Fighting Words

Mitt Romney and the GOP hopefuls sure like to talk tough about Iran’s nuclear threat. But if one of them wins in November, it’ll mean he'll have to walk the walk.

Every presidential election season, it seems, is marked by flights of rhetorical fancy on foreign policy. There was John F. Kennedy's mythical "missile gap"; Jeane Kirkpatrick's "Blame America Firsters" charge against Democrats; Bill Clinton's evocative (and quickly backtracked from) "butchers of Beijing" line; and then my personal favorite -- George H.W. Bush saying his dog Millie "knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos" (the two bozos in question being Bill Clinton and Al Gore).

This year, however, with the notable exception of anti-interventionist Ron Paul, Republicans are pulling out all the stops on the one foreign policy/national security issue that seems to unite them like no other: Iran and its nuclear program. Consider for a moment the spate of off-the-wall statements each of the GOP aspirants has made about Iran this campaign season.

According to Mitt Romney, "The greatest threat the world faces is a nuclear Iran." There is, he claims, "no price that is worth an Iranian nuclear weapon," and he has pledged that if he is president, Iran will "not have a nuclear weapon."

Fighting words indeed. But they seem downright sober when compared to Rick Santorum -- who has not only advocated air strikes to eliminate Tehran's nuclear aspirations, but has also said Iran is "ruled by the equivalent of al Qaeda on top of this country"; "the principle virtue of the Islamic Republic of Iran is not freedom, opportunity -- it's martyrdom"; and that oldie-but-goodie: "they hate us because of who we are and what we believe in."

Yet, when it comes to sky-is-falling rhetoric, Santorum takes a back seat to Newt Gingrich, who in a GOP debate this fall hinted the United States might not "survive" an Iranian nuke and in 2006 actually compared the Iranian leadership to Nazis. "This is 1935 and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is as close to Adolf Hitler as we've seen," Gingrich told Human Events magazine. He said at the time that the top priority of the United States should be "overthrowing the government of Iran" with force, if necessary. It's an argument he has doubled down on this year with calls for killing Iranian scientists and "breaking up their systems" -- actions that would be veritable acts of war. He has said bombing Iran is a "fantasy" and the only real way to prevent an Iranian nuke is to depose the regime via conventional war, if necessary.

The latter view was even endorsed by Jon Huntsman, who, when asked if he would consider boots on the ground to stop Iran from getting a bomb, said he wouldn't be able to "live with the implications of not doing it." According to Huntsman, all "options [are] on the table."

It should be noted that such proclamations are, well, a bit divorced from reality. Iran is at best a second-rate power, with an outdated and not terribly advanced conventional military force that is barely able to project power outside its borders. This week, Iranian fisherman even needed the U.S. Navy to rescue them from the clutches of Somali pirates. As Fareed Zakaria noted earlier this month, sanctions have pushed Iran's economy "into a nose-dive." Its currency has plunged in value, housing prices are up by 20 percent, the cost of food staples has jumped 40 percent, and the country's "political system is fractured and fragmenting." And if 2009's Green Movement is any indication, there is widespread -- if underground -- political dissent in the country.

Regionally, Iran has rarely if ever been more isolated. Its one ally, Syria, has its hands full dealing with a domestic uprising, the Gulf states have joined together under a U.S. security umbrella, the Saudis are buying billions in new weaponry from Washington, and the European Union is inching ever closer to a ban on Iranian oil imports -- a move that could have a devastating impact on the already battered Iranian economy. Compounding all that is the fact that Iranian scientists are continuing to get killed in the streets of Tehran, and the country's missile-development program may have just blown itself up.

So why, then, are Republican candidates treating Iran like it's the modern embodiment of Nazi Germany, al Qaeda, and the Soviet Union, all wrapped up in a mischievous and explosive ball?

The long answer is Americans don't like Iran, they are afraid of nuclear weapons and images of mushroom clouds, and Muslims with weapons of mass destruction are scary. Frankly, GOP primary voters care about threats to Israel -- and sanctions and diplomacy are less impressive than the promise that American airplanes will soon be dropping bombs on reinforced bunkers.

