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Since then, much of Obama’s transformative pretentions have given way to more grounded realities. But the faith in engaging diplomatically rather than dropping bombs hasn’t weakened. The Starship Diplomacy has plenty of warp drive, and its captain, Secretary of State John Kerry, plans to cover millions of parsecs in the next several years.
For Obama, this journey is clearly designed to protect his Prime Directive and thus avoid war and messy military interventions. Just think about the journeys of the Diplomacy so far.
In Syria, the goal of negotiations was to avoid an open-ended military intervention. Even the president’s professed red line for war — the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians — became a catalyst for deal-making and a trade: If the chemical weapons go, President Bashar Assad stays. (I have no empirical evidence to prove it, but I’m also convinced that the president’s desire to avoid military action in Syria was driven by his conviction that striking there would have triggered a proxy war with Iran and would have made a deal on the nuclear issue much harder.)
The same logic of using diplomacy to preempt war applies to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The president’s Iran policy aims to achieve three things: avoid an Israeli strike against Iran; preempt the need for an American one; and delay Iran’s becoming a nuclear weapons threshold state on Obama’s watch. Let Chris Christie or Hillary Clinton deal with it. And in Obama’s view, the only way to do these things, and thus protect the Prime Directive, is to use diplomacy to render unnecessary the need or desire for military action.
I don’t mean to suggest that Obama is a pacifist. He’s been a wartime president and a tough trader in counterterrorism since his first day in office. And unlike the United Federation of Planets, the point of his Prime Directive isn’t purely moral or philosophical. Rather, for Obama, the Prime Directive is driven by a practical belief that the use of military power in open-ended situations to achieve political objectives abroad is risky, costly, unpopular, and likely to undermine what he really cares about: his domestic agenda. After all, the success of his presidency will be shaped more by whether he can regain the momentum on his now troubled health-care initiative, the economy, and other social issues like immigration than by looking for Klingons to fight. What’s more, Obama is correctly reading the public, who also have a stake in wanting strict adherence to the Prime Directive. Coming off the two longest wars in American history and the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression, Obama presides over a people fed up with foreign adventures and wanting to be healed at home.
Under what circumstances would the president violate the Prime Directive, abandon the Starship Diplomacy, and consider serious and sustained military intervention in a foreign land? In the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, and based on everything he’s said and done to date, I can see only one situation: another catastrophic terrorist attack on the homeland.
Whether you agree with Obama or not, his “Star Trek” approach to foreign policy is actually quite logical, a Vulcan might say. The ultimate goal, after all, is to live long and prosper — as a nation, as a people.
Aaron David Miller, FP columnist, is vice president for new initiatives and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled “Can America Have Another Great President?”
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