A Truly Credible Military Threat to Iran

The Israelis and the Americans are zeroing in on a strike option that has a real chance of deterring the mullahs -- and defusing Mitt Romney's attacks.

In Mitt Romney's "Hope Is Not a Strategy" speech at the Virginia Military Institute, the Republican challenger zeroed in on the current unrest in the Middle East as a sign that President Barack Obama's foreign policy is not working. The most biting implication in the speech is the assertion that al Qaeda is resurgent -- in other words that killing Osama bin Laden, emotionally satisfying as it was, was not the game-changer in the region that the Obama administration has implied it was.

But of equal importance to the Republican critique of Obama is Romney's assessment that Obama's efforts to reverse Iran's course toward gaining nuclear weapons have been unsuccessful. In the hours before the speech was delivered, neoconservative Romney foreign-policy advisor Dan Senor suggested on MSNBC's Morning Joe that Obama effectively had to be dragged against his will toward tougher sanctions on Iran -- the same tough sanctions for which the administration is now regularly taking credit because they have started to work. Senor noted that both Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg pushed back against bipartisan congressional support for the sanctions out of concern that they would have unintended negative consequences for the U.S. and global economies.

A centerpiece of the Romney campaign's argument that Obama has not been tough enough on Iran is that the president has not offered a credible military threat against the Iranians. Say what you will about the rest of Romney's remarks -- and broadly speaking, there was not much new in them except that for the first time, the Republican nominee has addressed foreign policy recently without tripping over one of his own misstatements -- but even some of the president's supporters have told me privately they wonder about his commitment and that of the U.S. military to taking action against Iran.

The reasons for these doubts are several. Despite the president's regular assurance that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons and that force will be used if necessary, the American people's war fatigue in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan has made any complex, costly, or highly risky action a tough political sell back home. Further, there have been multiple assertions by analysts that the likelihood of a successful strike on Iran is low. Finally, the public bickering with the Israelis suggested that the United States was dragging its feet and that the Israelis might be forced to act alone precisely because they did not expect to get U.S. support.

Despite the public histrionics in the run-up to the U.N. General Assembly meetings, both White House and Israeli officials assert that the two sides behind the scenes have come closer together in their views in recent days. While there may not be exact agreement on what constitutes a "red line" -- a sign of Iranian progress toward the development of nuclear weapons that would trigger military action -- the military option being advocated by the Israelis is considerably more limited and lower risk than some of those that have been publicly debated.

Indeed, according to a source close to the discussions, the action that participants currently see as most likely is a joint U.S.-Israeli surgical strike targeting Iranian enrichment facilities. The strike might take only "a couple of hours" in the best case and only would involve a "day or two" overall, the source said, and would be conducted by air, using primarily bombers and drone support. Advocates for this approach argue that not only is it likely to be more politically palatable in the United States but, were it to be successful -- meaning knocking out enrichment facilities, setting the Iranian nuclear program back many years, and doing so without civilian casualties -- it would have regionwide benefits. One advocate asserts it would have a "transformative outcome: saving Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, reanimating the peace process, securing the Gulf, sending an unequivocal message to Russia and China, and assuring American ascendancy in the region for a decade to come."

While this approach would limit the negative costs associated with more protracted interventions, it could not be conducted by the Israelis acting alone. To get to buried Iranian facilities, such as the enrichment plant at Fordow, would require bunker-busting munitions on a scale that no Israeli plane is capable of delivering. The mission, therefore, must involve the United States, whether acting alone or in concert with the Israelis and others.

What does this have to do with Romney's remarks? Were it clearer that the primary Iran option being discussed is this very limited surgical strike, then a U.S. threat of force would be that much more credible. And if it were more credible -- because it seemed like the kind of risk the president is more willing to undertake -- then it would have the added benefit of providing precisely the kind of added leverage that might make diplomacy more successful. In other words, the public contemplation of a more limited, doable mission provides more leverage than the threat of even more robust action that is less likely to happen.

With that in mind, and given the progress that the Israelis and the administration seem to have made in the past couple of weeks, it may be that the easiest way for the Obama team to defuse Romney's critique on Iran is simply to communicate better what options they are in fact considering. It's not the size of the threatened attack, but the likelihood that it will actually be made, that makes a military threat a useful diplomatic tool. And perhaps a political one, too.

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The Third Industrial Revolution

Why yesterday's plan for the economy won't work for tomorrow.

