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Peter S. Goodman

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On Iran and Israel, Republican Candidates Dangerously Pandering

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 5:06 pm

Thank goodness for Republican resolve and tough talk. That's what prevented North Korea from becoming a nuclear-armed menace, and that's what eliminated Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which Saddam Hussein surely would have used to obliterate Israel and the United States.

Now, if we could just get that flower child anti-Semite, Barack Obama, out of the White House, Republicans would be free to complete their eradication of the Axis of Evil, crushing Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons and turning the Islamic republic into a place fit for Bud Lite and MTV.

Welcome to national security history as encountered on the Republican campaign trail, where all the major candidates have been pandering with abandon to the basest instincts of the pro-Israel hawks in the American Jewish community, while presenting themselves as the only people with the requisite stones to prevent Iranian-inflicted nuclear Armageddon.

One problem with this storyline, however: The last time a potential nuclear power was allowed to morph into a bona fide nuclear threat (as North Korea did), it happened on the watch of a Republican President, George W. Bush. And it happened in large part because of Bush's eagerness to employ the sorts of policies embraced by the current crop of Republicans as the fix to scary global developments -- that is, bombastic threats of military action paired with an unwillingness to negotiate.

In the world inhabited by the Republicans seeking the power to send American soldiers overseas and rain destruction upon adversaries, talk is for pansies. Security springs from determination and moral clarity, backed by military might. This is already a failed doctrine, one whose tragic consequences should be shaping the American response to the nuclear proliferation crisis posed by Iran.

Back in early 2003, North Korea kicked out international inspectors and reinvigorated a plutonium-based nuclear plant while the Bush administration refused to engage in talks aimed at bringing Kim Jong-il back from the brink. Then -- much as now, in the face of Iran's nuclear ambitions -- only three basic policymaking options presented themselves, all of them bad.

Bush could have considered a preemptive strike on North Korea, but that would have triggered a hail of missiles headed to Seoul and Tokyo, killing hundreds of thousands of people. He could have proffered an aid package to bribe North Korea to forsake its nuclear plans, as Bill Clinton did before him -- and as Bush did eventually himself, after it was too late. But that course was deemed unholy, the equivalent of rewarding terrorism. So, by default, Bush opted for Plan C. He pledged to not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea and made lots of cowboy threats, all the while sitting back and letting it happen.

The very fact that Bush found himself contending with North Korea's nuclear brinksmanship stemmed in part from his penchant for talking tough. He began his tenure by setting his sights on his anointed Axis of Evil, and he soon demonstrated what could happen to any nation that found itself considered as part of this: He invaded Iraq. For the two other charter members of the club, North Korea and Iran, the lesson was plain. They had to arm themselves sufficiently so that a would-be attacker would rule out a preemptive military strike as suicidal. They had to gain nuclear weapons.

The Axis of Evil talk combined with Bush's ill-conceived, ill-fated military adventure in Iraq proved a dramatic accelerant to the nuclear proliferation crises that have since emerged from the two other countries. This alone should be grave cause for concern as a convergence of actors -- the Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States -- presses the Obama administration to shift from a sanctions-based strategy, aimed at stymying Iran's nuclear reach, to a potential military intervention.

But none of this unfortunate history -- Republican-led history, mind you -- is prompting today's GOP candidates to hesitate in indulging in irresponsible talk in the face of this complex crisis. The candidates have been branding Obama as guilty of imperiling national security as he seeks to maintain international pressure on Iran to yield and as he counsels Israel to rely on sanctions in place of military action. The smell of pro-Israel votes and money has overpowered whatever obligation the candidates feel to protecting the national interest.

There was Mitt Romney in Atlanta over the weekend, declaring that "if Barack Obama gets reelected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon, and the world will change," and adding, "He's also failed to communicate that military options are on the table and, in fact, in our hand."

There was Newt Gingrich, licking the floor for votes in the colorful, fact-disregarding way that only he can. "We're being played for fools," Gingrich said on Sunday on CNN. "Israel is such a small country. It is so compact that two or three nuclear weapons would be equivalent to a second Holocaust."

I enjoy a good Holocaust metaphor as much as the next guy, but this is craven, even by Gingrich's standards of stumping for votes. One can only imagine what comes next -- perhaps Newt donning a yarmulke at a synagogue in Boca Raton, using a Yiddish racial epithet to remind congregants that the president is, shall we say, not white?

We are indeed being played for fools, but the playing is being done by Republican opportunists and the most hawkish friends of Israel, who would have the United States write a blank check in support of policies that have made almost no one safer -- not in Tel Aviv any more than in Trenton.

Ordinarily, the daily inanities emanating from the campaign can be dismissed as pure fodder for Stewart and Colbert. But in this case, the rhetoric risks constraining policy in a way that could have real-life consequences. Obama needs a free hand to pursue policies that may go against the interest of Israeli extremists in order to further American national security concerns.

The Republican rhetoric risks tethering his hand tighter to the vagaries of Israeli politics, by making him susceptible to charges that he is not sufficiently devoted to the Israeli cause. That could ratchet up the pressure for him to cater to Israel's current government, which has refused to entertain serious discussion on solving the issue at the root of much trouble in the Middle East -- the absence of a credible path toward Palestinian statehood.

In a sober and clear-eyed analysis in the Financial Times pegged to Monday's White House visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt urged Obama to rebuff calls for American military action against Iran. The two academics helpfully cut through the fallacy that Israeli interests and American interests are always one and the same. Yes, Israel is a special ally deserving of American support, but not without limits and not without recognizing divergence of concerns.

The Obama administration, cognizant of its predecessor's catastrophic miscalculation in Iraq, has yet to conclude that a nuclear Iran would be the end of the world, even as it labors to prevent that outcome. It has managed to isolate Iran diplomatically, maintaining economic pressure (though Iran's status as a major oil exporter undermines the front). The administration has banked on the idea that Iran would not rationally attack Israel, knowing full well that Israel's arsenal would be sufficient to counter with a lethal strike.

At the same time, Obama has maintained pressure on Israel to curb new settlements in the occupied territories. This may be unwelcome to Netanyahu's government, but it is clearly in America's interest, addressing a deep source of grievance within the broader Arab world.

The Republican campaign rhetoric is at best disingenuous. At worst, it is dangerously misguided, a call for the same sorts of policies that prompted North Korea to work in haste to produce nuclear weapons. It amounts to feel-good belligerence and moral crusading trumping strategic imperative. That's not resolve. That's foolishness.

 
 
 

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