With Us or (Mostly) Against Us

The Republican presidential hopefuls have a pretty clear idea of who they think America's enemies are. But what about its friends?

I've been combing through the GOP debates and candidate speeches looking for the word "ally." There's a lot about adversaries -- Iranians, Chinese, Russians, Islamists, jihadists, even Venezuelans -- but not a lot on the other side of the ledger. Much of it takes the following form: "Israel is our greatest ally" -- Michele Bachmann. Or: "You don't allow an inch of space to exist between you and your friends and allies." This from Mitt Romney, who went on to accuse President Barack Obama of -- surprise! -- throwing Israel "under the bus" by publicly criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney also accuses Obama of betraying U.S. allies Poland and Colombia.

Is it a coincidence that the Republican candidates identify as allies the very few countries whose citizens just might vote for one of them if given the chance? Did I mention that Rick Perry has accused the Obama administration of selling Taiwan down the river? If only Newt Gingrich could come to the defense of plucky, supercapitalist Georgia, the candidates could assemble a complete list of right-leaning nations. It's as if they map America's own ideological divisions onto the world, dividing the globe into red and blue countries -- six or seven on the good side and the other 185 or so on the bad.

Perhaps this also explains Romney's strange allergy to Western Europe. You would think that the two and a half years Romney spent in France working as a Mormon missionary -- enough to fake his way through the language -- would predispose him on the continent's behalf. Of course, given the religious obligation to abstain from pretty much every fun thing Europe had to offer, he may have had a lousy time; maybe he even blamed it on the Europeans. He certainly has nothing good to say about the place.

"Europe," for Romney, does not conjure up the United States' steadfast allies in World War II and the Cold War, or even the cultural category known as "the West," but rather a failed economic model that deluded liberals continue to pursue. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he asserted that Obama "seems to take his inspiration not from the small towns and villages of New Hampshire but from the capitals of Europe" -- and we know what color that continent is.

Let us concede, for a moment, Romney's bizarre premise that Western Europe doesn't share America's values, even if that's where those values came from in the first place. An ally is not a country that shares your values, but a country that shares your interests. The two categories overlap plenty, of course, because values play a powerful role in shaping a country's interests abroad. NATO is an alliance of democratic nations born in the great moral, political, and military struggle against Soviet communism. But when President Harry Truman famously declared that the United States would "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" -- the Truman Doctrine -- he was talking about Greece and Turkey, countries that were not then democratic but were prepared to resist Soviet expansion.

Yesterday the United States made common cause with right-wing dictators; today it stands shoulder to shoulder with social democrats. Perhaps Romney would be able to live more comfortably with this ideological tension if he inaugurated a policy of "free market promotion" in Europe, as George W. Bush sought to promote democracy among autocratic allies in the Middle East.

We are familiar enough with the situation in which the United States makes common cause with countries that do not share its values (see: Arabia, Saudi). What about the more unusual case where a nation that shares American values does not share its interests? An obvious example would be Turkey, a NATO ally and a democracy whose aspiration to lead the Middle East has produced a series of clashes with the United States and Europe. And what about Israel? America's "greatest ally" pursues policies that do real harm to U.S. interests.

Gen. David Petraeus finally let the cat out of the bag when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples" in the region. But Karen Hughes, Bush's great friend and his former head of public diplomacy, told me that she said the same thing to Bush after touring the region in 2006. The Republican candidates profess to be baffled, and outraged, that Obama would criticize so dear an ally; but if Canada -- much less Turkey -- pursued policies as harmful to U.S. national security as Israel does and proved as intransigent in the face of American concerns as Israel has, an American president would criticize it much more harshly (given the absence of a domestic Canadian or Turkish lobby).

The United States is Israel's ally much more than the other way around. And that's not the worst of it: Have Bachmann, Perry, and the other declared enemies of the welfare state noticed that Israel practices socialized medicine and confiscatory taxation? What kind of model is that? The Israelis might vote for Romney to be president of the United States, but they would surely prefer Obama, or Howard Dean, to be prime minister of Israel. It's a blue country with a red-country foreign policy.

If you push hard enough, you could find a few other countries the Republicans like. Perry has criticized the Obama administration for refusing to sell India upgraded F-16s, though in fact this never happened and he was almost certainly thinking of Taiwan. Herman Cain has sided with the very beleaguered President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, who has fought terrorists (as well as "terrorists") at home. Rick Santorum has assailed Obama's failure to support President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, leading to "what now looks like a power vacuum being filled by the Muslim Brotherhood." Of course, if you think that the Muslim Brotherhood poses less of a threat to Egypt's future than yet another decade of paralysis and frustration, then you might conclude that Obama was well advised to stop pumping air into Mubarak's lifeless regime.

All of this is familiar enough. It was Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's defense secretary, who first drew the line between "old" and "new" -- blue and red -- Europe. It was Bush who chose his allies à la carte, and Bush who gave Israel carte blanche during the wars in Lebanon and Gaza. But Bush also had some second thoughts. Bush came to recognize that he couldn't live without Europe -- all of it. He even patched things up with France. Bush turned to the G-20 to help deal with the global financial crisis of 2008. He saw that the institutions in which alliances are permanently embedded, like the United Nations, enjoy a form of legitimacy that no ad hoc coalition concocted in Washington ever could. If a Republican -- i.e., Romney -- is elected, he's all too likely to make the same mistakes Bush did, and learn the same painful lessons.

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Terms of Engagement

The Nuclear Options

Barack Obama's Iran policy is frustrating, slow-moving, and fraught with uncertainty. But have you taken a look at the alternatives?

President Barack Obama arrived in office determined to make a sharp break with George W. Bush's policy on nuclear nonproliferation. Obama and his team believed that the only way they could get allies to support a tough line against countries like Iran or North Korea that were seeking to acquire nuclear weapons was to comply with the United States' own obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce its nuclear stockpile. One of Obama's leading nonproliferation experts admitted to me in the early days of the administration that this sounded very much like "an article of faith" adopted by untested idealists. "These are propositions that have to be demonstrated," he said. "The administration will be going to these countries to say, 'We're doing our part; now you have to do your part.'"

You could read the report on Iran's nuclear program released this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to say, "Proposition refuted." Certainly Obama's critics have. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mitt Romney writes that thanks to "the administration's extraordinary record of failure," Iran is "making rapid headway toward its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons." In fact, the report dwells almost entirely on events that happened long before Obama took office and essentially offers an official imprimatur to the widespread view that Iran has been seeking for years to develop a nuclear warhead and is continuing to do so. Neither Bush nor Obama has stopped Iran from pursuing a goal to which Iranian leaders are single-mindedly dedicated -- nor could they have. But Obama's strategy has thrown a spanner into Iran's nuclear works. On balance, the proposition survives.

Iran is still enriching uranium and is now estimated to have enough to produce four bombs. Enriching uranium to the level required for a weapon is the hardest part of the nuclear process; the advances in hardware uncovered by the IAEA only confirm the belief that Iran is going to the immense trouble of developing an enrichment capacity in order to be able to build a bomb. But according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, the number of centrifuges spinning at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant peaked at 9,000 in November 2009 and has since fallen. What's more, the average productivity of each centrifuge has fallen over the past year. And Iran may no longer be able to build more centrifuges. There are various reasons for these problems: the Stuxnet virus, which crippled Iran's productive capacity; poor centrifuge design; metal fatigue; and the shortage of key materials owing to U.N. sanctions passed in 2010.    

Obama doesn't get credit for metal fatigue, but he probably does for Stuxnet, which appears to have been a joint Israeli-American venture. In fact, Obama's Iran policy is less rule-abiding, and more sophisticated, than the administration lets on and its critics allow. But it would be a mistake to think that it's only the dark arts that matter. Obama's initial efforts to engage Iran through diplomacy went nowhere, but allowed U.S. officials to argue inside the United Nations and the IAEA board of governors that they had made a good-faith effort to end the isolation that the Bush administration had imposed on Iran. The president's embrace of nuclear abolitionism and his strong push for an arms-reduction treaty with the Russians countered the argument, common throughout the developing world, that the United States was a nuclear hypocrite -- that it was violating the same international rules that it was insisting that Iran observe. The combination of engagement and NPT-compliance has helped Obama persuade Russia, China, and other states to pass tough sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.

I asked Nicholas Burns, the career diplomat who handled the Iran file as undersecretary of state in Bush's second term, how he assessed Obama's strategy. Burns argues that both Bush and Obama pursued a "two-track" policy of carrots and sticks, but says that Obama "has been very effective in gaining the upper hand in terms of public opinion over [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian leadership." Iran's president played up his anti-Americanism to achieve heroic status in Bush's last years. Now he is almost wholly isolated. Burns describes the Obama strategy, with something like professional admiration, as "very artful."

I can hear Romney sputtering, "Who cares if Ahmadinejad has no friends if Iran is still enriching uranium?" The goal, after all, is not to be artful but to stop Iran from producing a bomb. But isolating the Iranian leadership, like slowing down the centrifuges, is a means of buying time. And time does not have to be on Iran's side, though it has been so far. David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, compares the struggle against Iran to that against apartheid South Africa: a long-term campaign of isolation.

Administration officials say that their strategy is working because diplomacy has stripped away the Iranians' global standing, while sanctions have begun to cripple their economy. The White House responded to my request for comment by pointing me to a Washington Post story that quotes Ahmadinejad defending his economic record before Iran's parliament by complaining that "our banks cannot make international transactions anymore." The U.S. goal is to make Iran pay a high enough price for its nuclear program -- while at the same time holding out the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic rapprochement -- that the leadership will ultimately agree on some face-saving solution that allows Iran to pretend that all it was seeking all along was access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. Ahmadinejad may even have been making such a bid in his recent offer to stop enriching uranium in exchange for guaranteed access to a supply of 20 percent enriched uranium from abroad. It would hardly be unprecedented: In the past, leaders in South Korea, Argentina, and elsewhere have abandoned nuclear programs in the face of pressure.

Or maybe Ahmadinejad was messing with the West, as he has in the past. Iran is not South Korea; it is both a rising regional power and a revolutionary state, and its leadership, whatever it says, seems to be united in viewing a nuclear weapons capacity as an ideological and geopolitical necessity. Iran may be more like the Pakistan of the 1970s, whose people were prepared to "eat grass," as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, to get the bomb. Neither carrots nor sticks may induce the Iranians to abandon their quest. If that's so, then nothing save war, or at least the credible threat of war, will work. Obama, of course, has not foreclosed that option, but Romney vows that as president he would "prepare for war."

So those are our choices: a frustrating, second-best policy of playing by the rules in order to gather and preserve a coalition, gradually raising the pressure, buying time, and putting off the day of reckoning in the hopes that something will change and the Iranians will decide they'd rather not eat grass -- or prepare for war. But you can't threaten a war unless you're willing to launch one; and an aerial assault on Iran, whether carried out by the United States or Israel, would provoke a spasm of revenge attacks against America, and wreck the country's standing in much of the Islamic world and above all among the pro-American people of Iran -- all to the end of damaging, not destroying, Iran's nuclear infrastructure. It would purchase delay at an unimaginable cost. And it would guarantee that the Iranians would eat grass to build a bomb.

Compared to that, a second-best policy looks pretty artful.