It is a shame foreign policy cannot be put on hold during election years. The demands of domestic politics are typically at odds with the process, if not necessarily the goals, of diplomacy. Mix in talk of war and the chest-thumping, and a presidential primary season can get out of hand.
That was on full display over the last few days as President Obama and some of the Republicans seeking to replace him traded barbs over U.S. policy toward Iran. Obama got the better of it with simple common sense: War should be the last resort.
The occasion was a state visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that coincided with a conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Netanyahu, who has his own domestic politics to consider, made it clear that, while Israel wants and expects support from the United States, it is and will remain the “master of its fate.” Israel, he said, will decide for itself if and when to destroy Iran’s developing nuclear capacity.
Obama did not say otherwise. Indeed, he said the United States is keeping its own military option on the table and reiterated that America “has Israel’s back.”
It appears there are some differences between the U.S. and Israeli positions, but how extensive they may be is unclear. Observers close to the talks seem to think the issue is a question of where to locate the “red line,” past which military action against Iran would be deemed necessary.
That is only natural. The interests and priorities of the United States and Israel are not identical, but they are tightly aligned. And any of the inevitable differences in approach or priorities are magnified by the fact that the two nations are allies and historic friends.
Perceptions of the state of relations between Israel and the U.S. are also affected by the personalities involved. Netanyahu has a reputation for being prickly while Obama can come off as aloof.
But so what? Both are adults, and neither is going to sacrifice his nation’s closest tie over pique.
No American president would let Israel be seriously threatened with destruction. And every Israeli leader since that nation’s founding has known that. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has long been – and remains – settled U.S. policy.
Nonetheless, the president’s would-be replacements pilloried him for not taking more belligerent action. Rick Santorum said he has “been reticent” about acting to stop Iran’s nuclear program and “has turned his back on the people of Israel.” Mitt Romney said, “Hope is not a foreign policy. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve.” Newt Gingrich said he “would not keep talking while the Iranians keep building,” adding, “the red line is now.”
All that was missing was John McCain singing “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.”
Of course, the only two speakers with any credible intelligence about Iran’s actions and intentions were Netanyahu and Obama, and while concerned, neither offered to attack Iran this week.
Nor should they have. War is always costly, in lives, resources, unforeseen risks and unanticipated consequences. It should never be entered into rashly.
As the president said, “Sometimes it’s necessary. But we don’t do it casually. We think it through. We don’t play politics with it.”
But then as commander in chief – and that was the hat he was wearing – the president does not have the luxury of playing fast and loose with threats and rhetoric; not with questions of war and peace.