In the last two years, the U.S. Congress has passed resolution after resolution condemning
Iran, urging the president to do something hostile, and warning him against negotiations. The EU capitals, hungry for cheap oil and regional influence, clamor for the United States to do resolutely whatever it means to do. An intricate web has thus been constructed. Only great ingenuity and political talent could extricate an American president today. And while this was passing, how has Barack Obama been spending his time?
The president has made no comment on the situation. He has let it heat up for three years now, while the public mind grows swollen with false facts, and while negotiations, to the extent that there are negotiations, proceed under cover and in secret. As if negotiation were a shameful thing. Time does not tell for Obama. He will always have time. That was his philosophy in drawing out the health care debate for twelve months as his popularity sank from 70% to 45%. It was his policy once again, in catastrophically misjudging the odds for an agreement on the debt ceiling. In that affair, Obama hung back. He left it all in the hands of William Daley before sacking Daley and heading out on the campaign trail.
Obama never gets the jump on his opponents. But Iran, the site of his longest delay (because it is the most disagreeable problem he confronts), is the most important issue of his first term. Probably it is the most important he will ever confront in his life. If he drags the U.S. into another war, a war that will be seen throughout the Arab world as a crusade against Islam itself, this will be the thing Barack Obama is remembered for. Why does he suppose, with such recurrent fantasy, that tactical silence and secret action are superior to an honest grappling with the work of public persuasion? The truth is that all Obama's big speeches have been about general matters: changes he sides with but cannot effect. Eventual health coverage for all Americans; the preservation of the middle class; peace among all nations. But Iran should be different.
Let us grant the obstacles, both internal and external. Obama is radically unsuited to crisis, in several ways we are now familiar with. He hates to be involved in negotiations; is easily bored, easily rankled, and hasn't the patience and the power of suspending vanity that are necessary for the work. Also (and this abets inertia), his convictions have surprised him by being weaker than he supposed. He came to the presidency with a sense of himself and the world that was fundamentally immature; his time in office has seen a slow process of public recognition of that fact. He is not a fighter. He is not a "good hater." He is not particularly loyal to his party. He is only now learning what it is to be a good explainer. Finally -- a tremendous error, with Iran -- he delegates rather than takes charge. Distaste for the battle of politics (a different thing from the contest of campaigning) is accompanied, in him, by a love of speculative discussions. So Obama waits; and while he waits, on any given question, the public mood drifts in a direction opposite from what he thought he was aiming for.