The State of the Union address by President Obama is a month away, but the content and orientation of that speech can be limned from White House briefings. Rather than discuss failures such as a healthcare website that still rejects applicants or ellipses such as the unrecorded conversations about the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi or political coercion such as the selective IRS vetting process for not-for-profit organizations, the president will concentrate on the deal with Iran as a major achievement.
He will not use the Neville Chamberlain rhetoric of “peace in our time” that could easily backfire, but he will make the dubious claim that the deal with Iran has reduced tensions in the Middle East. Moreover, he will maintain that his administration has accomplished with diplomacy what his adversaries believe can only be accomplished with war. The exaggerations come with the territory.
Amid great fanfare, the president will note, in an effort to win support among pro-Israel representatives and senators, that Iran has agreed – in what is likely to be an ambiguous pledge – not to challenge the existence of Israel. This pledge will not be a treaty or even a statement with adjectival cover, but it will be greeted with applause and commendation.
In the shadows stand the major Sunni nations, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, that feel betrayed by U.S. policy. The Israeli leadership has already described “the deal” as “an historic mistake,” but after the State of the Union speech will recognize the policy shift and a “sell-out.”
Of course, President Obama, while taking credit for the “breakthrough,” will note we must be vigilant and we should realize this is only the first phase in a multiphase process. But this cautionary note will be disregarded by the D.C. press corps eager to enhance the president’s reputation. In fact, the president is probably relying on that outcome.
The naysayers will be put in the back benches. No one wants to hear that this deal brings us closer to the brink of war. The cheering will drown out the cassandras. Most significantly, it will drive off the front page stories about the Affordable Healthcare Act, the hearings on Benghazi, the NSA leaks and the IRS debacle. For a week the White House will be in thralldom with backslapping at every meeting in the Oval office.
Most of the public loves Pangloss, Voltaire’s’ lovable optimist. The president will be in that role. Are we safer today that we were before this rapprochement, the president will ask. His answer is obvious, even though hard-headed realists will describe the president’s view as pollyannish.
War clouds over the horizon do not disappear because we will that to happen. Soft power in the form of diplomacy works when hard power stands astride. It is not uncommon in history for totalitarian nations to issue empty pledges in order to promote their interests. In fact, in most nations interests trump principle. For Iran, lies are an extension of interests with the goal of a Shia Crescent firmly rooted in the government vision. The basic structure of a deal, along the lines recently negotiated, has been on the table for a decade. Since what the U.S. is getting is a freeze, not a roll-back, Iran has much to gain and little to lose.
Nonetheless, the manner in which this event is played out has almost nothing to do with reality. President Obama has demonstrated that he prefers campaigning to governing. This State of the Union address will be a campaign speech to retain Democratic control of the Senate in 2014. The substance of the speech is almost irrelevant; it’s the effect that counts. My guess is that President Obama will gain several percentage points on as national approval rating that has been sliding. And that may be just enough for the Democrats to maintain leadership in the Senate.
Some contend that many Americans have become cynics. That may be true; but if it is true, there lies behind it a suspicion that government cannot be trusted. For me, the State of the Union address will simply be more ammunition for that stance. Believe the president at your own risk, for the dogs of history have been untethered and remain a dangerous pack on the world stage.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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