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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.

Foreign policy, say hello to the 2012 presidential campaign.

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.

“Obama may indeed be talking tougher, but his actions are considerably less so,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Is it electoral politics? Who knows. But the reality beyond the rhetoric is that his actions aren’t as tough as they were.”

Because presidents generally see foreign policy as a potential “danger” to reelection, but not as a major plus for a campaign, they often adopt a pattern of “postponement” of international initiatives in the last year or so of a first term, says Foyle, who has studied the foreign-policy decisionmaking of presidencies going back to 1948.

Others concur.

“I don’t think there will be a lot of outreach by Obama to the Iranians between now and November 2012,” says Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Not only has the Obama policy of favoring dialogue with America’s adversaries not yielded much, he says, but the election season also portends a tougher tone.

Talking tough

Still, critics such as Ms. Pletka – a foreign policy hawk who sees Obama relinquishing US global leadership – say Obama is tougher in tone only, as in their estimation he steps back cautiously from some of his early, bold moves.

The president “did a number of courageous things in the beginning of his term,” Pletka says, citing the “surge” of US troops into Afghanistan and a slower drawdown from Iraq. But she does not count as “tough” a growing US reliance on drone strikes against various insurgencies, nor does she consider an aggressive tone with Iran to be so bold.

“If anything, the timing of [Obama’s] sudden rhetorical toughness with Iran may be the one place where we might wonder if electoral politics have come into play,” Pletka says. “What else would explain that the president is more appalled by Iran’s involvement in a plot on a Saudi diplomat than by Iran’s involvement in the killing of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq?”

Still, if anyone in the 2012 campaign is going to be on the defensive over foreign policy, it will be the Republicans because of the GOP field’s overall inexperience in foreign affairs, Mr. Kupchan says.

To the extent any voters are focusing on foreign policy, Obama can highlight how he has pursued US interests by attacking Al Qaeda or by playing a supportive role in the Libya intervention, while committing less American blood and treasure.

But the next 12 months may end up tracking closest to Foyle’s conclusion: “Foreign policy is not going to get these guys reelected, but it can really hurt them if something blows up in their face. That will be as true as ever this election,” he adds, “when issues No. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are going to be the economy and jobs.”

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