When Israel Attacks Iran, Will It Help Obama or Romney?

One of Iran's nuclear facilities, near Qom

Three assumptions are implicit in the headline, and I feel pretty confident about all three.

Let’s start with the easy assumption: Romney will be the Republican nominee. I declared Romney the inevitable victor way back in January, and I see no reason to change my mind just because the underlying reality is having trouble keeping up with my insight.

Second assumption: Israel will attack Iran.  Here I’ve actually changed my mind since I wrote “Pace Bolton, I’m Betting Against an Israeli Air Strike on Iran’s Nuke Facilities” in July 2009.   Way back then, in the wake of Obama’s inexplicable tardiness in condemning the theocracy’s crackdown of what didn’t quite become the Second Iranian Revolution, America’s greatest former UN Ambassador said:

Iran’s nuclear threat was never in doubt during its presidential campaign, but the post-election resistance raised the possibility of some sort of regime change. That prospect seems lost for the near future or for at least as long as it will take Iran to finalize a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

Accordingly, with no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable. Israel is undoubtedly ratcheting forward its decision-making process. President Obama is almost certainly not.

That inexorability, which I didn’t buy back then, has had nearly three years to continue inexorabilizing.  Back then, Obama’s emerging lack of support for the Jewish state seemed to me to be the main non-logistical barrier to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Obama still is not the world’s biggest fan of Israel, but his attitude toward Iran certainly has hardened.  In a long and thoughtful overview this week of the recent rhetoric, one of Meryl Yourish’s co-bloggers wrote:

Obama stated quite forcefully that he is not going to abide a situation where US will have to deal with containment of nuclear Iran. On the face of it, this is as clear-cut declaration of intentions as anyone would hope to get from a leader of the superpower.

Obama may not want an Israeli attack, he may still be trying to dissuade the Israelis from attacking, but it would be hard for him to take any action against Israel if it attacks.  And if you have any doubt that Israel has the guts to attack eventually, I commend to you Jeffrey Goldberg’s column this week, “Israelis Grow Confident Strike on Iran’s Nukes Can Work.”

The third headline assumption is a bit more subtle.  I’m assuming not just that the attack will happen, but also that it will happen before November 2012.  Once upon a time I might have thought that Israel would delay until 2013 in the hope of acting under a more supportive U.S. administration.  But there’s obviously no guarantee of a Republican victory, and a re-elected Obama who never has to campaign again might become even less sympathetic to Israel.

So what’s the answer to the headline query — will an Israeli attack on Iran help Obama or Romney?  Hell, I don’t know.

Tempting though it is to end the post there, I may as well share the few ideas I have on the matter.  Obviously, who it helps will be affected by what happens after the Israelis attack.  Iran’s Supreme Theocrat Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday:

“We do not have atomic weapons and we will not build one. But against an attack by enemies — to defend ourselves either against the U.S. or Zionist regime — we will attack them on the same level that they attack us.”

In Iran-speak, Israel is the Little Satan and America is the Big Satan. It would be suicidal for the Iranians to overtly attack American forces while launching a retaliation against Israel — but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  Keep in mind that we’re dealing with a culture that glorifies martyrdom.

In wartime, Americans tend to rally around the president, at least initially.  More than two-thirds of Americans supported the beginning of George Bush’s war in Iraq. So unless Obama utterly abandons Israel in its time of greatest need, I tend to think an Israeli attack will favor Obama’s re-election.  Sure would take a lot of attention away from the economy and Obamacare.

When Victor Davis Hanson Talks, I Listen — and He’s Got Me More Worried About a Nuclear Iran

When I grow up I want to be Victor Davis Hanson.  (Turns out he’s not quite five years older than me.  Note to self: Next time start earlier.)

I first became aware of VDH in the weeks and months after September 11.  Like many people, I was hungry not just for information, but for perspective.  I was less interested in the fluctuating body count than in what the future would hold.  While milling about in Citigroup’s corporate offices in midtown that awful Tuesday afternoon, wondering how to get home with the subways and trains locked down, I fell into conversation with a much-younger co-worker, who said something along the lines of, “maybe things will all get back to normal soon.”  I shook my head.  “The world changed today,” I said.

That was about the extent of my insight on Day One.  For what it’s worth, I think it’s held up pretty well.

Here’s a sample of VDH’s insight on Day One:

[O]n December 7, 1941, we declared war against the Japanese Empire after twenty-four hundred American sailors were surprised and killed on a Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor….

