The Romney Doctrine

One piece of conventional wisdom that's been taking shape for a while now is that there's not much difference between Mitt Romney and President Obama on foreign policy. As Peter Baker wrote Saturday in the New York Times, the differences seem largely "a matter of degree and tone." For example, "both would try to stop Iran's nuclear program through sanctions and negotiations without ruling out a military option."

Not so fast! Yesterday, the day after Baker's piece appeared, the Romney campaign highlighted a clear difference between the two candidates on Iran. So far as Obama is concerned, military force should be used only if required to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. So far as Romney is concerned, Israel can start a war with Iran any time it wants, and America will join in the festivities.

To be fair: Romney didn't use the word "festivities." In fact, his new position was obscured by some technical terminology. And the labor of spelling his position out was divided between Romney and a foreign policy adviser. Still, the position becomes clear when you review yesterday's events:

First, shortly before Romney's big speech in Jerusalem, adviser Dan Senor made headlines with this utterance:

"If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision," Mr. Senor said.

Previewing Mr. Romney's remarks, Mr. Senor explained: "It is not enough just to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program. The capability, even if that capability is short of weaponization, is a pathway to weaponization, and the capability gives Iran the power it needs to wreak havoc in the region and around the world."

The key word here--used four times by Senor--is "capability". Nuclear weapons "capability" is a technical term, but, unlike many technical terms, it has no agreed-upon definition (as Ali Gharib noted yesterday). It refers to having the wherewithal to develop nuclear weapons should you decide to do so. Pretty much everyone would say that if Iran had the ability to develop nuclear weapons within three or four months, that would constitute "capability." Some would say that if Iran could develop them within nine months that would constitute "capability". And some would define the term even more broadly.

In fact, if you want to, you can define the term so broadly that Iran already has a "capability"--even though by standard reckoning (1) it would take Iran years to develop a deliverable nuclear warhead; (2) it would take Iran at least a year to develop even a crude, testable-but-not-deliverable bomb; (3) Iran couldn't move even that fast unless it embarked on a headlong program to weaponize--and we'd know if that was happening, because Iran would have to break seals that international inspectors have placed on its nuclear facilities.

In short, the term "capability" is so mushy that Israel could bomb Iran tomorrow and say that it did so because, by its definition of "capability," Iran was exactly a day away from possessing it!

This is one reason President Obama has wisely refused to make "nuclear weapons capability" the red line that Iran won't be allowed to cross; that phrase isn't clear enough to constitute a line of any kind. Instead, Obama has said that Iran wouldn't be allowed to build an actual nuclear weapon.

Yesterday, after much head-scratching about Senor's remarks, and some hints that maybe the Romney administration was walking them back, Romney basically underscored them in his Jerusalem speech. He said (emphasis added),

We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you.

Some people are trying to find signs of moderation in Romney's reference to his "fervent hope" that "diplomatic and economic measures" will succeed. But the fact is that by making the mushy-to-the-point-of-useless term "capability" the red line (or red blur), he has empowered Israel to say at any point, "Sorry, but diplomatic and economic measures have failed; the bombs were dropped this morning."

I agree with Peter Baker that there aren't many clear differences between Obama and Romney on foreign policy. But now we do have at least one: Romney says Israel can bomb Iran any time it wants and America will be happy to inherit the blowback. Obama doesn't say that. I'd call that a difference of doctrinal proportions.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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