Naked Democracy, an occasional election-season column, will focus on the deeper disorders of our politics—those evaded or actively concealed by the money-drenched campaigns.
The irony of the 2016 presidential race is that the selection of a new American president might not be the most fateful political contest. Rather, it could be the showdown between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama over who runs US foreign policy. Neither man will be on the ballot next year, of course, but if Bibi succeeds in defeating Barack’s nuclear deal with Iran, it will cast a long, dark shadow over presidential contenders and the prospects for war or peace.
Not for the first time, the Israeli prime minister has bluntly intruded on US politics, making common cause with the Republican Party’s relentless efforts to demean and disparage the American president. Together Bibi and the GOP are now trying to poison public opinion and stifle debate on Obama’s deal and its long-term implications.
Public ignorance is a product of the political system itself, abetted by the shallow media coverage. The things not explained include why Iran has abiding hostility toward the “Great Satan,” and the deeper questions not asked include what happens if Bibi wins. The political stakes are bigger than whether Iran will change its intentions. The larger question is whether the United States can change its own aggressive role in the world.
Since the start of his presidency, Obama has attempted, in his halting way, to shift the American superpower from its combative military posture in the Middle East and elsewhere toward more patient diplomacy. Instead of blunt force, he has sought new relationships with some old adversaries. The monumental task is like trying to turn around a huge battleship in the midst of stormy seas.
If Obama’s deal is rejected, the door to greater restraint and balance in US foreign policy will be slammed shut. Practical politics would stick with overwhelming firepower and far-reaching troop deployments for national defense. Forget the nice talk about peace-making.
On their end, Iranian leaders might well reach a similar conclusion. With deal-making scrapped, Iran could race to develop a nuclear weapon before an Israeli strike aimed at destroying its nuclear facilities.
If so, the next move would belong to Bibi. As Israel has done in other circumstances and Netanyahu has hinted, Israel could try to wipe out Iran’s potential nukes in a single lightning strike. “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran,” as Senator John McCain once jokingly sang. The newly elected US president would have to decide whether to support its longstanding ally. He or she might not have much choice.