Today, September 11, the United States was similarly attacked, in acts every bit as cowardly and without warning.  The only difference between Pearl Harbor and the firing on the Pentagon and destruction of the towers of the World Trade Center is one of magnitude.  Ours now is the far greater loss.  No enemy in our past, neither Nazi Germany nor imperial Japan, has killed so many American civilians and brought such deadly carnage to our shores as these suicidal hijackers who crashed the very citadels of American cultural, economic, and military power in our nation’s two greatest cities. … Surely, by any fair measure of history, we should be at war now.

But are we and shall we be? This generation of Americans is at a crossroads in our nation’s history.  We must decide whether we shall continue to be the adolescent nation that fretted the last six months over the risque details of Congressman Condit’s private life while our enemies were plotting death on the scale of a Guadalcanal or Tet under our very noses.  Or are we still the children of our fathers, who accepted the old, sad truth that “the essence of war is violence, and moderation in war is imbecility.”

As you read those words now, they may seem unremarkable — nothing that you haven’t read dozens of times.  But those sentiments, part of a carefully fleshed-out essay of 1,000 words, spun forth from Hanson’s computer on September 11.

Between then and the end of 2001, VDH wrote 38 (!!) similarly thoughtful essays, published at National Review Online and elsewhere.  The essays are collected in An Autumn of War, a book available through the Amazon widget in the right column of my homepage.  More than a decade later, the essays are still worth reading, and if you order the book through my Amazon widget, supposedly I’ll get a tiny little piece of the action.  I really wish someone would do this someday so I can see if I really get a commission.  Just a thought.

Where was I?  Ah, I was making the point that VDH has a talent for producing insightful analysis in real time.  His output at National Review Online and what used to be called Pajamas Media is prodigious.  I don’t always agree with him — his criticisms of Obama sometimes seem fueled by an intense dislike that I do not share.

But he’s always worth reading, and today he’s done the best job I’ve ever seen of describing how much is at stake in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.  (That’s right, the 600 words above are all for the purpose of setting up a blog post of the “here’s something interesting I read today” variety.  Maybe someday I’ll figure out how blogs are supposed to work.)

Onward! There are so many insights in today’s essay that it’s hard to decide what to excerpt.  But that’s the kind of choice that I as a professional blogger have to make every day.  Or once or twice a week in my case.

Otherwise insignificant nations and failed states gain credibility by shorting their own people to divert billions of dollars to acquiring a bomb. Take away that fact from Pakistan, and the United States would probably have reduced aid to such a de facto belligerent long ago. …

[I]f a head of state can feign insanity, or, better yet, convincingly announce a wish for the apocalypse, then he can, in theory, circumvent some traditional rules of deterrence. An Iranian theocrat’s supposed willingness to use his sole nuclear weapon to wipe out tiny Israel — at the cost of losing 30 million Iranians from retaliation — yields a cheap way to obtain not just parity with Israel, but potentially a nuclear advantage. …

To this day, we do not know whether North Korea has successfully detonated a nuclear bomb that is easily deliverable. But it does not matter; we need to know only that it has achieved some sort of nuclear reaction that suggests the ability to repeat it a few times. That fact prevents any sort of preemptive attack on a North Korean reactor, giving North Korea the sort of exemption that Iraq, Libya, and Syria never quite achieved. …

The reason why Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are not nuclear is not a matter of technology or finance; indeed, all four could this year alone create nukes as they do BMWs or Hondas. It is not just an American nuclear umbrella but rather a large American nuclear umbrella that assures such countries that they can rest secure without their own deterrent stockpiles. …

The danger is not the bomb per se, but rather who has it. Most of us do not worry about a democratic Britain, France, India, or Israel possessing nuclear weapons. The fright instead is over a Communist authoritarian China, an unhinged North Korea, an Islamist Pakistan, or an unstable Russia having nuclear weapons. Transparent democracies, in other words, are mostly reliable nuclear guardians; non-transparent autocracies are less so.

Read the whole thing.

Reporter Has Front-Row Seat as Navy Rescues Iranian Ship from Pirates

A U.S. Navy sailor greets an Iranian crew member after the rescue. (Public domain photo from U.S. Navy)

If you read only one news article today, you must read the dramatic NY Times account of the U.S. Navy’s rescue of Iranians from Somali pirates.  As luck would have it, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and photographer were embedded on one of the naval vessels.

