from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The President Degrades the Debate on Iran

March 6, 2012

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At his news conference today President Obama was asked about the debate over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The context, of course, is the AIPAC Policy Conference at which he and a number of other American leaders of both parties spoke. Some of them took positions tougher or more explicit than his own. Here is part of the President’s reply:

I do think that any time we consider military action that the American people understand that there is going to be a price to pay. Sometime it’s necessary. But we don’t do it casually. When I visit Walter Reed; when I sign letters to families that haven’t, uh, whose loved ones who’ve not come home. I’m reminded that there is a cost. Sometimes we bear that cost but we think it through. We don’t play politics with it. When we have in the past, when we haven’t thought it through and it gets wrapped up in politics we make mistakes and typically it’s not the folks who are, uh, popping off who pay the price it’s these incredible men and women in uniform and their families who pay the price.

This is a very nasty set of accusations: that those who take a view different from his are all playing politics, and are irresponsibly "popping off" without thinking through the price. I was struck by these comments when reading the statement made today by Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman calling for intervention in Syria to stop the slaughter there.

Here is the key section:

the time has come for a new policy. As we continue to isolate Assad diplomatically and economically, we should work with our closest friends and allies to support opposition groups inside Syria, both political and military, to help them organize themselves into a more cohesive and effective force that can put an end to the bloodshed and force Assad and his loyalists to leave power, which has been the goal of United States policy since August 2011.

What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad’s tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but as Assad continues to intensify his assault, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower.

Therefore, if requested by the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, the United States should help organize an international effort to protect civilian population centers in Syria through airstrikes on Assad’s forces.

I wonder if the President thinks these three senators are just playing politics, just "popping off," and do not understand the price that conflict can bring. That is quite a charge for anyone to make against Sen. McCain in particular, who has also taken a position tougher than the President’s on Iran. Last month, in Jerusalem, McCain said "It is unacceptable for the Iranian regime to develop a nuclear weapons capability, and if they continue, they must be stopped."

Now one can argue that in these policy arguments, the President is right and McCain, Lieberman, and many other senators, analysts, and critics are wrong. But the President is wrong, badly wrong, when he seeks to prevent open debate by challenging not the wisdom but the motivations of those who take differing views. He owes McCain an apology, for one thing. More broadly, one has to conclude that the President doubts the efficacy of his own policy and the persuasiveness of his own arguments when his reply to challenges is to demean those who disagree.

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