By Marcus Flores
Because everything an incumbent president does is, to his challenger, wrong, Obama’s résumé in the Middle East has become a sort of fetish during the debate season. Yet the responsible voter—who can momentarily set aside their Obama or Romney pennant—notes that both candidates are virtually indistinguishable on Iran, and that is a pity.
It will suffice to say that Iran does not approve of Israel’s existence, and neither of the candidates can afford to be too soft on their own disapproval of the situation. Thus far, President Obama has chosen to intimidate the Iranians into nuclear disarmament through little more than classic gunboat diplomacy, the dummy formula for which is a show of naval power and crippling economic sanctions. (A January naval incident reveals that Obama may be treading perilously close to a rendition of Tonkin Gulf.) One of Romney’s favorite talking points — that Obama missed a golden opportunity to raze the Iranian regime in 2009 — was, of course, repeated, implying that Romney would not hesitate to take advantage of Iranian instability in the future. Meanwhile, Iran has made it clear that it will actively resist victimhood in a region where governments are toppling like toadstools.
Unable to militarily match the United States, the Iranian strategy is simple: harass the imperialists by proxy. Though divided by the Sunni-Shiite chasm, the majority of Arab nations believe (if privately) that Israel should be amputated from the region. Speaking to FDR in 1943, King Ibn Saud presciently noted that a Jewish settlement would make for a “hot bed of troubles and disturbances” in the years to come. In 1948, the United States formally recognized Israel only 11 minutes after Israel recognized itself. Call it the United States’ unplanned pregnancy.
Despite the Nazi genocide and numerous Arab attempts at regional eviction, history has forged an uncommon resilience among the Jewish people. While traveling north toward Tiberias in 2009, my tour guide recalled a time she was driving along the same stretch when shells from Hamas began to explode along the side of the road. Her posture and comfort during the story suggested that raindrops might have inconvenienced her more, but also indicated that Israelis rationalize terrorism as a dismissible banality, something like tornados to Midwesterners.
While conventional shelling is nothing new to Israel, the constant threat of nuclear attacks is cause for understandable fright in such a small nation. The length of a drive from Lexington to Indianapolis spans all of the Jewish nation, a short span which would magnify the damage of a well-placed nuke. But this is exactly why a preemptive nuclear attack from Iran is most unlikely. Jerusalem, that womb of the world’s faiths, is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock (sites as important to Judaism and Christianity as they are to Islam), and there is great risk that the fallout — if not the blast itself — would vaporize a number of Palestinian settlements and possibly damage nearby nations.
Whether for weapons or advanced medicine, Iran wants very much to be included in the nuclear club. The President and his challenger both agree that sanctions (Romney claims he would apply the most severe sanctions possible; Obama says he has already done this) are the way to go. But I doubt ranking members of the Iranian government or the country’s nuclear scientists have trouble putting food on the table. Sanctions afflict modest venders and weavers of rugs more. The United States presently has trade embargoes against Somalia, Cuba, and North Korea, and not one of those nations has demonstrated sociopolitical maturation in the last two decades. Though history provides some examples to the contrary, economic hardship only seems to strengthen tyranny.
Because of the unifying effect it would have, a preemptive strike on suspected Iranian nuclear sites spells the worst possible decision Israel could make. Satellites in Gaza and Hezbollah militants could directly inflict casualties before Israeli pilots could even return from a bombing run. Since both candidates used the final debate to reaffirm their vow to Israel, the next American president would inevitably follow Israel into a conflict where Iran can immediately damage U.S. interests in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey. And because the United States refuses to drill its own oil, a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz would have dramatic domestic consequences.
The obduracy and complexity of the situation leaves few political options. In the context of the U.S. presidential election, it also leaves little room for candidates to distinguish themselves. Obama was correct, though hypocritical, to label Governor Romney a “Cold Warrior.” The third and final debate served as an uneventful contest between two men: one who wants to expand the military’s size and the other who has greatly expanded its presence. Americans generally forget that sanctions against Japan brought about Pearl Harbor. Today, if military threats and sanctions fail to undo the nuclear progress a nation has already made, we can surely quit giving them reasons to use it.