Barack Obama is obsessed with words, and he never learned to make a short speech. The Israelis understand that, however well-meaning he may be. The president may even believe most of the stuff he hears himself say.
Mr. Obama made another pretty speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, on Sunday that was thrilling only to those who gorge on the romance of rhetoric. Mr. Obama and his teleprompter put on a show of bluffery that was surely the envy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Iran’s leaders should know,” the president said, “that I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Almost any Iranian truck driver could guide a Mack truck through the loopholes with no fear of scratching the paint. The president won’t hesitate when it’s “necessary” to defend the United States and its “interests.” The president, of course, will decide when it’s “necessary,” and he gets to determine what those “interests” may be. It may be “necessary” to reassure the Islamic world by doing nothing beyond making still another speech. The “interests” of the United States, as Mr. Obama might define them, could only be defended by another bow from the presidential waist.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the visiting Israeli prime minister who is accustomed to tense visits to friends in Washington, reminded Mr. Obama the next day that despite the president’s scolding about “loose talk of war” his own responsibility to his country is “to ensure that Israel remains the master of its fate.” He could have reminded the president of the reply of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to French demands for tribute and other bribes for “offensive” remarks by President John Adams to Tallyrand: “Millions for defense, sir, but not one cent for tribute.” Such plain speech has gone out of style in Washington, when and where it is needed most. But not in Jerusalem, where the threat of hanging naturally focuses the mind, as Dr. Johnson said.
Mr. Obama, with his high regard for his reputation as a man with singular gifts of pretty speech, no doubt imagines he has discharged his obligations to an ally with words (and a few notes of the music). If he were a true student of the Muslim mind, instead of being merely an admirer of the cultural gifts of Islam (such as they are), he would understand that the hard men in Tehran hear his rhetoric not as kindly sentiment but as evidence of weakness and flaccid impotence. That’s why they so eagerly get on with the pursuit of the weapons needed to “wipe Israel off the map.” The Islamic despots understand a thing or two about empty rhetoric.
Nobody wants war, which is always bad for all living things. The Israelis understand that a nuclear weapon in evil hands will be bad for Israel most of all. “I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Obama told AIPAC, “I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.” This echoes his declaration earlier to an interviewer that he doesn’t bluff. Alas, a man who doesn’t bluff never has to say so; if he makes such a boast, it’s usually a giveaway that he’s bluffing. When Richard Nixon declared that he was not a crook, everyone took that as confirmation that he was. Some things are most obvious when unspoken.
Through word and lack of deed, Mr. Obama leaves the inevitable impression that he regards the standoff between Iran and Israel in terms of moral equivalence, not as the harsh reality that it’s Iran’s boast, that it will destroy the Jewish state while it builds the weapons that could do it, that is the source of fear and loathing in the Middle East. It’s Mr. Obama’s insistence that he prefers diplomacy that reassures the mullahs in Tehran, that he is counting on his eloquent bluster, boasting and bombast as the weapons that will make the Iranians and their like-minded friends repent and behave themselves.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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