In the late 19th century, roughly half of Americans worked in agriculture. By 2000, that fraction had fallen to under 2 percent. During the last century alone, we have seen those involved in the production of goods (from mining to manufacturing to construction) fall from about a third of the population to just under one in five. Over the same period, the proportion of Americans involved in services more than doubled, from 31 percent in 1900 to almost 80 percent by the turn of the last century. Since 1900, the number of farms in the United States has fallen 63 percent, and the average farm size has grown by two-thirds.

The U.S. economy has, in the past 150 years, seen stunning changes. It has gone from agrarian to industrialized, from primarily rural to primarily urban and suburban -- from one in which primarily men worked to one in which by 2010 more than half of professional workers were women, from one in which most people did not complete high school to one in which 40 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in college, from one in which most American companies made their money in the United States to one in which about half the sales of S&P 500 companies come from other countries.

We should be comforted by this story of adaptation. The result has been unprecedented benefits across society, from GDP growth to rising standards of living. This has been not one industrial revolution but a whole series of upheavals culminating in the massive shift in recent decades from manufacturing to services, powered by globalization and new technologies.

Naturally, the folks in charge had to adjust. Protectionism that may have worked in the 19th century proved a calamity by the early 20th. Gold-based currencies were ultimately replaced by fiat alternatives. New data were needed to judge economic health. New regulations were needed to protect society and individual citizens. Indeed, national economic institutions like the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission have had to be augmented by coordination with similar groups in other countries to ensure market stability, liquidity, and crisis response.

Now, however, signs suggest that another enormous change is afoot -- only this time, the folks in charge are not adjusting.

Once upon a time, the U.S. economy grew in tandem with the productivity of American workers, leading to the creation of jobs and wealth across society. During this century's first decade, however, this relationship no longer applied. GDP grew and productivity climbed, while job creation slowed to a crawl, median incomes fell -- and the rich got richer.

This is not just a problem for the United States. Emerging economies -- even China -- are facing a similar phenomenon. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, digital-business specialists at MIT, describe the disconnect in grim detail in Race Against the Machine, their book about what might be called a third Industrial Revolution. They explain that massive increases in productivity due to the happy marriage of information technology and advanced manufacturing techniques are having a chilling, unprecedented effect on job creation.

The potential consequences as fewer jobs are created for the middle classes, while wealthy investors rack up the profits, are great and unsettling. Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that what's happening will have the same devastating effect on white-collar jobs that recent technological advances have had on traditional middle-class jobs -- in other words, lawyers and accountants may well start feeling the same pain that assembly-line workers have been experiencing for decades.

Profound as the impact of such changes may be, they are not the only global market shifts that will demand new thinking from policymakers. For one thing, the dependable engines of economic growth -- developed countries -- have stalled. Second, the new engines of growth -- the big emerging economies -- have also hit idle speed. One top IMF official recently predicted to me that Europe will be in recession for the next five years and that growth in the BRICS might well fall to 60 or 70 percent of current levels for the same period.

Four years after Lehman Brothers imploded, we're still unsure what risks are being built into the global economy thanks to the ongoing proliferation of complex, opaque financial instruments like derivatives, which now carry more value than all the printed money on Earth many times over. It gets worse: With increased computing power, markets are growing vastly more volatile, and the advent of trading based on previously unmanageable data sets is only going to accelerate this trend and give special advantages to those able to gather and process massive amounts of information rapidly.

So the economy of tomorrow is unlikely to look much like that of yesterday. But did you even once hear anyone discuss this paradigm shift during the U.S. presidential election season or over the course of the never-ending debates about the European debt crisis? As argued in books like Race Against the Machine and confirmed daily in the headlines, the new global economy will force us to rethink our most fundamental assumptions, whether it's how many hours we should work each week or an education system that stops once people enter the workforce -- to say nothing of government's role in redistributing wealth from the few who harness the technologies to the rest who will be dislocated by the changes.

Perhaps with election seasons and leadership changes behind us, world leaders will be able to begin discussing what the transition to this new economy will entail. But we already know what won't work: trying to use the same old dog-eared playbook to address an entirely new set of challenges. A good place to start would be setting aside our hopes of simply going back to where we once were, creating manufacturing jobs we'll never see again, ones that haven't been outsourced to another country but to the past. Another is to recognize that the keys to growth will be the new infrastructure and education demanded by a rapidly reconstituted labor force.

But that means embracing the future, not running away from it. You can't run an entire economy on nostalgia. That's why it's so frustrating to be stuck with leaders whose main idea for a better tomorrow is to go back to the ways of yesterday; listen to them talk, and you'll have a hard time deciding whether their approach is that of an ostrich burying its head in the sand -- or a deer frozen in the headlights.

Alfred T. Palmer/Farm Security Administration Via Library of Congress