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June 25, 2009

Voting Present vs. Having Skin in the Game

Many commentators discuss Obama's statements on Iran only in terms of providing moral support. I have done so myself, actually. John McCain too, who specifically disclaimed any intent to arm the protesters or take any other aggressive action against the regime in demanding Obama speak out more forcefully.

But the thing is, that's kind of disingenuous.

When a President speaks out forcefully on a regime's behavior, he's putting a little of his credibility on the line. He's risking some authority in a gamble, basically.

If the regime backs down or otherwise modifies its behavior, he gains credibility.

If the regime goes further than it has even after he's spoken out forcefully, and he does not take any action whatsoever in retaliation, then the world knows his words are "just words" (to use an Obamaism, which he actually stole from Deval Patrick, which was actually written for him by David Axelrod). He loses standing. The world knows his words do not mean anything much at all.

If the regime doesn't back down and doesn't modify its behavior, but his words are then followed up with action, he gains also gains credibility. Whether his actions are dramatic or minor, he still gains credibility. The world knows words will be backed with actions of some kind.

The point of speaking out forcefully isn't just to provide moral support for the Iranian resisters. It's to put a little of America's credibility on the line, in a calculated gamble. The gamble is simple: Some credibility and authority is risked in hopes that the regime will understand that America now has skin in the game, now has made a promise of sorts -- a vague and inchoate promise, yes, but a promise just the same -- that failure to modify its behavior will incur consequences.

Either the regime backs down, or it doesn't.

And if it doesn't, either America follows up with tangible action or it doesn't.

Either the gamble works on modifying the regime's behavior, in which case the gamble pays off tremendously, because a positive change has been achieved through a cost-free statement; or the regime doesn't modify its behavior, but America takes strong actions, in which case the gamble pays off anywhere from a small amount to a (rarely) a large amount, but at the additional cost of action, whatever those costs may be; or the regime doesn't modify its behavior, and America does nothing, in which case the gamble is a loser and the credibility and authority risked is forfeit.

But speaking forcefully against a regime, and offering either explicit or implicit threats for noncompliance, puts a regime on notice that it now is itself at risk. America obviously does not wish to forfeit the credibility and authority it has gambled, so a regime that acts in complete defiance knows it is risking consequences.

It also knows that if it behaves outrageously -- going beyond mere defiance -- it almost demands a response from the American President.

Now speaking out like this limits a President's range of options, which is why presidents are cautious about it. Presidents don't want to overcommit to a policy, even in a vague manner; they don't want to be forced to act, merely to maintain their credibility. They would prefer, as anyone would, to have the greatest range of options open to them, at the lowest risk.

But sometimes they do have to take risks and commit themselves, however vaguely, to some unspecified future action should their words not be heeded. This is a critical middle step between business-as-usual diplomacy and open declaration of hostilities.

Obama, more "cautious" than most presidents -- feckless, really -- and much more allergic to the thought of acting, and much more hesitant to commit himself to any policy whatsoever that he might later wish to escape from, has refused until recently to so much as even "condemn" Iran. He calls brutality and murder in the streets a "vigorous debate" between repressed and repressors. His view seems to be that Iran is pioneering a novel and exciting new form of oratory: Xtreme Forensics.

Possibly with an eye to getting a show on Spike.

In short, he is unwilling to lay down any marker whatsoever vis a vis Iran. He is unwilling to suggest, even softly or vaguely, that US patience has its breaking point, because if he were to say so, he would be committing himself, however softly and vaguely, to some unspecified future action should the mullahs continue their brutality or, worse for him yet, dramatically escalate it.

The mullahs know this, of course. And they read into Obama's statements the utter lack of desire to lay down any tripwire which will invite, or even demand, a US response of actions, not words. And so he has broadcast to them, and to the world, that they can do anything they like, anything at all, without risking positive US action against them.

And so they are free to do as much evil as they want, or as they think they need. His statements actually encourage them through their feebleness; they know he has not risked any of his personal credibility in the matter, and so can walk away from the table without having risked any chips in the pot, and so they expect him to do just that. Walk away from their own big bets and bluffs.

Which, of course, he will. His own statements tell them that. They've "read him," they see his "tells." He's willing to watch over their shoulders and spectate, but entirely unwilling to join the game. Except, maybe (to continue this analogy), to play with "free chips," the kind of non-chips you give to a kid or a clueless girlfriend just to give them something to do.

The North Koreans have read his tells as well. They too know that Obama is simply not willing to confront them under any circumstances, except, perhaps, for a missile attack on US soil. And they don't even fear the consequences of that all that much, because they're aiming a missile at Hawaii and Obama still balks from putting up his chips and making it clear that there will be consequences for such an act of war.

Iran knows it can do what it likes. At the very least, they know they can continue with their strategy of random-but-not-mass killings, because even that incurs no implicit threat from Obama. Since he's finally gotten around to "condemning" their violence, they are perhaps somewhat mindful that going even further may incur consequences; but they doubt that as well, and besides, the current policy of a few murders here and there is working for them. They don't currently need to escalate, and Obama's reaction tells them they are completely safe as long as they continue with their current successful policy of selective murder.

Obama is willing to risk some political capital and credibility, but only on domestic pushes for socialism. The world knows he's a single-minded one-trick pony and views anything that occurs outside the headlong drive for socialism as an inconvenient "distraction" that does not need to be solved, but merely bumped off the front page.

The dictators and terrorists know this. Even US allies in socialistic Europe know this. The only people who don't seem to know this are the US media and the American public, which is largely shielded from these realizations by a severe underreportage of such "distractions."

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posted by Ace at 04:22 PM

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