In the odd dance of diplomacy, tough talk can be a signal that no action will follow. But the tough talk coming from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about Iran appears to signal an even more disheartening fact: the United States still hasn't decided what to do about the mad mullahs' race to get a nuclear bomb.
The confusion was on full display during Clinton's puzzling Mideast trip, even as Iran ramps up its enrichment of uranium and threatens the world. She declared that Iran was becoming a military dictatorship, but denied that America had any plans for a military strike.
She called for tougher UN sanctions, but then refloated her frightening idea that America's response to an Iranian bomb should be a "defense umbrella" throughout the Mideast and parts of Asia.
Our key allies are understandably nervous, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia. Neither wants Iran to get a nuke, and both are frustrated over American inaction, with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warning Clinton the belated move to sanctions was insufficient. "We need an immediate resolution" he said.
The Saudi sounded like an Israeli. Indeed, the two countries' historic antipathy is being overshadowed by their shared fear that President Obama is willing to let Iran get the bomb and then play defense.
It would be one thing if they knew for certain Obama's bottom line. But they, like America and the rest of the world, are left to guess because the White House is sending so many mixed signals, it's not clear to anyone if Obama himself even knows what he will do.
The goofiest notion came from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who claims the policy of endlessly engaging Iran -- or "bending over backwards," as Obama put it -- has already succeeded because the world now sees that Iran, and not the United States, was the problem all along.
This is defining success down to nothingness. And it reflects two disturbing ideas.
One, Obama truly thought President George W. Bush was the problem. Two, Obama cares more about process than results.
Sophistry is no substitute for national security, and will be fatal if the mullahs even come close to getting a bomb. As I reported from Israel two weeks ago, there is widespread agreement that the tiny Jewish state cannot survive a nuclear-armed Iran and will launch a military strike if it becomes convinced the nuke capacity is certain.
A sense the military moment is drawing closer helps explain the flurry of diplomatic efforts that include recent visits to Israel by CIA Director Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs head Adm. Mike Mullen. Both cautioned against a military strike, but neither apparently offered assurances that the United States is committed to stopping Iran.
Another important timing indicator is the trip to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He pushed Moscow to support "crippling" sanctions against Iran, but also urged Russia to delay delivery to Iran of new surface-to-air missiles.
The implications are obvious. Israel is concerned the missiles could stop its warplanes from getting to Iran's nuclear sites.
In its own crazy way, the thugocracy in Tehran might welcome an Israeli strike. It could unleash not only its arsenal, but also that of its proxies, Hezbollah, Hamas and certain militias in Iraq. It could create mayhem and win the hearts and minds of Muslims everywhere by presenting itself as the victim of Israeli aggression.
On the other hand, Iran's rulers might make a very different choice if they really believed Obama would use American force. So far, they are acting as though they don't believe he will, and thus are free to pursue their nuclear dreams.
Obama can either prove Iran right, or he can prove it wrong. Sooner rather than later, The Decider must decide.
Michael Goodwin is a New York Post columnist and Fox News contributor. To continue reading his column, click here.