It’s hard to pick the best aspect of this story.  There’s the irony of the U.S. rescuing Iranians. There’s the mental image of the pirates throwing grappling hooks over the rail of the target vessel.  There’s the clever tactic of setting the first set of pirates free, only to follow them to their mother ship.

In another bizarre coincidence, the U.S.S. Kidd, part of an international anti-piracy task force, happened to have on board a chief petty officer who speaks Urdu.  Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, not of Iran… but the Iranian captain was from near the Pakistani border. Even as the pirates listened, the captain was able to ask for help in Urdu.

Of course, whenever a news development reflects well on the U.S. military, some people quickly look for ways to diminish it. On CNN’s “Security Clearance” blog, someone named Larry Shaughnessy snarked:

The Pentagon’s public affairs apparatus put on a full-court press Friday after the U.S. Navy rescued 13 Iranian fishermen from a group of suspect pirates. But for all the back-patting of U.S. efforts to save sailors even from an “axis of evil” country, it turns out the true hero in the whole incident was the quick-thinking Iranian captain.

Arrgh.  Props to the Iranian captain, but why go out of your way to try to tarnish what the Navy did?  I prefer to stay focused on the positive story line. Of course, I’m a sucker for any Navy-versus-pirates narrative, since I’ve got a son in the biz.

Obama Will Not Stop Iran’s Nuke Program — But Surely Israel Will Try

William Kristol argues persuasively that “President Barack Obama [has] made it clear that he’s resigned to a nuclear Iran.”

Appearing on ABC’s Good Morning America, Obama told George Stephanopoulos:

If the question is do we have a guarantee [that] the sanctions we are able to institute at this stage are automatically going to change Iranian behavior, of course we don’t. I mean, the history of the Iranian regime, like the North Korean regime, is that, you know, you apply international pressure on these countries, sometimes they choose to change behavior, sometimes they don’t. …

North Korea has nuclear weapons. Now Obama is telling us that he intends to deal with Iran as we dealt with North Korea. So, as the Iranians follow in the footsteps of the North Koreans and move ahead to get nukes, we’re going to do nothing about it.

But Israel will.  An Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities now seems inevitable.

I’ve written at length about the difficulties Israel will face in attacking Iran’s weapons program, starting with the need to fly long distances over one or more hostile countries just to get to Iran.  But I don’t see Israel standing by while a nearby Islamic theocracy with a Holocaust-denying nutcase president develops both nuclear weapons and missiles capable of reaching Israel.  Kristol again:

The Obama administration knows that Israel is weighing military action against Iran. This accounts at least in part for the administration’s turn against Israel in recent weeks—its attempt to further isolate the Jewish state in order to put pressure on it not to act.

I think this gets it exactly backwards.  The Obama administration’s hostility to Israel makes an Israeli air strike more likely, not less.

Ahmadinejad Seems to Have a Death Wish

Just two days after Western leaders revealed that Iran has a secret nuclear facility, the Holocaust-denying nutcase who presides over Iran has started staging missile tests.  The missiles tested Sunday were short-range, but apparently Iran plans on Monday to test missiles capable of reaching Israel (not to mention American bases in the region).

It has become hard to imagine a peaceful ending to the Iranian nuclear problem.  I’ve gone back and forth on this, but it seems highly likely that Israel, which twice before has launched pre-emptive attacks on nuclear facilities in hostile countries, will do so again.  I wish I could be confident that our President would then stand behind one of our staunchest allies, but after Obama’s call at the UN for a “Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967,” I cannot.

Not very cheery thoughts on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.  I wish my Jewish friends an easy fast.

Obama Pays for Gates-gate in the Rasmussen Poll

obama_index_july_26_2009President Obama has slipped to the worst rating of his young presidency in the daily Rasmussen Presidential Tracking Poll, weighing in at -11 points.  That’s based on likely voters with strong opinions.  He fares better when you look at total approvers vs. total disapprovers — although for the first time, or at least the first time I’ve noticed, he’s in slightly negative territory there as well, with 49% at least somewhat approving of his performance and 50% disapproving.

As soon as I saw that strong uptick in the red strongly-disapprove line above, I knew it had to be a result of Gates-gate, and Rasmussen confirms that.  It’s unfortunate that Obama chose to squander some of his post-racial cred by meddling in an ambiguous incident in a town with a black police commissioner and a black mayor, in a state with a black governor, in a country with a black president.

