Tuesday Round-Up: Will Domestic U.S. Politics Change the Game?

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This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

This morning, Elliott Abrams took to the concluding paragraphs of "The Point of No Return" -- picking up on the hypothetical idea that President Obama might preempt Israeli action against Iran with U.S. military force, and arguing that a combination of the president's ideological commitments and questionable reelection chances make it plausible that he could order an attack before November 2012.

On the ideological commitments:

If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon during his tenure, Obama would -- in his own eyes -- see the UN Security Council's resolutions made a mockery, the International Atomic Energy Agency transformed into a joke, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty come to an end. Multilateralism a la Obama would be finished, for Iran would have proved the "international community" to be toothless or non-existent.

And on the political calculations:

It's inevitable that as Iran creeps closer to the Bomb and Obama creeps closer to defeat, Democrats -- above all, the ones in the White House -- will start wondering exactly why striking that nuclear program is such a terrible idea. ... They will of course not tell themselves this re-assessment is related to politics; they will persuade themselves they are doing what's right for the security of our country. Watch.

Karim Sadjadpour responds -- granting for the sake of the argument that domestic political concerns could determine the prospects of Obama striking Iran, and arguing that "Plouffe or Axelrod would swiftly reach precisely the opposite conclusion from Elliott Abrams's":

... they would conclude that a military attack on Iran, and the myriad long-term repercussions of such an attack (which I will address later), could well sabotage Obama's chance at re-election. As a longtime student of the cynical, Machiavellian world of Middle Eastern politics, I suspect that's why Elliott offered such advice in the first place.

Marc Ambinder follows up with with an assessment, based on his extensive contact with officials in the Obama administration, of where it really stands on a U.S. strike against Iran -- concluding that the White House believes in its "engagement-plus-sanctions" strategy, and that it rejects the viability of a U.S. military option:

... to some in the Obama administration, the "fact" of Iran's eventual nuclear declaration is already priced-in to their Middle East calculus. ... I've also spoken with Obama advisers who believe that breakout Iranian nuclear capacity would instantly create a new existential threat to American national security. But to a person, no one in power now believes that the consequences of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran would be productive, let alone acceptable.

In our comments field, VrDrew challenges Abrams's core premise that Obama would permit his posture or actions toward Iran to be be driven by domestic political calculations:

For all of the criticism Obama has faced from the "professional left" regarding his "pragmatic" approaches to Guantanamo, Afghanistan, detainee trials, wiretapping, etc. - I resolutely refuse to believe that Obama would recklessly plunge his nation into another war simply to score political points. I think he'd rather lose an election. If you don't understand that - then you don't understand Obama, or many of the millions of Americans who voted for him.

Also here at The Atlantic, James Fallows and The Dish's Patrick Appel push back further. Fallows additionally relays a reader's endorsement of Goldberg's story, with respect to both its motivations and execution:

By many measures, Iraq was more of a threat than expected. Some say we caused a near civil war, but if that near civil war had happened under Saddam rather than under coalition rule, imagine what might have happened: poison gas, anthrax, genocide on a scale not seen in this generation. 

It's easy to lament the things that went wrong in the Iraq war and there is no denying that the planning was poor, in some ways. But Niall Ferguson has taught us we must think counterfactually to truly understand history. And in this case, a sharp counterfactual analysis makes it clear how much worse things might have been had we not invaded Iraq. 

I'd support it again and think claims of inaccurate pre-war analysis are badly overblown.

And Appel highlights a criticism of Abrams from RealClearWorld's Greg Scoblete:

Wars have frequently been waged for balance-of-power concerns, but in this case [if Iran acquired a nuclear bomb], how significant would the balance of power shift out of America's favor? Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is not the top country on the subcontinent - it can barely curtail its own home grown insurgency and it was threatened/cajoled by the U.S. to allow us to bomb portions of the country almost at will. North Korea has nuclear weapons and you'd be laughed out of a room if you suggested they had anything resembling "hegemony" in Asia.

Iran with a crude nuclear weapon would still be poor, weak and surrounded by unfriendly states.

Goldberg responds at length here to Yossi Alpher's contention that he was spun, in his reporting for "Point of No Return," by Israel leaders and strategists.

Meanwhile, Leslie Susser at JTA, reporting from Jerusalem, writes Goldberg's article is "fueling debate and speculation among Middle East experts." He also interviews a few Israeli officials whose perspectives reflect a greater hesitance to attack Iran:

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser and one of Israel's sharpest military analysts, argued in a much-touted position paper late last year that there is no way Israel would risk harming its key strategic relationship with the United States for the lesser gain of putting Iran's nuclear program back by a few years. Moreover, he said, if there is to be a military strike, the chances are that the Americans would prefer to carry it out themselves. According to Eiland, some U.S. Army chiefs maintain that since America would be affected by the fallout of any strike, it should bring its greater military prowess to bear to ensure success. In Eiland's view, for Israel to have a realistic strike option, the following conditions would have to pertain: a clear failure of the current sanctions against Iran; American unwillingness to take military action despite what some of the generals have been saying; and American understanding for Israel's need to act. Then Netanyahu would have to make his own personal calculus -- bearing in mind that failure could leave the Gulf unstable, Western interests undermined, Israel blamed and isolated on the world stage, and worst of all, Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons accorded a degree of legitimacy. Zeev Maoz, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, and at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, adds another concern. In a mid-August article in Haaretz, he suggested that an attack on Iran could lead to international pressure on Israel to dismantle its presumed nuclear arsenal and to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Israel refuses to buckle, it could be ostracized, Maoz wrote, and if it does buckle under pressure, it would be losing a key bargaining chip for the creation of a new regional security order.

