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Obama's October Surprise: Bombing Iran

Jacob Heilbrunn

President Obama could bomb Iran in late October to try and ensure that it does not develop nuclear weapons. A devastating strike would create an upsurge of patriotism in America and fully neutralize Mitt Romney's contention that Obama is a foreign-policy wimp. It could allow Obama to sweep to victory in November.

Will he do it?

One reason he might is that Mitt Romney is singlehandedly pushing the entire debate about Israel and Iran to the right. The parameters have changed markedly. As TNI editor Robert Merry and others have noted, Romney's efforts to ingratiate himself with Jewish donors and voters have prompted him to suspend any notion of an independent American foreign policy in the Middle East. Traditionally, the green or red light for military action has come from America, at least when it comes to actions that directly impinge upon American interests. Ronald Reagan, for instance, successfully demanded that Israel halt its attacks on Lebanon in 1983. Romney, by contrast, has effectively promised to give Israel a veto power over military action, indicating that he will do whatever Benjamin Netanyahu wants. As Romney observed in December, he would never, ever criticize Israel. Instead, he would get on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu and ask, "What would you like me to do?" So it's fair to say that Romney would outsource his foreign policy to Netanyahu when it comes to Israel and its enemies.

What's more, anyone who thinks that Romney is bluffing should think again. It's no accident that his senior adviser on the Middle East is Dan Senor, a hard-line neoconservative. As the New York Times notes today, Romney relies upon him for advice and frequently cites his book Start-Up Nation. Senor wasn't dissembling when he said in Israel that Romney was prepared to endorse an attack on Iran—he simply got a little ahead of the program.

Obama has not been far behind in giving Netanyahu close to carte blanche. But he has not gone as far as Romney in endorsing the threat that Iran should be precluded from having the capability of building a nuclear weapon. But as Netanyahu champs, or tries to give the impression of champing, at the bit to bomb Iran, Obama must be weighing whether or not he should call Netanyahu out on his threats. So far, the Obama administration has been doing everything in its power to dissuade Israel from speedy action. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's visit to Israel was another sign that the administration is trying to reassure Israel of its commitment to its security. But his emphasis was on sanctions:

The most effective way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is for the international community to be united, proving to Iran that it will only make itself less secure if it continues to try to pursue a nuclear weapon.

But as Romney calls for "any and all measures" to stop Iran, Obama surely could deflate his sails by launching a strike in October. If it worked, he would be hailed as a hero. The consequences of a strike wouldn't be felt for at least a few weeks—the nightmare scenario is that an oil shock would result in a quadrupling of oil prices, plunging the world into a new Great Depression. Enough time for Obama to sail back into office as a tough foreign-policy president. Given Obama's congenital caution and sobriety, he seems unlikely to follow such a course. But it should not be ruled out. The neocons may be closer to helping bring about an assault on Iran than even they realize. They've already captured Romney. But they may also be on the verge of capturing Obama. Their sustained campaign of pressure, in other words, may be more effective than anyone has acknowledged. For the fact is that Obama already has amply demonstrated his ruthlessness when it comes to confronting America's adversaries. If he were able to carry out regime change in Tehran, he might even start referring to himself as the new Decider.

Image: systemman

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

Pressure Madness Continues

Paul Pillar

Here we go with another round of Americans on different parts of the political spectrum trying to outdo each other in pushing for more pressure and punishment on Iran. As usual, all this pushing is almost totally devoid of any attention to exactly how the pressure and punishment are supposed to accomplish anything useful or to why they haven't accomplished more than they have so far. In coverage of the most recent legislative intensification of the pressure—on which the White House cooperated with Republicans and Democrats in Congress—one searches in vain for any sign of understanding of the basic principle that sanctions can only be one-half of any attempt to influence another government and that as long as Western negotiators fail to couple Iranian concessions with any significant relief from sanctions, the Iranians lack incentive to make concessions no matter how much pressure they feel. And don't even bother searching for signs of attention to why the contingency that supposedly is driving all this—a still nonexistent Iranian nuclear weapon—should be such an obsession, beyond repeated chants of the mantra that, to use the words of one presidential candidate, it would be “the greatest threat to the world.”

Pressure on Iran has long ago passed the point of becoming a seemingly mindless, endless exercise in pressure for pressure's sake. In the absence of any attention to the role of Western negotiating rigidity or flexibility, we have the spectacle of people calling for more of something that they themselves acknowledge isn't working. Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example, notes that the goal of the sanctions is to change the political calculus of Iran's leadership and then observes, “There's no evidence to date that the sanctions have achieved that objective.” A statement the White House released on Tuesday proudly enumerates at length all the ways the administration has inflicted pain on Iran but—apart from noting how a few of the more focused sanctions have directly impeded nuclear activities—says nothing about what any of this is accomplishing, or could hope to accomplish. There is not a word about the critical role of negotiating positions. It is as if the economic pain is a good in itself, which it isn't—for Iran, for the United States or for anyone else.

