John Robertson writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
CAN OBAMA PREVAIL AGAINST A ROMNEY-NETANYAHU TICKET?
Paul Pillar and Leslie Gelb – both of them well-respected and largely mainstream commentators on US foreign policy – have recently published essays cautioning us all – and Mr. Obama especially – to step back, breathe deeply, ask tough questions, and get sound answers before launching a military strike against Iran. And as Gelb’s piece (excerpted below) cogently notes, the silly season of presidential campaigning is going to elicit (indeed, already has elicited) a lot of tough-guy, red-blooded American bellicosity from GOP candidates eager to bash Obama and score nationally televised debate points in mega-auditoriums crammed full of lustily cheering Republican worthies:
It doesn’t take a genius to see what lies ahead in our nation’s election year. Most Republican presidential candidates are saying that Iran will never get close to nukes if they’re in the White House. The candidates are outdoing one another in outrageous commitments to sound tough. Recently, Mitt Romney put it like this: “If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon … If you’d like me as the next president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” And though we all know how careful Obama is, the dynamics of campaigns are bound to push him toward incaution to fend off charges of “weakness.” This is what happens to presidents in most elections.
One might be a bit reassured in all of this by the recent claims by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak that Israel at this point has no intention of attacking Iran, and by recent indications that Obama’s people (including Sec of Defense Leon Panetta as well as the US intelligence establishment) have been pushing back (especially against Israel), hard, against the push to attack Iran.
But let’s also not forget that Mr. Netanyahu would like nothing better than to see Obama evicted – as ingloriously as possible – from the White House, and knows that when it comes to Israel’s interests, Congress has his back. It also stands to reason that, assuming that he becomes the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney – as Leslie Gelb notes – will continue to paint Obama as a temporizing coward unwilling to take on the Iranian leadership. (He will, of course, label the ever more stringent US-inspired sanctions against Iran as too weak a response.)
Moreover, Romney, whose social-conservative bona fides have been hammered by his GOP opponents, will be desperate to find an issue that will energize social and religious conservatives to line up behind him and flock to the polls come November. The obvious issue? Iran, and the “existential threat”/”second Holocaust” its nuclear program poses for Israel. Hyping that issue would rally to the side of this Mormon former governor of a northern liberal state (where he was also the architect of a predecessor of the reviled and despised “Obama-care”) millions of Israel-firsters – and especially, millions of white Christian-evangelical, largely southern conservatives who love Israel, have little faith in Barack Hussein Obama’s love for Israel (and, to a significant degree, cannot get their heads around the fact that a black First Family is occupying the White House).
And the “existential threat” issue is, of course, a dirge that Netanyahu has been wailing on the international stage for years, and that, Bibi knows, is a card that he – as well as AIPAC and other denizens of the Israel lobby – can play very effectively if he wants to influence the American electorate. . . . which he surely would love to do in 2012. Bibi wants Barack out of the Oval Office. Watch for him to reach out to Mitt, with both arms.
At that point, Obama may be hard pressed to resist the political expediency of a response that will entail ramping up the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, and the implied, but increasingly overt, threat to Iran.
At which point, Leslie Gelb, Paul Pillar, and millions of the rest of us will have to hope and pray that the Iranian leadership will step back, breathe deeply, ask tough questions, and get sound answers before lashing out with military action against the US, or Israel.
John Robertson is professor of ancient Near East and Modern Middle East at Central Michigan University and maintains the Chippshots blog