Obama’s Communication Problems: His Strengths Get Defined as His Weaknesses
President Obama continues to make steady progress on foreign policy issues but, of course, gets no credit for it. Part of it is his own fault because he is always been better at policy than communicating about it. Although his campaigns for the presidency were brilliantly executed and finely crafted with respect to statistical models and winning pathways to the office, he falters when it comes to explaining himself and flooding the media environment with meaningful images and language that “sell” a policy. True enough, we are currently trapped in a maze of Republican attacks and the message environment is full of critical commentary designed to fulfill campaign needs more than anything else. If you did nothing more than follow the Republican primary debates you would think the President was a pathetic bumbling fool. But that is certainly not the case.
For starters, and this is one of the more egregious failures of the president’s team, those critical of the President have been able to control the meaning of his foreign policy by taking the President’s qualities of patience, diplomacy, and thoughtfulness and turning them into weaknesses. It’s a perfect foil for a candidate like Trump (and Rubio and Cruz) all who take macho stances and believe they must come off as “tough guys” who are not going to take any guff from anyone. While the president is solving problems and stimulating relationships, the Republican presidential candidates are making statements that are irresponsible and indicative of their ignorance of foreign policy. I realize this is campaign rhetoric but it does influence the message environment and the White House and Hillary should recognize that a steady diet of these messages is debilitating to the health of Obama’s legacy and Hillary’s campaign.
President Obama is skillfully resetting relationships with Iran and Cuba but the President’s enemies remain in control of the message and its interpretation.
The nuclear deal with Iran was a historic piece of talented negotiation between two religious and political cultures that could not be more distant and separate from one another. You could not find two cultures – the US and Iran – more recalcitrant when it comes to talking to one another; yet, the deal was made and even the carnival barker Donald Trump using the principles of his shallow and simplistic book “The Art of the Deal” could not have done better, his bluster about his own experience making deals notwithstanding. If the future of the treaty with Iran is fragile then it is only because Congress is so hostile to Iran.
And President Obama’s trip to Cuba on March 21 will make him the first sitting U. S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge. This normalization of relations with Cuba is long overdue and certainly will not happen during a Rubio or Cruz presidency as they continue with their counterproductive and stereotypic categories for Cuba as a Castro controlled communist state that can never redefine itself.
The power of regular communicative contact has been apparent in the relationship between Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iranian Foreign Minister. They have been talking recurrently and rumor has it they have formed a strong personal relationship during the negotiations. Tyler Cullis writing in Foreign Affairs (March 7, 2016) explains that the US sailors who accidentally drifted into Iranian waters would not have been released so quickly and easily had it not been for the relationship between Kerry and Minister Zarif. This is a success for the Obama administration and should be understood as such. But instead the administration allowed its Republican opposition to characterize it as an embarrassment and an example of disrespect for the United States.
Obama has taken important historic steps to form long-term relations with Iran, Cuba, and other countries, and must be praised for his patient and persistent diplomacy.
The Deal with Iran
Netanyahu’s Bonding Discourse and 1% Decisions
Anything interesting, novel, or exciting about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was absorbed by the flap over the diplomatic slight. And even if President Obama was feigning a gigantic yawn to signal his disinterest, it was an apt response. To be sure, the Prime Minister is an interesting and engaging fellow who is always worth listening to. But this time there was very little new and the content of the speech was rather bland.
Benjamin Netanyahu lives in a world of 1% decisions. These are decisions that have a low probability of occurrence (1%), but the consequences of being wrong are catastrophic. Hence, the probability of Iran actually using a nuclear weapon – even on Israel – is small, but if you are wrong, well, you will not recover. Decision-makers in these conditions of 1% decisions usually figure they have to protect themselves, that they cannot take the chance of being wrong, so they respond aggressively in order to prevent the low probability occurrence in the first place. This sort of thinking and decision strategizing escalates the consequences quickly. One side, say Netanyahu and Israel, immediately takes more extreme measures because even though the threat is small it is existential. What Netanyahu would really like, although he will not say this directly, is for the United States to bomb Iran. I don’t think this is going to happen under any sort of President but clearly the Prime Minister is trying to scare the United States so we will react more aggressively.
