Obama's New Hardball with China, Iran

By the Monitor's Board | The Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Obama's New Hardball with China, Iran


the Monitor's Board, The Christian Science Monitor


The White House shifts from conciliatory diplomacy to get-tough actions, notably in arms sales to Taiwan and in stiffer sanctions on Iran for its nuclear deceit. Obama can no longer appear to be weak, but then again, there are risks to adopting a confrontational style.

After a year of trying to talk softly with Iran and China - only to be perceived as weak - President Obama has now decided he must carry a big stick.

Among several steps, he's selling $6.4 billion of arms to Taiwan, seeking tougher sanctions on Iran, inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House, and beefing up Arab defenses against Iranian missiles. And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has also escalated her rhetoric, just as defending Google against Beijing's censorship of the Internet and Chinese hacking attacks.

Obama's new get-tough actions, however, come with two risks: They could easily escalate into unintended confrontations and they appear to end the Obama strategy of approaching adversaries with an outstretched hand of cooperation.

In recent months, Obama has been openly snubbed by leaders of China and Iran despite gestures of conciliation. The most noticeable snub was the cold shoulder that the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, personally gave to Obama at recent international talks on climate change.

If the president has erred in his hopes of winning compromise by offering compromise, it is possibly because he miscalculated how much the leaders of Iran and China feel endangered by their own restless populations and other threats within while they also try to exert more power in their respective regions.

The two countries are linked in American eyes by China's refusal to allow the UN Security Council to approve tougher economic sanctions on Iran - despite Tehran's evident deceit about its nuclear program.

Preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or an Israeli attack on Iran is one of Obama's top foreign-policy goals - and China just isn't cooperating. It would rather keep importing oil from Iran. And Obama faces pressure to act from recent votes in Congress on bills that would tighten the screws on Tehran by imposing strictures on the global sale of gasoline to Iran - an Achilles' heel for its economy.

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