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Well, it seems that the previous Obama foreign policy doctrine sure didn’t last long. Starting last summer, the president’s diplomatic thinking made waves when a series of Mainstream Media reports, plus his own former Secretary of State, all seemed to agree that Mr. Obama’s strategic lodestar was “Don’t do stupid stuff” overseas. (You can read my critique here.) This week, however, the president appeared to unveil a strikingly new approach, which could be summarized as “Take Big Risks.” In addition, in an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Mr. Obama displayed other signs of greater foreign policy ambition, along with some incoherence, that didn’t attract nearly enough attention.

Friedman writes that the president’s own description of a new “Obama Doctrine”

emerged when I asked if there was a common denominator to his decisions to break free from longstanding United States policies isolating Burma, Cuba and now Iran. Obama said his view was that ‘engagement,’ combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-à-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.”

This view, however, lumps together some risk-reward ratios that don’t seem to belong in the same category. It makes perfect sense to argue, as per the president, that

You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies.”

But to contend that “The same is true with respect to Iran” is worrisome. Mr. Obama allowed that Iran is

a larger country, a dangerous country, one that has engaged in activities that resulted in the death of U.S. citizens, but the truth of the matter is: Iran’s defense budget is $30 billion. Our defense budget is closer to $600 billion. Iran understands that they cannot fight us. … You asked about an Obama doctrine. The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

This assessment, however, is coming from a president avowedly supremely aware of the difficulties America ran into in the last decade fighting in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq in post-9-11 Afghanistan. As with Vietnam decades before, these interventions show that crude indicators of military strength like budget levels can be dangerously misleading – all the more so when the adversary is halfway around the world, and convinced that it’s fighting for survival or for a fanatical cause. In addition, of course, the consequences of getting Cuba or Myanmar wrong are indeed negligible. Even if Washington avoids a new war, the consequences of getting Iran wrong could be catastrophic, not least because it could result in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a government with expansionist aims in a region still crucial to the world’s energy supplies.

An Obama miscalculation on Iran becomes even scarier upon realizing that the president seems to have greatly expanded America’s defense commitments in the Persian Gulf. In 1980, President Carter’s doctrine declared that the United States would defend Gulf states from aggressors from outside the region – meaning the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of 9-11, George W. Bush’s administration signaled a determination to respond with force preemptively – before being attacked – to eliminate the threat of weapons-of-mass-destruction use by rogue states. In 200x, the president turned words into deeds with the invasion of Iraq.

Now, Mr. Obama states that he’s willing “to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them.”  

That could be a perfectly legitimate decision to make. But as a major ramp up of U.S. foreign defense obligations, it needs a thorough examination by Congress and the public. Intensive debate is all the more important given the squeeze on America’s defense budget, and given the crucial lesson that the president should have learned from dealing with Vladimir Putin: The line between the internal and external threats faced by states are anything but clear-cut. And Iran has been at least as active as Russia in using various non-state proxy groups to advance its interests.

Finally, the president’s views of what’s motivating Iran remain confusing.  On the one hand, Mr. Obama repeated his conviction that “that the sanctions regime that we put together was weakening Iran over the long term,” stated that the country’s supreme leader agreed; and claimed that Ayatollah ali Khamenei believed that “if in fact he wanted to see Iran re-enter the community of nations, then there were going to have to be changes.” On the other hand, he described Iran as “a country that withstood an eight-year war and a million people dead, they’ve shown themselves willing, I think, to endure hardship when they considered a point of national pride or, in some cases, national survival.”

In other words, President Obama views Iran both as a country that would not allow stronger sanctions to “stop its nuclear program” (as he said in announcing the deal last week), and as one that was so anxious for sanctions relief that the prospect led to talks that have rendered it toothless (by his account) for many years.

It’s true that F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” At the same time, he made this point in an essay titled “The Crack-Up.”

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