Home / Robert Farley / Attack Iran! Or Not.

Attack Iran! Or Not.


David Rothkopf thinks that Obama may order an attack on Iran before the election:

But in the end, as dangerous as an attack might be militarily and politically, if the President believes there is no other alternative to stopping Iran from gaining the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and thus manufacture nuclear weapons, he will seriously consider military action and it is hardly a certainty he won’t take it. From a domestic political perspective, right now Obama’s strong suit is his national security performance. For the first time in years, he has taken the issue away from the Republicans. Right now they simply cannot attack him as being weak or assert they understand defense better. That is why they are so silent on the issue. Obama has only four real areas of vulnerability on this front. First, if he pushes too hard for defense budget cuts before the election, the Republicans will go after him. He won’t. He will seek cuts but will be comparatively cautious. Next, if there were a terrorist attack of some sort and the administration seemed unprepared or responded weakly, that would create a problem. But that is a perennial wild card. Third, if he distances himself from Israel, the Republicans will seek to capitalize on the sense some supporters of that country have that Obama is not a committed friend. There is already plenty of activity in that area … and the Israelis are eager to take advantage of their perceived election year leverage. And finally, if Iran were to detonate a nuclear bomb, Obama would be blamed and fiercely attacked for a policy of engagement that ultimately proved to be toothless.

Three levels of thinking on this; I’ll try to keep them separate.

First, I think that an attack on Iran is a terrible idea.  I really do believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon will change virtually nothing with regards to the balance of power in the Middle East; take or leave that for the moment, I’ll have more on it later.  Most of the dangers that people warn of with regards to an Iranian nuke (Iranian hyper-bellicosity, terrorist attacks, etc.) are more likely to come about if the US (and/or Israel) undertakes preventative war against the Islamic Republic. To be sure, I’d rather Iran not build a nuke, and I strongly support a panoply of efforts to make the building of a nuke more expensive, but this is a different question than whether Iran will enjoy significant strategic advantage from possessing a nuclear weapon.

Second, I don’t at all think that Rothkopf is wrong in believing that Obama may order an attack.  Consensus Washington has utterly convinced itself that Iran Must Not Be Allowed to Have Nukes Because The World Will End Or Something, and the advisors Obama has chosen are part of that consensus, although by no means the most enthusiastic faction.  This doesn’t mean that an attack will necessarily happen, but it means that there’s a chance; I’d guess 25% given the latest from the IAEA.  If it happens, this will represent a gruesome mistake in what has otherwise been a fairly credible foreign policy record.

Third, while Rothkopf seems to think that Obama will enjoy a significant domestic bump from the attack, I’m not at all certain.  It’s true that Presidents tend to get a temporary bump during foreign policy crises, but it’s just as well known that this bump fades.  In this case, I suspect that Obama would enjoy temporary support from “independents” while permanently losing a small but crucial portion of his base.  I also doubt that the international uncertainty surrounding an attack will have any benefits for the US economy. It is by no means clear, however, that Obama and his advisors share this view of the domestic consequences of an attack.

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