I actually waited a little while before posting about Netanyahu’s speech because I wanted to see what issues emerged. I was pretty sure he would do three things. First, as I said above, he would try to scare the United States into feeling the same existential threat as Israelis. That is, he would work to enlist the support of the United States (and especially the people in that room) with some bonding discourse characteristic of groups with much in common. There would be lots of references to the shared cultural, political, and democratic nature of the United States and Israel. Secondly, I was quite convinced he would portray Iran as a crazed Islamic Republic seeking to dominate first Arab capitals and someday Western ones. There would be references to religious extremism and the triumphalist mentality of jihadism. And third, I knew he would argue that the current efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities or stop it completely through negotiations was either impossible or as he put it a “bad deal.” He did criticize the nuclear deal implying everybody’s naïveté but his own.
Israel’s foreign policy is based on existential threat. And one cannot be naïve, they do have their share of enemies and anti-Semitism and the equation of Zionism with colonialism is on the increase. But from a rather “rational” standpoint rather than the gut feeling that describes most thinking about Iran’s barbaric and aggressive nature it is just as easy to argue that Iran would not use a nuclear weapon. First, if Iran used a weapon they certainly know that they would invite a response. It would justify the other country, namely Israel, using their weapons. Secondly, any culture that used a nuclear weapon would immediately become an international pariah and suffer in such a way that they might not recover. Third, there are some solid ways to include the international community in Iran’s nuclear program and maintain some control to ensure that its nuclear material does not become weaponized. Netanyahu, as we saw from his acceptance of the speaking engagement without consulting the president, has a tin ear when it comes to diplomacy so why would we expect him to be any better at diplomacy when it comes to Iran?
I don’t think that other issues (such as his upcoming election) are particularly pertinent although Israelis may have enjoyed the image of their strong leader speaking to the U.S. Congress. It is possible to view Netanyahu’s appearance before the U.S. Congress, which is a fairly conservative Congress, and his bonding discourse as dangerous. When divergent groups “bridge” and try to close gaps between them, more extreme positions are moderated. So, if the Israelis and Palestinians have contact and build a bridge from the discourse of Zionism to Palestinian nation building, then extremists will be marginalized and the discourse of violence will subside. But bonding discourse, which is what Netanyahu did with the Congress, among the like-minded exaggerates differences, intensifies the sense of cohesion, and creates polarization. Netanyahu probably did not accomplish much with respect to the specifics of the treaty with Iran, and he probably did not scare too many people, but he did make his case to the world.
The only problem is that Netanyahu was talking to the wrong people. He does need to talk to the world or bond with his friends – he needs to walk over the bridge and talk to his neighbors.
Obama Support for Israel Is Strong
One of the least defensible arguments levied against Barack Obama is that he is weak on Israel and does not properly support the security of Israel. This is simply an indefensible position. Essentially the Republican attack machine has made it its business to distort Obama’s record with respect to Israel in an effort to capture Jewish voters. As usual, the strategy has been to take Obama’s recognition of complexity, diplomacy, and slightly more complete understanding of the issues and turn it into a weakness. I grant you that Obama talks about Israel and the Middle East with greater nuance and understanding of what it will really take to solve problems but this does not detract from his support for Israel. He recognizes that Israel is essentially a mirror of the United States and, of course, the importance of security issues for Israel. Those who question Obama simply have to look at the record. Some months ago Obama said that “the United States will always have Israel’s back” and he meant it. I cite just some of the evidence below for how Obama has operationalized his support for Israel.
Apparently, those questioning Obama support for Israel missed the signing ceremony last week of the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act. This was a bill reaffirming the special relationship between United States and Israel and, more importantly, ensuring that Israel has all the necessary weapons and assistance to protect itself. The Enhanced Security Cooperation Act extends loan guarantees to Israel, boosts Israel’s credit rating, and authorizes the sale of $1.6 billion in US weapons available whenever needed. Moreover the law requires that Israel maintain its military superiority in the region and affirms US commitment to defend Israel in the United Nations Security Council.
Obama’s support for a two state solution, consistent with comments made by Netanyahu, is in line with the most prevalent thinking about how to resolve the problem with the Palestinians and maintain the Jewish nature of the State of Israel. The two state solution is increasingly problematic and difficult to impose but it represents strong support for the ethnoreligious core of the Israeli state.
The debilitating sanctions against Iran, who at this time represents the most direct threat to the State of Israel, are mostly the work of President Obama. Iran is now cut off from financial markets, cannot land in many airports around the world, and has oil sales that are a trickle compared to the previous flows. Obama has built an international coalition and stood on the world stage in defense of Israel’s security needs.
Obama’s presidential leadership and staff challenged the international community and prevented the statehood move by the Palestinians in the United Nations. This represented the correct argument that Palestinian statehood should be the result of negotiations between Israel and Palestine, that the establishment of the state through procedures separate from the political realities in which it is embedded would not be recognized by the other nor considered legitimate.
