Obama Bombing Iran? Don't Be Surprised

A former Bush adviser on why the president's commitments, and questionable reelection chances, make it likely that he would order an attack before November 2012

>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.

Jeffrey Goldberg's main subject is an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program, but in his final paragraphs he turns to whether President Obama might act instead. Jeffrey says he used to believe there was no chance -- but now he thinks there might be. I agree, for reasons political and philosophical.

Two years ago, in July 2008, Obama said this in Berlin:

Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the 21st century .... This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The two superpowers that faced each other across the wall of this city came too close too often to destroying all we have built and all that we love. With that wall gone, we need not stand idly by and watch the further spread of the deadly atom. It is time to secure all loose nuclear materials; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to reduce the arsenals from another era. This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.

Jeffrey quotes Denis McDonough on the "serious threat to the global nonproliferation regime," but this is an understatement. 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. So if the president means what he has repeatedly said about world affairs, what is at stake is whether he leaves a legacy of disaster -- again, in his own eyes. In my eyes, he would be right in so concluding: the real issue in the Middle East today is whether we, the United States, will remain "top country" in the region or will allow Iran to claim some form of hegemony.

The political side of all this is equally plain. Obama will, by all accounts, suffer a tremendous setback in November and may well be defeated in 2012. Should Iran acquire the Bomb in the next two years -- the timetable Jeffrey suggests -- Republicans will have an even stronger case that Obama has weakened our national security. The Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one. Now, from my perspective that is no reason to stop Iran's nuclear program, but I'm a Republican. 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'll start re-examining the likely Iranian reactions (they don't really want a war with us, do they? Regime survival and all all that?), the down-sides of an Israeli strike (hey, we're the leaders of the free world, after all), the military challenge (well, the Air Force isn't very busy, and it's just a few sites to hit). 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 here.