But the short answer is this is pretty much all the GOP has. Want to claim that Obama has been soft on terror? That whole killing Osama bin Laden thing makes that a bit tough. Same goes for all the al Qaeda lieutenants who have been killed in drone strikes. What about pulling out of Iraq? Good luck finding many Americans who disagree with that decision. How about Afghanistan and Obama's call to begin pulling out troops in 2014? First, it's hard to argue that Obama didn't give war a chance in the Hindu Kush; second, Afghanistan is a less and less popular war every day. How about the claim that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus vis-à-vis the Palestinians? That's not going to make all that much of a difference. It turns out the two groups of voters most concerned about Israel (American Jews and evangelical Christians) likely already have a pretty clear sense whom they'll be voting for in November.

On the matter of reducing the defense budget -- a dicey proposition in an election year -- by getting Republicans to agree to military spending cuts as part of the debt limit deal, Obama largely neutralized GOP attacks on the issue. And it's not as if many Americans desperately want to see military spending significantly increased in an age of political austerity.

In the end, since there is no good near-term solution for stopping Iran from getting a bomb -- and since Iran continues to engage in provocative behavior like threatening for the umpteenth time to close the Straits of Hormuz -- it is the one issue that Republicans can try to pin on the Democratic president, claiming he is weak on national security.

In the end, however, such accusations are unlikely to have much staying power. As Scott Clement points out, even Republicans prefer diplomacy over the use of military force. In fact, compare the Obama approach to Iran (diplomacy, a regional security architecture, likely covert action, and crippling economic sanctions) with the Republican approach (diplomacy, a regional security architecture, likely covert action, and crippling economic sanctions). There really isn't much of a difference, except for the threatened use of force and all the doomsday talk. But it's there that the GOP rhetoric could have severe consequences.

As Republicans rattle their sabers this winter, they risk locking themselves into a dangerous position on Iran, should one actually win in November. Just ask Obama how pledging to devote more resources to the fight in Afghanistan in 2008 played out for his presidency.

With Romney et al. declaring that Iran will not get a nuke while they are president and with pledges of support for unilateral action on the part of Israel -- including the use of military force -- to stop Tehran from getting a bomb, Republicans may find themselves stuck with a dangerous policy on Iran that smacks of brinksmanship. Moreover, all the tough talk on Iran will also limit Obama's ability to open negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program if the opportunity presents itself. Considering the increasingly desperate economic and political situation there, this might not necessarily be so far-fetched.

In the midst of a feisty presidential campaign, the Republicans' muscular rhetoric might seem a surefire way to create a political opening. But the ramifications of these existential threats have the potential to live on far past Election Day.

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You Can't Have It All

Obama’s new defense strategy wants a pivot to Asia and a hedge against Middle East volatility. But future defense cuts will mean choosing one or the other.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama and his top defense advisors unveiled new strategic guidance to direct the U.S. military as it transitions from a decade of grueling ground wars to an era of new challenges, including a rising China and looming budget cuts. The administration has adopted what is best characterized as a "pivot but hedge" strategy: The United States will pivot to the Asia-Pacific but hedge against unexpected threats elsewhere, particularly in the greater Middle East. This new guidance makes good sense in today's world, but it assumes that the Pentagon will absorb only $487 billion in budget cuts over the next decade. If far deeper cuts occur, as required by sequestration, the Department of Defense will not have the resources to execute the guidance. "Pivot but hedge" will die in its crib.

The pivot to the Asia-Pacific is essential because the region stands poised to become the centerpiece of the 21st-century global economy. By 2015, East Asian countries are expected to surpass North America and the eurozone to become the world's largest trading bloc. Market opportunities will only increase as the region swells by an additional 175 million people by 2030. As America's economic interests in the Asia-Pacific grow, its diplomatic and military presence should grow to defend against potential threats to those interests.

