Never did the Republican presidential field look more clueless than in the sharp contrast between President Obama’s nuanced Iran policy and the collection of GOP war advocates, especially now that the United States and Iran have formally agreed to resume negotiations. Mitt Romney’s bombast, even though his actual policy recommendations differ little from Obama’s, Rick Santorum’s war cries and Newt Gingrich’s foaming anti-Muslim rhetoric mark them as clearly unpresidential at best. At worst, they look like Benjamin Netanyahu’s Greek chorus.
But let’s not let Obama off the hook. Earlier this week, I wrote about Obama’s well-designed putdown of Netanyahu, and he followed that up by treating the Republicans as if they were misbehaving children who don’t understand that real people die in real wars. Today I want to write about what’s wrong with Obama’s policy on Iran.
Some antiwar types cheered when Obama refused to endorse Netanyahu’s so-called “red line” for war, namely, that Israel and/or the United States should strike Iran when it develops some nebulous and ill-defined capability to manufacture a weapon—and that’s fine. On that Obama is correct. But there are plenty of problems with Obama’s own “red line,” which he defined as concrete evidence that Iran is moving toward militarizing its nuclear capability, say, by rushing to refine its stockpile of enriched uranium to weapons grade, kicking out the IAEA inspectors and overtly or covertly going for a nuclear bomb.
Even if Iran were to do all those things, and even if Iran were to acquire a bomb, it’s still a terrible idea to go to war. For years, inside the White House, there’s been a debate over exactly that: What to do if Tehran acquires, or almost acquires, a bomb? Because it’s difficult to talk about in public, especially to an electorate radicalized by the Israel lobby, the neoconservatives and the GOP, the White House has said next to nothing about its discussions over policy toward a “post-nuclear” Iran. In his speech to AIPAC, the president pleased Israel’s leaders by saying explicitly that he opposes “containment” of a nuclear Iran, and he emphasized that his policy is to prevent that from happening.
But short of war, and if negotiations fail, there’s not much Obama can do to prevent it. So, smart people in the administration know that they’ll have to develop a policy to live with it.
So Obama’s red line is a dangerous error. He’s committing himself to war, or something like it, if Iran gets the bomb or gets close. That’s not only dangerous but it’s politically stupid, because then if Iran gets the bomb either Obama has to go to war—with awful, unspeakable consequences, or he’ll look like he backed down.
Paul Pillar, a former top US intelligence official, wrote recently in The Washington Monthly that war with Iran is a bad idea even if Tehran gets the bomb. In a piece entitled, “We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran,” Pillar said: