Iran and U.S. Election-Year Politics

Myths and facts conflate all too easily in our opinion-driven politics. One of the most dangerous these days is that President Obama’s Iran policy has been taken hostage by election year pandering to Israel and the pro-Israel community in America.

It’s a pernicious trope that runs counter to reality. If anything, election year uncertainties will work far more to make Obama a cautious warrior when it comes to green lighting an Israeli attack against Iran or launching one of his own.

The notion that 5.5 million American Jews in tight alliance with the country’s evangelical Christians hold America’s Middle East policy hostage is one of the most dangerous yet enduring myths of American politics and foreign policy.

It is particularly strong in Europe and in the Arab world, where the inability to understand either how American politics actually works or the depth of the U.S.-Israeli relationship lead to a cardboard conspiracy theory whereby an Israeli prime minister turns the White House and Congress into Israeli occupied territory.

Israel’s supporters and detractors further cloud the debate by willful or unintentional distortions. For too many pro-Israel advocates, American support for Israel has little to do with domestic politics and everything to do with the deep value- affinity and common interests that bind the two countries; for too many of Israel’s detractors and critics, politics is all there is; without the influence of American Jews, the argument goes, the president would have a much freer hand when it comes to protecting the national interest.

Both sides have it wrong. The pro-Israel constituency has a powerful voice, to be sure, particularly in Congress, where politics dominate. But that community doesn’t have a veto, or anything close to one. And there’s little historical evidence to the contrary. Presidents don’t seek out fights with an important domestic constituency, particularly in an election year; but when a smart and determined president chooses to follow the national interest rather than a narrow political one — from arms sales to the Arabs to the peace process, the White House prevails. Sometimes the fight is messy; but willful presidents with the national interest at their back usually win out.

Given the tone and tenor of the conversation on Iran in Washington these days, you wouldn’t think so.

The narrative is that a president caught up in election-year politics is at the mercy of the Israelis (pushing him to let them attack Iran or do the job for them), their supporters in America (even more worried about Iran with nukes), Congress (pressing the administration to be tougher), and the Republicans (waiting to pounce).

Could anyone listening to Barack Obama this week at the Aipac policy conference draw any other conclusion? The president’s rhetoric has toughened, but his Aipac speech was smart politics and also smart policy. He has a stake in signaling the Iranians that this issue is at the top of his agenda and that they shouldn’t be relaxed about military action; reassuring the Israelis that he takes their concerns seriously without giving into an irrepressible slide toward war; and communicating to the Russians and Chinese that he plans to raise the pressure on Iran while leaving open the possibility of diplomacy, however slim that may be.

The reality is that if this were 2011, and not an election year, and the current tensions were as high as they are now, the president’s policy would be very much the same — buy time to determine if nonmilitary pressure against Iran can work (oil sanctions will kick in this summer); reassure Israel of his seriousness but don’t give ironclad commitments (yet) that America will take care of the Iranian nuclear problem if Israel will stay its hand. The president isn’t there yet.

This is hardly pandering. Obama is trying to square a circle on Iran which for the time being can’t be conclusively squared. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek a green light to take military action if he deems it necessary; the president wants a red light — for now — to give nonmilitary means more time to work. Neither will get what he wants. But what will emerge — and what should emerge — is enough of a consensus to ratchet up pressure and avoid war for now. The notion that Obama is conceding the playing field to a trigger-happy Israel just doesn’t add up.

Nor does the president believe he needs to toughen up his approach in order to pre-empt attacks from his political opponents. Foreign policy is not figuring prominently in this campaign and bellicose words from his Republican challengers are out of step with the American public’s main priority: the economy.

Obama has been tough enough on national security to get the benefit of the doubt. The last thing Americans want is another military adventure abroad, and the Republicans know it. Iran hasn’t yet become a dynamic issue in America’s electoral politics, and the administration is trying to keep it that way.

If election politics is having an influence in the president’s thinking on Iran, it’s paradoxically serving as a brake, not as a catalyst to war. An Israeli strike on Iran carries many risks and uncertainties, and America will almost certainly be drawn in.

This isn’t about boots on the ground (Iraq and Afghanistan), but it will still be prolonged and messy, and getting into wars with small powers in faraway places has proved a lot easier than getting out of them. Even George H.W. Bush’s stunning victory over Saddam Hussein didn’t help him at the polls, and Obama knows this.

Presidents don’t need uncertainties in an election year, which is why the so-called October surprise has always been a risky proposition. In the months leading up to an election, the last thing the president wants is oil at $200 a barrel, financial markets in the United States and around the world reeling, the foundering of a fledgling economic recovery at home, and more dead Americans in Afghanistan as Iran turns up the heat in terror attacks.

Obama may be a war president — the first since Lyndon B. Johnson to inherit a shooting war (in Obama’s case two). And without a diplomatic fix for the Iranian nuclear issue (unlikely) or sanctions dissuading Iran (unlikely), the president may have to consider getting into another one with Iran. But just not now. And he will do his best to persuade the Israelis to be patient as well.

Whether the president can succeed is another matter. But one thing is clear: Barack Obama has convinced himself that discretion on Iran is now the better part of valor. And the approach of the November elections has only made that easier to rationalize.

By Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.

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