Obama's Foreign Policy Poker Face

The president understands the rules of bluffing.

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President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic Party fundraising event in San Francisco on Nov. 25, 2013.

By the end of week two, students taking the course "Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" at Washington and Jefferson College are happily grasping just how the "the rules of the bluff" work.

You can see it in their eyes and smiles. They beam with appreciation of this new knowledge. They cannot camouflage the glint of mischievous that betrays their eagerness to try this new prowess.

So, too, it seems, the Obama administration has learned these same rules and likewise embraced the power thus contained after perhaps having a bluff of its own called.

The Obama administration has called the bluff of friend and foe alike in at least four parts of the world:  Syria, China, Afghanistan and Israel. For the moment, they are well-timed strokes.

The reason for this tactical shift? We know Mercury is out of retrograde. We also know that Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and others now infusing the Obama second term have goals, not careers, in sight. The bluntness of that reality offers more tools for stronger action than the inaction often promulgated from reputation caution.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Additionally, there may be some harsh recognition by President Obama after his "red line" regarding the use of chemical weapons was crossed by Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country's civil war. Rules of the bluff clearly state that you should be prepared for the consequences if your bluff is called. Assad called that bluff, but no true response plan was ready. Ad hoc policy ensued, and by the dint of luck, the White House found a way to keep face and buy time, at a price.

So heed the six "rules of the bluff." Never bluff on the fly. Always consider the consequences of the bluff. You have to be convinced of the bluff to be successful. Keep the bluff simple. Use the bluff as a last resort. Don't underestimate the other guy.

One prime example is Afghanistan. The U.S. has been laboring to create and has signed a bilateral security agreement to define a long-term partnership after the scheduled withdrawal of most U.S troops in 2014. The agreement was just endorsed by the nation's loya jirga, or council of elders, which voted to urge Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the agreement immediately.

Karzai, however, keeps adding conditions. U.S. frustration and anger is clear. In unusually blunt words, allies of the Obama administration have publically denounced the "manufactured crisis" tactic. "Karzai is making a self-serving and dangerous gamble, and Afghan lives are on the line," wrote some in a Washington Post op-ed.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

That is one signal the U.S may call Karzai's bluff and leave. For the moment, it is a bluff standoff. Karzai should note rules number two and six: Always consider the consequences of the bluff and don't underestimate the other guy.

Then look at East Asia, where there is probing to see if China is bluffing in its creation of an extended air defense zone and its threats to shoot down any aircraft not following new rules and identification protocol.

The United States called China's bluff by sending two warplanes into the zone three days after that declaration.

Beijing had no significant response. Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told  The Washington Post that China's mild reaction was surprising. "It is almost as though they hadn't anticipated the U.S. response and didn't know what to do," he said. This looks like clear broken rules by China, such as using the bluff as a last resort and don't underestimate the other guy.

Regarding Iran and Israel and possible nuclear weapons, Obama used the very words "I don't bluff" almost two years ago when stated he would take action to prevent Iran from building a bomb. Saying that almost requires action when the bluff is called, as the case in Syria.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Some think that Iran never wanted to build a weapon and is bluffing — much like Saddam Hussein was about his possession of non-existent weapons. That bluff was called, and that mire of a mess continues. 

The Iran deal forged by Kerry freezes two potential bluffs – chilling Israel's threat to take military action while seeing if Iran can be non-rogue and have a modicum of trustworthiness.

The Obama administration is following the rules very well at this point. They have altered the calculus of the different situations by wresting the momentum from the provocative parties. They did the "A "for appraisal and the "B" is for bluff. As taught in class, "C" can stand for many options, most which continue the chaos, before we get to the "D" of decision and the "E" for the end.

We will know when we know.

Tom Squitieri is a college professor and award-winning foreign correspondent. He also writes for the Foreign Policy Association. You can follow him on Twitter: @TomSquitieri.

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