The sanctions story has been pushed so hard for so long that politicians are running out of creative ways to exert more pressure. One of the latest offerings is from Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who, evidently stimulated by reports of military cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan, suggests stoking ethnic Azeri nationalism in northwest Iran as a way of frightening Iranian leaders with the threat of U.S. aid for “the legitimate aspirations of the Azeri people for independence.” The dumbness of this idea is explained by Farideh Farhi, who asks us to “imagine a member of a parliament from another country sending out a letter to their government asking for support to be given to Hawaiian nationalists or for the return of California to Mexico.” Another consideration is that most Azeri Iranians are far too integrated into the social and political fabric of Iran to think in separatist terms. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is half Azeri, and opposition leader and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi is wholly so. Perhaps an even better analogy in the U.S. context would be someone promoting the separation from the union of Massachusetts in order to realize the legitimate aspirations of Irish Americans for independence.

When future historians try to make sense of the pressure madness, a nonexistent nuclear weapon is not likely to be much of the explanation, because that simply does not make sufficient sense of the phenomenon. The current role of Israel in American politics clearly provides much of the explanation (and for an especially crisp description of that role, see Thomas Friedman's latest column). Americans probably also are receptive to the Israeli message because the demonization of Iran helps to fulfill a historically conditioned need for foreign dragons to confront and to slay.

Image: AslanMedia

TopicsDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

The Great Censorship Game

The Buzz

Modern cosmopolitans tend to think of the twentieth-century revival of the ancient Olympic Games as expression of Athenian values, albeit remolded for today's world. The host city and nation use the spectacle as a showcase for their commitment to democratic values and perpetual peace, temporarily suspending their animosity toward any foes to host them in a spirited athletic competition. Britain may support sanctions against Iran, but it allowed the Ayatollah's athletes to come to London.

But it's not really Britain who is control of its capital during the games. A closer look reveals that the country plays host to an occupying force, the International Olympic Committee. The IOC brings its tent city to town, and like many of those tribal societies of old, it operates like an authoritarian regime. Before and after all the pomp of the opening ceremonies, the IOC works behind the cameras to enforce its strict control over the Olympic brand.

After promises from Britain's leaders that public money spent on the games would boost the local economy, many proprietors are finding that the IOC's agreement with their government prohibits any retail reference to the games. As The Spectator's Nick Cohen reported in the days preceding the games, even small businesses are targeted:

Trading standards officers in Stoke on Trent told a florist to take down floral Olympic rings. Offending sausage rings vanished from a butcher’s window in Dorset. ... The Olympic organising committee warned estate agents in the West Country that they must remove Olympic torches made from old ‘for sale’ signs or face ‘formal legal action’.

The latest example of what Cohen calls the "Censorship Olympics" occurred earlier this week. Twitter, which partners with the IOC and NBC on coverage of the games, temporarily suspended a newspaper journalist who dared to criticize the network's Olympic programming. While Twitter later apologized, the damage had already been done: the Olympics no longer looked like a venue for maximizing the movement's professed values of respect and friendship.

Perhaps that myth should have been buried long ago, alongside the defunct tradition that Olympic athletes should be "amateurs." Like most regimes, the Olympic movement and its sponsors appear to care first and foremost about survival—not some set of universal values.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyGlobalizationIdeologyMultinational Corporations RegionsUnited Kingdom

Raul's Proposal

Paul Pillar

Last week Cuban president Raul Castro used a Revolution Day ceremony as the occasion for making seemingly impromptu remarks in which he offered to talk out all of his country's differences with the United States. Everything would be on the table, said Castro, including issues of political and human rights in Cuba, as long as the discussions were “between equals” and Cuba was free to bring up any of its grievances against the United States. “If they want to talk, we will talk,” he said, adding that the same message had already been conveyed through diplomatic channels. A spokesman for the State Department rejected the proposal, saying essentially that Cuba would first have to implement democratic reforms and improve human rights before there would be engagement. The spokesman also mentioned the case of Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba on charges of illegally importing communication gear while on a U.S.-funded democracy-building program.

