Why Obama Waited

“What took you so long?” Fox News correspondent Major Garrett heckled the president of the United States at his news conference this week, after the president condemned the Iranian government’s bloody crackdown on protestors.

And, as I predicted in my post the other day (you hardly needed a crystal ball), President Barack Obama’s critics have pushed each other out of the way to pile on this point.

“I’m glad the president finally did rise to the occasion here,” former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told CBS, in one of the more muted statements, adding: “The president should have spoken from the very beginning expressing the fact that we will always stand with the forces of freedom throughout the world and we will oppose tyranny.”

It’s been well documented from the start that, before the Iranian revolution turned bloody, President Obama was trying to walk a fine line so as not to be seen as meddling. He didn’t want to give Iranian hardliners material that they could use as propaganda against peaceful protestors in the street.

But there is another, broader strategic reason he waited, as well. As Helene Cooper reports in The New York Times today:

“The White House and the West are calculating that … Mr. Obama’s measured stance will put the United States in a far better position to get Russia and China to agree to tough sanctions against Iran than if Mr. Obama had struck a strident note early on.”

As President Obama indicated to Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, he doesn’t intend to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program beyond the end of the year. One form of pressure the United States can exert is the threat of economic sanctions — but that’s a paper tiger without the participation of Russia and China. If President Obama had come out hurling fire and brimstone the first day, as his detractors wanted him to do, he could have severely undermined the likelihood of assembling a broad international coalition, including Russia and China, to impose meaningful sanctions.

(Which, by the way, is exactly what Netanyahu is pressing for this week in Europe.)

In other words, despite what Major Garrett and the fulminating critics on the right apparently wanted to hear, President Obama’s measured response was not only thoughtful, it was strategic, and in the best long term national security interests of both the United States and Israel.

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