The Obama administration challenged the discredited Goldstone Report which was noteworthy in its biases against Israel and partially responsible for its author distancing himself from his own report. Obama stated clearly that Israel had a right to defend itself when Israel was criticized for its defensive actions off its coast.
It took tremendous courage for Obama to confront the Arab League in Cairo in 2009 and unabashedly declare US support for Israel. Obama told them our support for Israel was steadfast. Expressing some well-placed defensible criticism of Israel (e.g. with respect to the West Bank) should be viewed as part of our support for Israel and its future state; it is certainly no sign of weakness.
A variety of strong Israel supporters, Zionists, and political leaders, from Edgar Bronfman to Ehud Barack call Obama a friend and the leader who has deepened and strengthened the relationship between United States and Israel.
Israel is constantly plagued and harassed by terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and Obama supported Israel’s refusal to negotiate with such groups by announcing that “no country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction.” Israel’s Dome Missile-Defense System was developed in cooperation with United States and is effective for intercepting Hamas and Hezbollah rockets. It is a security system received during the presidency of Barack Obama.
Obama is a thoughtful and decisive leader who recognizes the importance and cultural resonance of Israel. The argument that he insufficiently supports Israel simply does not hold water. The State of Israel is stronger and more secure today because of Barack Obama.
Romney’s Foreign-Policy Chops
Here’s what Mitt Romney said the other day while speaking in Jerusalem:
“We have a solemn duty and a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intentions. We must not delude ourselves into thinking that containment is an option.”
According to most analyses Romney took a rather aggressive stand supporting preemptive strikes and doing more than the diplomatic dance of the United States. Romney’s performance in Israel is a pretty good test of his foreign-policy chops and his diplomatic skills. He didn’t fail the test but his grade is fairly low. He embarrassed the English during their Olympic moment on the world stage, his characterization of the Palestinians as being culturally behind, and that’s why their gross national product is not as high as Israel’s, is pretty naïve and may even contain a tinge of racism. But he was not completely wrong about Iran and difficulties we face.
The Republic of Iran wants to be a nuclear power. They want a seat at the table with the grown-ups who have the biggest weapon and the most threat. The question of whether or not they deserve a seat at the table remains to be seen. I think you have to prove yourself. Just like you do not get to handle that big machine we call an automobile until you pass the test, you don’t get the responsibility of having nuclear weapons until you demonstrate you can handle the responsibility. Declaring that Allah is guiding your missiles and that some cultures need annihilation does not exactly represent the sort of maturity the world is looking for. But Iran does not seem to care much because they are defying international pressure and seemed to be unconcerned with any diplomatic efforts.
Iran turning its nose up at UN Security Council resolutions directing them to suspend enrichment, and refusing to explain fully their nuclear intentions do not add up to an acceptable definition of “maturity.” It is simply dangerous for Iran to enter the inner sanctum of the nuclear club: there are plenty of reasons for this danger not the least of which is the addition of more nuclear weapons capable of detonation, but the extent to which it would embolden the Iranians is one of the most dangerous. They already support terror in various places in the world and membership in the nuclear club would probably just encourage them to continue their terrorist ways against the United States and Israel. Even if there were some semblance of checks on their nuclear arsenal this sort of provocative activity could spur a conventional war. There is no doubt that tensions in the Middle East would escalate. Israel has a nervous finger on the trigger of nuclear weapons and the foreign-policy rooted in existential threat. Israel responds sharply to existential threat and the nuclear Iran would certainly qualify.
The geopolitical balance of power would be altered and the pickings would be ripe for additional nuclear proliferation. Allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons would undermine efforts to control weapons and how they are used. It would also be a defeat for the United States who has led the efforts to stop Iran and essentially organized the boycott. If the United States is perceived as failing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than the question of US power and influence will be unanswered.
There remains diplomacy to play out. Simply attacking Iran would be very provocative and causes many problems as it might solve. Some diplomatic process is the only alternative at this point. But the hell of it is that nothing much can be done during the political campaign because there are significant differences between the Democrats and the Republicans on this matter. The argument that Obama is weak on Iran does not hold much water. Obama is not weak on Iran, he is smart on Iran. It is simply reckless and dangerous to sound like a gunslinger on this issue. Obama is capable of convincing people that he is a tough guy – note the Osama bin Laden takedown – and I think he can be equally tough on Iran.
Even if we give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt he has plenty to learn. He was clumsy and somewhat ill-informed on this trip to Europe and the Middle East. His foreign-policy credentials are of course thin and we cannot wait too long for him to fatten them up.