In Monday night's debate, Mitt Romney took pains to sound like the kind of guy who wouldn't lead America into yet another war. "We can't kill our way out of this mess," he said about turmoil in the Middle East. And on Iran: Though he'd tighten sanctions, "military action is the last resort."
But the fact is that Romney is significantly more likely to get the US into a war with Iran than Obama is. Oddly, the main reason doesn't have much to do with Romney's own disposition toward war (which is unknown), or with the fact that his stated policies toward Iran are more hawkish than Obama's. These things do matter, but not as much as this simple fact: Obama would be a second-term president and Romney would be a first-term president.
Second-term presidents think legacy, and nothing says legacy like peacefully and enduringly solving a problem that's been depicted as apocalyptic. So expect Obama to pursue serious negotiations with Iran (which he hasn't really done yet) if he wins the election. And he'll be able to pursue them liberated from concerns about re-election, which means he can largely ignore blowback from Bibi Netanyahu, AIPAC, and other elements of the Israel lobby. That sort of freedom is important if he wants to bargain seriously with Iran.
I'm not saying Netanyahu or AIPAC or anyone else wants war. But, for whatever reason (I list some possible reasons below), they favor a negotiating stance toward Iran that is pretty much guaranteed to fail. Netanyahu says no deal should let Iran produce uranium enriched even to low levels, for civilian use, as permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--not even if the deal includes unprecedentedly strict monitoring to ensure compliance. And everyone I've talked to who knows much about Iran says one thing no Iranian regime can afford to do is surrender the "right to enrich" that most Iranians believe is theirs, and that the Iranian leadership has invested so much rhetorical capital in.
Any first-term president who hopes for re-election (that is, any first-term president) is mindful of lobbies, whether the sugar lobby, the Cuba lobby, or the Israel lobby. So any new president would likely have a harder time peacefully solving the Iran problem than a second-term President Obama. But for Romney this disadvantage is compounded by two factors.
First, assuming he sticks with something like his current foreign policy team, Romney will have some advisers who are "pro-Israel" in a particularly right-wing, hawkish sense of the term. Which is to say: they'll likely align with Netanyahu on the Iran issue. (This isn't the place for my sermon about how this right-wing brand of "pro-Israel" is often--including in this case--anti-Israel in the sense that it undermines Israel's long-term security.)
Second, a President Romney would be beholden to mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who is "pro-Israel" in the unfortunate sense I've just described. According to the Associated Press, Adelson has already given $34 million to "Romney and organizations supporting Romney this election, making him the donor of donors for the GOP." And Adelson has said he could eventually provide as much as $100 million--an amount that, however outlandish it sounds, he might actually approach now that the race is so tight. But even if he stopped at $34 million, Adelson would be on a President Romney's very, very short list of "donors I least want to antagonize before 2016." To believe that donations of this mind-boggling magnitude don't significantly influence a president's policy positions is to believe that money plays no role in politics.
During the primary season, when Adelson was supporting Newt Gingrich, Ted Koppel asked Gingrich, "If you win, what does Adelson get out of it?" Gingrich replied, "Well, he knows I'm very pro-Israel. And that's the central value of his life." Nothing scandalous about that; donors have values, and politicians pay attention to them. For better or worse, that's life in America. The problem is Adelson's confused conception of how to serve Israel's interests.
Adelson enthusiastically echoed Gingrich's famous dismissal of Palestinians as an "invented" people, and he has long been hostile to a two-state solution, even though that could help relieve Israel's longstanding and corrosive sense of siege. He's compared supporting the Palestinian Authority to helping Israel commit suicide. His views on Israel are so extreme that when he criticizes AIPAC (which he's given much money to), he does so from the right.
Lately Iran seems to have replaced a two-state solution as the thing that looms largest, in Adelson's mind, as a threat to Israel. When he wrote a piece listing reasons a second Obama term would be bad for Israel, the first thing he mentioned was "the threat of nuclear annihilation by Iran."
There's a kind of irony here that might seem poignant if I didn't find it so depressing. Adelson is sometimes cast as a dark, Machiavellian presence. Yet, if you ask why people on the "pro-Israel" right oppose the kind of negotiated deal that could actually solve the Iran problem, there is a range of possible answers, and the likely answer in Adelson's case is, in a sense, the most innocent. He strikes me as basically a frightened old man, a guy who genuinely thinks that Iran is bent on wiping out Israel's population and believes that only extreme measures would provide an adequate safeguard. In contrast, if you ask why Netanyahu opposes any realistic negotiated deal, you get (depending on whom you ask) a whole range of answers, including some cynical ones:
Some people think it's because Netanyahu wants war (preferably led by the US), and others think it's because he wants sanctions to continue until the Iranian regime collapses, and others think it's because he wants to divert international attention from the Palestinian problem--which the Iran issue has certainly done. And some people think Netanyahu wants to sustain Iranian-American tension indefinitely to prevent rapprochement between Iran and the US (a rapprochement that would pretty obviously be good for Israel, but by now it shouldn't surprise anyone that Netanyahu might oppose things that are good for Israel).
Finally, some people think Netanyahu et. al. are genuinely freaked out by the thought of an Iran that has any centrifuges still spinning (even though the deal with Iran most commonly discussed--a deal Iran has signaled its openness to--would leave it much further away from the red line on Bibi's famous bomb cartoon than it is now, allowing it to enrich uranium only up to the 5-percent level.) I personally doubt that Bibi's motivation is this simple and straightforward, though, again, Adelson's may well be.
Whatever the motivations of Netanyahu, Adelson, AIPAC, etc., they are collectively a force that it will be hard for a President Romney to ignore during his first term. (I think the power of the Israel lobby is often overstated, but it's not nothing, and in any event, so far Romney is acting as if he believes in its awesome electoral power.) A second-term Obama, in contrast, would have both the ability and the motivation to resist their influence.
Faced with the question of whether Romney would lead the US into another catastrophic war, people sometimes try to fathom the essence of the "real" Romney. Is he a man of war? A man of peace? The answer is the same as the answer for Obama: It depends on the circumstance he finds himself in. Romney and Obama are both fairly normal human beings, with the kinds of aspirations that politicians tend to have. If you're wondering which one would be more dangerous as president next year, that's all you need to know about them.
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