Barack Obama has accused Republican presidential candidates of casually “beating the drums of war” over Iran without having the political courage to directly advocate a military attack or considering the human cost of battle.
In his first press conference of the year Tuesday Obama turned on the Republican politicians who for days have been accusing him of weakness and naivete over Iran, ramped up by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit and a meeting of the US’s most powerful pro-Israel lobby group.
The president said that his policy of sanctions has united much of the international community to pressure Iran and that “we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically”.
“That’s my track record. Now, what’s said on the campaign trail – those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities. They’re not commander-in-chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war,” he said.
“I’m reminded that the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle, and the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy. This is not a game. There’s nothing casual about it.”
Obama returned to the theme later in the press conference.
“When I sign letters to families that haven’t – whose loved ones have not come home, I am reminded that there is a cost. Sometimes we bear that cost. But we think it through. We don’t play politics with it,” he said.
“Typically, it’s not the folks who are popping off who pay the price. It’s these incredible men and women in uniform and their families who pay the price.”
The president went on to challenge his Republican opponents to say if they want a war and then address the consequences of attacking Iran.
“Now, the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk,” he said.
Obama’s comments were aimed, among others, at Mitt Romney, who described the president as “feckless” over Iran in Tuesday’s Washington Post and advocated a policy of “peace through strength”.
The press conference came hours after the announcement that the US will join Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany in a new round of negotiations with Tehran, a move that led Rick Santorum to accuse Obama of “appeasement”.
Obama defended those talks, saying they are an opportunity to judge whether Iran understands that “the world community means business”.
“I don’t expect a breakthrough in a first meeting, but I think we will have a pretty good sense fairly quickly as to how serious they are about resolving the issue,” he said.
Obama derided the aggressive posturing of some of his opponents and more hawkish supporters of Israel who have pressed for an explicit commitment to the use of force against Iran by setting “red lines” that Tehran’s nuclear programme must not cross.
“When I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do, it turns out they repeat the things that we’ve been doing over the last three years, it indicates to me that that’s more about politics than actually trying to solve a difficult problem,” he said.
The president had a similar reaction to calls for military action against Syria, including Senator John McCain’s demand this week that the US bomb in support of the forces fighting the regime in Damascus.
Obama said that events in Syria are “heartbreaking” but that military intervention is not the answer.
“For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake. What happened in Libya was we mobilised the international community, had a UN security council mandate, had the full cooperation of the region, Arab states, and we knew that we could execute very effectively in a relatively short period of time. This is a much more complicated situation,” he said.
“The notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military, that hasn’t been true in the past and it won’t be true now. We’ve got to think through what we do through the lens of what’s going to be effective, but also what’s critical for US security interests.”
The president has been accused of weakness over both Syria and Iran, but the focus of recent days has been on Tehran because of differences with Netanyahu over the value of sanctions and diplomacy.
The Israeli prime minister on Monday derided the effectiveness of sanctions in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and said that “none of us can afford to wait much longer” to act against Tehran.
Romney told Aipac on Tuesday that Obama’s policy of “engagement” with Tehran is naive and gave the Iranian leadership time to develop its nuclear programme.
“Hope is not a foreign policy. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve backed by our power and our readiness to use it,” he said. “As president I’ll be ready to engage in diplomacy but I will be just as ready to engage our military might.”
Newt Gingrich went the further in telling Aipac that as president he would give Israel the means to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities and let it do so without question.
“I will initiate a strategy in the tradition of Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II to undermine and replace the Iranian dictatorship by every possible method short of war in order to achieve a government we could trust and could deal with,” he said.
“At the same time I would provide all available intelligence to the Israeli government, ensure that they had the equipment necessary and reassure them that if an Israeli prime minister decides he has to avoid the threat of a second Holocaust through pre-emptive measures that I would require no advance notice to understand why I would support the right of Israel to survive in a dangerous world.”
Santorum said Obama should put an ultimatum to Tehran to end its nuclear programme and “that if they don’t tear down those facilities, we will tear down them ourselves”.
Obama’s pushback was reinforced by the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, who told the president’s critics not to mistake a willingness to pursue diplomacy for weakness.
Panetta, speaking to Aipac on Tuesday, said the military option is on the table as a last resort if sanctions fail and the president’s record demonstrates that he will use it if he believes there is no alternative.
“As the president made clear, the United States does not bluff. In this town it’s easy to talk tough. Acting tough is a hell of a lot more important,” he said.
“The president ordered 30,000 additional troops to battle in Afghanistan to confront a resurgent Taliban. He launched a comprehensive precision bombing campaign to protect the Libyans and ultimately toppled a brutal dictator. He has ordered US warships to pass through the straits of Hormuz despite the threats that we have received from Iran.
“And he has been the driving force behind the most successful and lethal counter-terrorism campaign in US history culminating in the bold decision to send US special operations forces hundreds of miles into Pakistan to take the risk to take down bin Laden. And he did.”
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