BTW, I would not show up on Rasmussen’s tracking poll, because I would tell the pollster that I “somewhat disapprove.”  Foreign policy is key for me in evaluating a president, and I give Obama positive marks for continuing President Bush’s policies on Iraq and Afghanistan. (Iran, not so much, although he eventually decided which side to back.) But I’m opposed to pretty much everything he’s trying to do domestically.

Rethinking an Israeli Attack on Iran’s Nukes

London TimesOnline logoWill the Sunni Saudis side with the Jews against Shiite Iran?

The Sunday Times today reports that Saudia Arabia has quietly let Israel know that “that Saudi Arabia would turn a blind eye to Israeli jets flying over the kingdom during any future raid on Iran’s nuclear sites.”  Israel’s Prime Minister promptly denied it.

But it makes sense, given that the Saudis and other Arab countries are fearful of a nuclear-armed Iran. This may affect my earlier belief that Israel would not attack Iran anytime soon.  Israel flew back and forth over Saudi airspace in its 1981 strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, but flew low to avoid Saudi detection. I assumed it would be too risky to do the same for the much-longer flight to Iran, but if the Saudis were on board …

Ironically, Saudi cooperation in this way would increase the chance of a confrontation between Israel and the United States.  A glance at the map on the earlier post shows that a Saudi flight path means the Israelis would fly across the entire width of U.S.-controlled Iraqi airspace, whereas the Turkey route would send the planes over only the northern tip of Iraq.

Pace Bolton, I’m Betting Against an Israeli Air Strike on Iran’s Nuke Facilities


Osirak was quite a hike, and Iran is even farther

In today’s Washington Post, former UN Ambassador John Bolton stops just short of openly rooting for Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities:

Iran’s nuclear threat was never in doubt during its presidential campaign, but the post-election resistance raised the possibility of some sort of regime change. That prospect seems lost for the near future or for at least as long as it will take Iran to finalize a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

Accordingly, with no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable. Israel is undoubtedly ratcheting forward its decision-making process. President Obama is almost certainly not.

The usual suspects are outraged. One HuffPo commenter said “I would take foreign policy advice from Ronald McDonald before I would take advice on where to buy a cheeseburger from John Bolton.” (Much as I disagree on substance, I gotta admit that is a pretty good line.)

John_R._BoltonBolton is nothing if not consistent — the day before the fateful Iranian election, he was in the Wall Street Journal openly speculating about how Iran might react to such a strike.  Out of six possible responses, he judged that increased Iranian support for terrorism was most likely, edging out a direct missile strike against Israel (because Israel might respond with nukes).

As a Bolton-loving, pro-Israel, Saddam-overthrow-approving neocon, I have to say that some part of me is rooting for an Israeli pre-emptive strike as well.  But they couldn’t do it without crossing U.S.-controlled airspace, and I don’t see that happening.

There’s nothing new about all this speculation, of course.  In 2007, two “MIT eggheads” published a detailed paper titled “Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities.” According to the UK Register:

Raas and Long skate over the massive diplomatic problems that would accompany an Israeli strike. The planes would have to fly over Turkey, Syria, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia: and/or American-occupied Iraq. Turkey and Jordan would be extremely angry, but conceivably might not shoot at the Israelis. Syria surely would. America probably wouldn’t, and arguably would have to be consulted in advance anyway, but all in all the Israeli airmen might have to fight before they even reached [Iran], and perhaps again before they got home. The two authors are surely correct to assume that Israel could never get away with more than a single lightning raid; international outrage would surely prohibit any sustained campaign.

Those three words — “America probably wouldn’t” — might seem like an understatement.  My initial reaction was of course America wouldn’t shoot at Israeli fighters.  I certainly hope we would not.  But the more I think about it, the more I think “probably not” is the right assessment.

The MIT eggheads opine:

Raas and Long suggest that a “strike package” of 50 US-made F-15 and F-16 jets — a considerable proportion of the IAF’s current strength — could potentially wreck Iran’s ability to build nukes, using conventional weapons already in the Israeli inventory.

Those F-15 and F-16 jets are the same fighters Israel used 28 years ago when they took out Saddam’s nuke facility at Osirak, according to the writeup in Wikipedia.  (Yes, yes, Wikipedia’s not authoritative, blah blah blah — but I tend to trust the Wikipedians when they cite footnoted sources, as in this case.)  A look at the map above immediately makes clear the logistical challenges of an Israeli strike on Iran, especially since the much-easier Osirak operation was dicey in the first place.

