In his first nationally televised press conference in almost half a year, President Barack Obama directed impassioned criticism at Republican presidential candidates and other public figures who are quickening their drumbeat for war with Iran.
“This is not a game,” Obama said. “Those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities. They are not commander-in-chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war.”
Timed to coincide with the annual AIPAC meeting, Republican members of Congress and leading presidential primary contenders have amplified their rhetoric and sought to blur the distinctions between their own favored Iran policies and the President’s. The impact, if unchecked, could trigger or hasten a military conflagration that Obama argues can be avoided if diplomatic efforts are given enough time and space to proceed.
In an effort to limit Obama’s options, leading Republicans are now arguing that Obama should amplify his own rhetoric and publicly commit himself to military action earlier than administration and intelligence officials believe is prudent.
“In attempting to preserve all options, [the administration] has inadvertently blurred the most important one, and that’s a determined military campaign to end Iran’s nuclear program,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told AIPAC attendees on Monday.
McConnell has also proposed that Congress debate and vote on an authorization of the use of military force in Iran.
“[T]he markers this administration has identified, whether they be a program to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or a decision to construct a weapon, are only truly red lines if crossing them brings about painful consequences,” he went on. “In my view, the only way — the only way — the Iranian regime can be expected to negotiate to preserve its own survival rather than to simply delay as a means of pursuing nuclear weapons is if the administration imposes the strictest sanctions while at the same time enforcing a firm declaratory policy that reflects a commitment to the use of force.”
Leading GOP candidate Mitt Romney issued a similar appeal in a Monday Washington Post op-ed.
But as Obama said Tuesday, “I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster, and a lot of big talk, but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years — it indicates to me that that’s more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem.”
Indeed two marginal details define the differences between Obama and the GOP. First, the GOP would like Obama to be more bellicose in his public communications. Second, the GOP would like Obama to move his redline for military action forward: from the time when an Iranian bomb is imminent to the moment intelligence indicates they’re actively pursuing one.
As former intelligence officer, and Middle East expert Paul Pillar argued in a recent Washington Monthly essay, these differences reflect the fact that the poles of the public debate have “narrowed and ossified around the ‘sensible’ idea that all options must be pursued to prevent the country from acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Obama’s a part of that consensus, but he’s also very publicly trying to rein in the political forces attempting to drag him further to the right.
“We will not countenance Iran getting a nuclear weapon. My policy is not containment. My policy is to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, because if they get a nuclear weapon that could trigger an arms race in the region, it would undermine our non-proliferation goals, it could potentially fall into the hands of terrorists,” Obama said. “At this stage it is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically. That’s not just my view. That’s the view of our top intelligence officials. It’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.”
But, Obama went on, “the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so, and they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.