From the perspective of the United States and its Asian allies, China and North Korea represent the most serious military threats to regional security. China's military modernization continues to progress, and its foreign policy toward its neighbors has become increasingly aggressive over the past two years. Meanwhile, the death of Kim Jong Il means that nuclear-armed North Korea has begun a leadership transition that could lead to greater military aggressiveness as his son Kim Jong Un seeks to consolidate his power and demonstrate control. In light of these potential dangers, several Asian countries have asked the United States to strengthen its diplomatic and military presence in the region so it can remain the ultimate guarantor of peace and security. A bolstered U.S. presence will reassure allies who worry about American decline by clearly conveying an unwavering commitment to Asian security.

But while the Asia-Pacific is becoming more important, instability across the greater Middle East -- from Tunisia to Pakistan -- still makes it the most volatile region in the world. The Arab Spring unleashed a torrent of political change that has reshaped the region in previously unfathomable ways. Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons, and it has threatened recently to close the Strait of Hormuz. Trapped in the middle of the upheaval is Israel, a permanent ally and key pillar of America's regional security strategy. Meanwhile, U.S.-Pakistan relations continue to plunge toward a nadir, lessening American influence over a nuclear-armed and terrorist-infested state that is arguably the most dangerous country in the world.

Amid these dangers, U.S. interests in the greater Middle East remain largely unchanged: ensuring the free flow of petroleum from a region containing 51 percent of proven global oil reserves, halting nuclear proliferation, and guarding against the diminished but still real threat of Islamist-inspired terror attacks. Protecting these interests will unquestionably require the active involvement of the U.S. military over the next 10 years and beyond, though this certainly does not mean U.S. troops will necessarily repeat the intensive counterinsurgency campaigns of the last decade.

The administration's new guidance tries to balance America's rightful new focus on the Asia-Pacific with the continuing reality of deep instability in other areas of the world where U.S. interests are at stake. Yet implementing this "pivot but hedge" strategy successfully depends largely on how much Congress cuts from the Pentagon's budget, something that still remains undecided at the start of a divisive presidential election year.

The 2011 Budget Control Act, signed as part of last summer's negotiations over raising the U.S. debt ceiling, contains spending caps that will reduce the Department of Defense's base budget (excluding ongoing war costs in Afghanistan) by at least $487 billion over 10 years, according to Pentagon estimates. This represents a decline of about 8 percent compared to current spending levels. Administration officials have repeatedly described these cuts as painful but manageable. Indeed, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated Thursday that these cuts require difficult choices but ultimately involve "acceptable risk."

Yet deeper cuts are an entirely different story. Administration officials are extremely concerned about the Budget Control Act's automatic spending reduction process known as sequestration, which was triggered in November by the failure of the deficit reduction "super committee." According to the Congressional Budget Office, this process would roughly double the cuts to the Pentagon's base budget, resulting in nearly $900 billion in total reductions. Current law requires these cuts to take effect in January 2013 unless Congress enacts new legislation that supersedes it.

The new guidance says little about what cuts the Department of Defense will make when it releases its fiscal year 2013 budget request next month. But the Pentagon has made clear that its new guidance and budget request assume it will absorb only $487 billion in cuts over the next 10 years. Defense officials have acknowledged that the new guidance cannot be executed if sequestration takes place. When announcing the new strategy, for instance, Panetta warned that sequestration "would force us to shed missions, commitments, and capabilities necessary to protect core U.S. national security interests."

Sequestration would likely require the United States to abandon its longstanding global engagement strategy and to incur far greater risk in future military operations. If sequestration occurs, the Pentagon will likely repeat past mistakes by reducing capabilities such as ground forces that provide a hedge against unexpected threats. A pivot to the Asia-Pacific might remain an executable option under these conditions, but the U.S. ability to hedge against threats elsewhere -- particularly in the volatile Middle East -- would be diminished. This is a recipe for high risk in an uncertain and dangerous world.

The Pentagon's new strategic guidance presents a realistic way to maintain America's status as a global superpower in the context of shrinking defense dollars. But further cuts, especially at the level required by sequestration, would make this "pivot but hedge" strategy impossible to implement and would raise serious questions about whether the United States can continue to play the central role on the global stage.

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