The internal politics of the United States, not those of Cuba, are what makes any change in the U.S. posture extremely unlikely in the near term—especially in an election year in which Florida is once again a swing state. But at least after the election is over, U.S. policy makers ought to look carefully at the multiple upsides and lack of any significant downside to taking up Raul on his offer. Engagement does not imply endorsement, the United States usefully engages with regimes whose records on democracy and human rights are at least as bad as Cuba's, and the Gross case is only one of the more recent developments in a piece of Cold War ostracism that has now lasted half a century. Even the internal political consideration has been diluted as the older Cuban exile generation, which has always been the most fervently opposed to any dealing with a regime led by a Castro, has been growing older and dying off.

Sometime this fall, the United Nations General Assembly will for the twenty-first consecutive year consider and pass overwhelmingly a resolution denouncing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Last year's resolution passed with 186 votes in favor, two opposed (the United States and Israel), and three abstentions (the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau). In some previous years the Marshall Islands and Palau had voted against, before shifting to abstentions. The only other countries that—going back to the 1990s—had ever voted against the resolution were Albania, Paraguay and Uzbekistan. The condemnation of nearly the entire world community is one of the obvious downsides of the persistent U.S. attempt to isolate Cuba. The hypocrisy and inconsistency that becomes apparent when one compares U.S. policy toward Cuba with U.S. policy toward many other deeply flawed regimes is part of what the world community notices. It also notices how this unsuccessful U.S. policy serves only to make Cubans poorer. The biggest monetary losses may actually be suffered by U.S business. What little relaxation of the trade embargo has occurred in recent years has been in response to pressure from U.S. business, especially agribusiness. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo still costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion annually; other estimates are significantly higher than that. In return for these costs, the trade embargo and the associated political ostracism have accomplished absolutely nothing in the way of political change inside Cuba. If half a century is not long enough to demonstrate the futility of the policy, how much longer will it take?

Getting beyond the Cold War is a theme often voiced in appeals to change or reform certain operations of the U.S. government. Policy on Cuba may be the hoariest Cold War relic still found in Washington.

Image: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr

TopicsDemocracyDomestic PoliticsUNHuman RightsSanctions RegionsCubaUnited States

Felipe Calderón’s Arrogant Call for U.S. Gun Control

The Skeptics

The blood had barely dried in the tragic Aurora, Colorado, shooting before Mexican president Felipe Calderón put the blame on permissive U.S. gun laws. In a post on his Twitter account, Calderón offered his condolences to the victims but then added that the incident showed that “the American Congress must review its mistaken legislation on guns. It’s doing damage to us all.”

It was hardly a new theme from Mexico’s lame-duck president. But his latest statement requires an extraordinary amount of gall. During Calderón’s presidency, more than fifty thousand of his people have died in the war on drugs that he chose to escalate. A foreign leader with that awful of a track record daring to lecture the United States on its policies regarding firearms is not likely to sit well with most Americans.

But Calderón repeatedly has blamed U.S. gun laws rather than his decision to launch a military-led offensive against the drug cartels for the resulting violence in his country. The Mexican government even posted a massive sign on the border with the United States between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso reading “No More Weapons!” The sign was made from recycled guns seized by Mexican security forces.

But the location of that sign undercuts Calderón’s own argument. Juarez has been for the past five years the epicenter of gun violence in Mexico. Yet El Paso has a very low violent-crime rate. If “lax” U.S. gun laws were the cause of the carnage in Juarez, wouldn’t El Paso also be awash in blood? Some other factor must account for the extraordinary violence south of the border.

Extensive research on restrictive gun laws in both U.S. and foreign jurisdictions shows no correlation between tough laws and a decline in homicides and other crimes. Mexico’s own experience confirms that point. Following sometimes violent radical leftist challenges to the government in the late 1960s, Mexico enacted some of the strictest gun-control measures in the world. Today, it is nearly impossible for a civilian to possess a handgun or rifle legally in that country. Yet such tough restrictions have done nothing to disarm the drug gangs. In fact, those measures may have made it easier for cartel enforcers to terrorize portions of the country, since they don’t have to worry much about law-abiding civilians being armed and able to defend themselves and their families.

Conversely, the trend over the past decade or so in various jurisdictions throughout the United States toward conceal-carry and other permissive policies regarding firearms has not produced the surge of killings that gun-control zealots predicted. To the contrary, the rates of homicides and other violent crimes in most of those jurisdictions have actually gone down.

Calderón should have had the decency not to exploit the Aurora tragedy to push his misguided gun-control agenda for the United States. During his remaining months in office, he should instead focus on easing the suffering that his policies have caused in his own country.

Image: expertinfantry

TopicsArms ControlCivil SocietySecurity RegionsUnited StatesMexico

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