Recently, I've been spending some time with a group of ex-Israeli generals (and American policy makers), talking about, among other things, the appropriate American response to the Iranian nuclear program. These ex-generals (most of them pragmatic to the point of cynicism) believe that U.S. President Barack Obama’s Hamlet-like behavior on Syria should force reasonable observers to recognize that he will never be willing to use military force against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In the view of these ex-military men, Obama’s promise to keep all options on the table is empty. The president, they believe, is bluffing.

This is the view of many current Israeli policy makers, as well, and it is also the view of a large number of Arab officials, many of whom are in the throes of an extended conniption about what they see as Obama’s slow abandonment of his Middle East allies to the cruel fate of Iranian regional domination. It should go without saying that the more hawkish analysts and advocates in Washington foreign policy and defense circles also make this assumption.

I’ve written about this faulty assumption before. Why is it faulty? Because for it to work, you must believe that something that isn’t true is, in fact, true, which is that the president believes Syria represents a challenge on par with the challenge posed by the Iranian nuclear program. He very clearly does not believe this.

There are only two issues in the Middle East that Obama considers to be profound national security challenges to the U.S.: The continued existence of al-Qaeda, and the threat of a nuclear Iran. He has made it clear that he never considered the Syrian civil war, and even the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime, to rise to the level of those threats. (We’re putting aside, for purposes of this discussion, the morality, or immorality, of this belief, although I suppose it is immoral even to put the discussion of immorality aside.)

So his behavior during the Syria crisis -- no matter how ambiguous, hesitant and disorganized it was (all documented in an excellent New York Times article today) does not necessarily teach us much about what Obama will do if he reaches the conclusion that Iran is uninterested in serious compromise on the nuclear issue.

But let me raise another point that I don’t think is adequately understood by the Iran hawks: Obama’s unwillingness to engage militarily in Syria may ultimately make it more likely that he will one day strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, should sanctions and negotiations fail to push Iran off the nuclear path.

Think of it this way: If Barack Obama were today bogged down in Syria in some fashion, it seems extremely unlikely that he would possess the maneuverability, domestically or internationally, to launch strikes in yet another Muslim country. As all but the most myopic Obama critics acknowledge, the president is no pacifist when it comes to targeting Muslims he believes pose a danger to the U.S. But, as George W. Bush learned, presidents must judiciously avoid Middle East quagmires.

Of course, if the missile strikes Obama was thinking about launching in late August -- “unbelievably small” strikes, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s immortal phrase -- had somehow miraculously dislodged the Assad regime from power, well, then, he would now have some freedom of movement. But there was no chance that such strikes would have led to the collapse of the regime. Quite the opposite. The likely outcome of those strikes, in particular strikes launched without Congressional approval, would have been, in no particular order:

  1. Syrian civilian casualties;
  2. Images of a triumphant, and empowered, Assad emerging into sunlight after surviving what he would inevitably have cast as a ferocious and criminal attack;
  3. An even-more vengeful Syrian Army murdering large numbers of civilians, forcing the U.S. to contemplate escalation;
  4. A demoralizing and debilitating attempt by some Congressional Republicans to impeach the president;
  5. A more potent strain of isolationism coursing through an American population that had doubted the need for such strikes in the first place;
  6. Possible terrorism against American targets, or targets belonging to America’s Middle East allies, resulting in new pressure on Obama to ramp up his anti-Assad campaign.

Whether Syria would have become a quagmire for the U.S. is an interesting question, though I tend to doubt that it -- if only because domestic American pressure against escalation would have been profound. The invasion of Iraq has made many Americans allergic to Middle East adventurism. This allergy means that any American president will have a difficult time making the case for a military intervention in Iran.

Yet by keeping America out of Syria, President Obama may have preserved his ability to intervene in Iran. I believe that he does not want Iran to gain possession of a nuclear weapon; whether he can actually prevent this from happening is another story. But he has a greater chance of escaping that fate if he avoids over-extension in other parts of the Middle East.