One of Wikipedia’s footnotes leads to the text of a 2001 speech by an Israeli Ambassador, in which he said:

Ten years later, Dick Cheney told me that if Israel not made this preemptive attack [on Osirak], the Gulf War may have yielded a different result.

Cheney — talk about the usual suspects!

And therein lies my point.  There’s a new American sheriff in town, and Mr. Obama is clearly less supportive of Israel’s security needs than his predecessor.  I’m no expert on military capabilities — I wouldn’t even qualify as a dilettante — but it’s inconceivable to me that Israel could carry out a strike against Iran without American acquiesence at the very least.  Remember that even before the war in Iraq, America was enforcing no-fly zones in the northern and southern portions of Iraq.

F-15Iran’s efforts to blame the U.S. for the recent rioting in Tehran are transparently silly, but that hasn’t kept them from making the accusation.  Obama has shown what I and others consider to be excessive concern with what Iran thinks about us.  So it stands to reason that even as I write this, American diplomats are telling Israeli diplomats to pay no attention to what that man with the white mustache says in the Washington Post.

Would Israel attack Iran even over the strenuous objections of the Obama administration?  It’s certainly conceivable.  The question is, how far would Obama go to deter an Israeli attack?  I don’t for a moment think that any American official is eager to shoot down an Israeli fighter — but would they scramble American jets to try to intercept and wave off the Israelis?  And if those jets get within range of each other, what would each side’s rules of engagement be?

Any such confrontation would “probably” (there’s that word again) not permanently cripple U.S.-Israeli relations, but I don’t think Israel will want to risk it at a time when even the chief of Mossad thinks an Iranian nuclear threat is still years away.  So I’ll be very surprised in Israel actually goes through with a strike on Iraq’s nukes, at least in the near future.  But if it turns out I’m wrong — if Israel does take on Iran — I know who’s side I’ll be on.

(Map and photos of Bolton and F-15 from Wikipedia)

The Perilous Implications of Bush’s Third Term

Obama 6-23-09 news conf
While much of Barack Obama’s national security policy has, thankfully, looked like a continuation of the Bush administration, his rhetorical response to the crisis in Iran thus far contrasts sharply with what we would have expected from his predecessor.

Bush turned the heat up under Iran by naming the regime to his “Axis of Evil.”  Obama, who painted himself as the anti-Bush during the campaign by pledging to negotiate with Iran “without preconditions,” initially responded to globally televised evidence of the regime’s  evil by voicing “deep concern” while maintaining neutrality between the regime and the demonstrators.

It took several days for him to express support for the demonstrators, and only yesterday did he forthrightly denounce the regime’s crackdown, using the words “appalled,” “outraged,” “condemn” and “deplore.”  Well put.  (I was rooting for “evil,” the word behind this blog’s name, but I guess that’s too much to expect.)

But even yesterday, the Washington Post reports,

the president and his aides made it clear that the extraordinary events in Iran have not caused the administration to rethink its desire to engage with the Iranian government in order to achieve a deal that would resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Which leads us to a troubling similarity between Bush and Obama — an apparent penchant for clinging to a policy long after overwhelming evidence shows the folly of that policy.

In Bush’s case, the folly I’m talking about is not the decision to overthrow Saddam Husein.  Like roughly a third of all Americans, I continue to believe Bush was right to go to war in Iraq.  Rather, I’m talking about Bush’s stubbornly prolonged support for Donald Rumsfeld’s “light footprint” approach, in which we sent enough troops to depose Saddam but not enough to pacify the country.  The uncontrolled looting in the spring of 2003 made the shortfall clear, but it took until the 2006 election for Bush to replace Rumsfeld, and months more to launch the “surge” that now seems to have been decisive.

I just hope it doesn’t take Obama three years to understand the perils of engagement with the Iranian regime.

(Photo: New York Times)

Jonesing for My Iran Fix — Did They Strike or Not?


Andrew Sullivan posted his latest update from the #iranelection Tweetstream at about midnight last night, indicating confusion about whether the national strike is planned for Tuesday or Wednesday.  Now it’s 8:15 a.m. on the US East Coast — 8.5 hours later in Iran means the normal work day must be almost over.  No sign of any strike headlines on CNN, MSNBC, NYT, WaPo, USAToday websites.  What’s going on?

I may be getting too close to this story.