Frank James at NPR comments on Goldberg's "much discussed, ... controversial" story, drawing attention to nuanced aspects of the article that he sees as being left out of the "raging debate":

For instance, Goldberg writes that numerous Israeli defense ministry offices contain the same aerial photograph of Israeli jet fighters flying over a historic site in Poland with particular meaning for the modern world -- Auschwitz. It's a graphic reminder of one of the Jewish state's shibboleths: Never Again.

Then there's the influence of Ben-Zion Netanyahu, the 100-year old father of Israel's prime minister, who is a noted historian of the Spanish Inquisition.

Goldberg describes the scene of a birthday party for the Israeli leader's father at which the centenarian spoke, to demonstrate the pull of the father on the son. Small wonder this piece has generated so much buzz in Washington and elsewhere.

The Economist's Democracy in America blog makes the point that Goldberg "rightly focuses on the centrality of the Holocaust to the way Israeli leaders think about Iran." Still, DoA, writes, Goldberg doesn't entirely answer a core question: "to what extent does the Holocaust obsession irrationally distort the Israeli perspective on Iran?"

Mr. Ahmadinejad, a first-caliber incendiary nationalist politician, may well understand this perfectly, and his gratuitous finger-in-the-eye Holocaust denials may be intended to bring on an airstrike that would benefit him politically. But this only highlights how Israel is rendered vulnerable by its tendency to view the world through the distorting prism of the Holocaust. The Holocaust prism leads Israelis and their leaders to adopt inappropriate, self-defeating, violent policies, in much the way that the American tendency to view the world through the distorting prism of the Cold War led us to adopt inappropriate, self-defeating, violent policies in response to the September 11th attacks. The Israeli assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat should be viewed sceptically [sic] especially because of the ways it is bound up with Holocaust thinking. If the Israeli desire to bomb Iran is unreasonable and rooted in historical trauma, then the challenge facing American leaders is different from the one Mr Goldberg describes. The challenge is not solely to ensure at a great level of certainty that Iran does not obtain a nuclear device. The challenge is also to dissuade Israel from launching a catastrophic attack on Iran.

At The Huffington Post, Sam Sasan Shoamanesh argues that U.S., Israel, and the West generally should look more aggressively and creatively for alternatives to military conflict with Iran. He outlines an alternative solution to the nuclear crisis, focusing on Iran's involvement in the International Criminal Court, and its ratification of the Rome Statute:

Given that Iran has expressed interest in the International Criminal Court (ICC) -- the country played an enthusiastic role in the negotiations of the Rome Statute ,the Court's founding treaty -- one ostensible solution to defuse the crisis would be to explore Iran's ratification of the Rome Statute of the ICC as part of the new round of nuclear negotiations with Tehran.

The ICC, based in The Hague, is the first permanent international court with jurisdiction to hold individuals - including heads of states - criminally responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and indeed crime of aggression. Based on the existing evidence, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has to date maintained that Iran's nuclear program remains within the boundaries of peaceful civilian purposes, even if questions concerning a potential military dimension of the Iranian program remain unresolved, given that full cooperation from the Iranian authorities suffered a setback after the country's referral to the Security Council in 2006 (UN SC Resolution 1696) and the ensuing sanctions. It follows that, at this stage, strictly speaking, the nuclear crisis is centered on the hypothetical threat of Iran's eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons and, in particular, the subsequent hypothetical use of such weapons. On this logic, Iran's proprio motu ratification of the Rome Statute, as part of the nuclear negotiations could potentially be just the deal-clincher to defuse the crisis, break the impasse and avert a war with ripple effects that would likely spread well beyond the immediate Middle East.

Christopher Hitchens, writing at Slate, calls Goldberg's piece the most "significant and detailed" contribution to the discussion of whether Israel will strike Iran. Hitchens emphasizes that we shouldn't be thinking about the the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons as an issue for Israel, or Israelis, alone -- particularly given that Palestinians and other Arabs live in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other cities that could potentially be endangered: "The whole emphasis on Israel's salience in this matter, and of the related idea of subcontracting a strike to the Israeli Defense Forces, is an evasion, somewhat ethnically tinged, of what is an international responsibility." He then cites six consequences that the entire world will face if Iran isn't disarmed, concluding: "Is it not obvious that the international interest in facing this question squarely, and in considering it as 'existential' for civilization, is far stronger than any political calculation to be made in Netanyahu's office?"

Goldberg, Hitchens, and Martin Amis discuss the question of what Israel should do about Iran here.

An overview of previous reactions to our September cover story here.

The debate continues here.

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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