In Israel-Iran Conflict, Don’t Rely on Romney

The leaders of Israel may very well decide to launch a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear program before the U.S. election on Nov. 6.

Sanctions are failing to persuade the Iranian regime to stop enriching uranium, and negotiations with members of the United Nations Security Council are bearing no fruit.

With these failures in mind, Israeli officials have intensified their rhetoric. The defense minister, Ehud Barak, told an audience this week at Israel’s National Defense College that although he is “well aware of the difficulties involved in thwarting Iran’s attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon,” he believes that “dealing with the threat itself will be far more complicated, far more dangerous and far more costly in resources and human life.”

Barak and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have argued that they don’t want to subcontract the task of attacking Iran’s nuclear program to the U.S. They think the Jewish state shouldn’t rely on others for its defense. Still, there’s a good chance they will postpone action until after the U.S. election, which is what the Obama administration says it wants them to do.

Hardest Line

Netanyahu would never say this publicly, but as a longtime watcher of the prime minister, I can say with reasonable surety that if Netanyahu were a more religiously observant Jew, he would be stuffing notes into the Western Wall right now, asking God to help Mitt Romney in Florida and Ohio. For Netanyahu, who is dispositionally and ideologically aligned with the U.S. Republican party, only a muscular conservative can be trusted to take the hardest line against Iran.

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On the matter of Iran, however, Netanyahu would be wrong to root for Romney. Barack Obama is the one who’s more likely to confront Iran militarily, should sanctions and negotiations fail. He has committed himself to stopping Iran by any means necessary, and he has a three-year record as president to back his rhetoric. Romney has only rhetoric, and he would be hamstrung in many ways if he chose military confrontation.

Romney, who is visiting Netanyahu in Jerusalem this weekend, isn’t soft on the matter. He told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention this week that, “A clear line must be drawn” with Iran: “There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, period. And at every turn, Iran must know that the United States and our allies stand as one in these critical objectives. Only in this way can we successfully counter the catastrophic threat that Iran presents.” He went on, “I pledge to you and to all Americans that if I become commander-in-chief, I will use every means necessary to protect ourselves and the region, and to prevent the worst from happening while there is still time.”

But Romney would face several critical challenges in a conflict with Iran that Obama would not:

-- Romney would be a new president in 2013, which could plausibly be the year for a preventive attack. He will be inexperienced, and his national security team will be new and potentially inexperienced as well. The learning curve on Iran is steep, and the Iranian regime knows it. The Obama team is deeply knowledgeable, appropriately cynical about Iranian intentions, and has had the time and confidence to make course corrections.

-- Romney, by all accounts, is uninterested in inheriting the mantle of President George W. Bush, who invaded two Muslim countries and lost popularity and credibility as a result. Romney, despite his rhetoric, is more of a pragmatist than Bush, and far more cautious. An attack on Iran is an incautious act, one that even Bush rejected.

-- The unilateral use of force in the Middle East for a liberal Democrat like Obama is a credential; for a conservative Republican like Romney, it could be an albatross. I argued in a previous column that Romney is more likely than Obama to oversee a revitalized Middle East peace process. That’s because conservatives are better positioned to make peace; liberals are generally better positioned to launch preventive strikes at the nuclear programs of rogue nations. We know that U.S. voters, and world leaders, allow Obama extraordinary leeway when it comes to deadly drone strikes, precisely because of his politics, character and background. (We are talking about a man, after all, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while ordering the automated killing of suspected Muslim terrorists around the world.) Romney will get no comparative slack.

-- Obama has done a superior job of building an international sanctions coalition against Iran. He has even received some cooperation from China and Russia. Before identifying Iran as the U.S.’s main adversary in the world, Romney named Russia. There’s no evidence to suggest Romney will do a better job than Obama has in negotiating with the Russians; no evidence to suggest that Romney will do a better job creating international support for stringent sanctions; and certainly no evidence he would do better in convincing allies that a strike against Iran is a necessity.

Choose Wisely

All of this isn’t to say that Obama, if he’s re-elected, will succeed in stopping Iran. The U.S. didn’t want Pakistan and North Korea to gain nuclear weapons, and they did anyway. The Iranian regime has flouted Obama’s demands, refused his offer to negotiate and challenged his naval deployments in the Persian Gulf.

But there’s no reason to think Romney would be more effective. Quite the opposite: Obama’s commitment to preventing an increase in the membership of the world’s nuclear club long predates the current crisis. He has devoted years to finding a peaceful solution to the Iran problem; other world leaders appreciate his patience, and would give him space to escalate next year, if he chooses.

Netanyahu should carefully consider Obama’s many strengths before wishing for a Romney victory.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own. This is the first in a two-part series.)

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To contact the author of this column: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

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