“This is a president who has failed to put in place crippling sanctions against Iran. He’s also failed to communicate that military options are on the table and in fact in our hand, and that it’s unacceptable to America for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. … It’s pretty straightforward in my view: If Barack Obama gets reelected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change.”
— Mitt Romney, campaigning in Georgia, March 4, 2012
It is a pretty declarative statement by the former Massachusetts governor: “If Barack Obama gets reelected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change.”
We can’t fact-check the future, but we can say this with certainty: If Romney becomes president, he will discover that this diplomatic stuff is much harder than it looks. And he will absolutely hate it when Congress tries to get involved in foreign policy issues.
Both of these statements are true for every president. It was ever thus.
Let’s take a look at some of Romney’s specific charges about Obama’s handling of the Iran portfolio.
If you go back four years, you will see that it was the Obama campaign that made claims of weakness and fecklessness on Iran. President George W. Bush had considered the building of a multinational coalition seeking to negotiate with Iran as one of his foreign-policy legacies, but Obama officials were critical, saying it offered “weak carrots and weak sticks.”
Indeed, the Obama campaign had even begun to alarm some major European allies with talk of dropping a key precondition of talks with Iran — a demand that Iran stop enriching uranium. Europeans feared that ending a demand that had been enshrined in four U.N. Security Council resolutions would be seen as a sign of weakness.
Ultimately, once Obama became president, the United States and the Europeans compromised on a concept known as “freeze for freeze,” a six-week period of preliminary talks that would blur the lines between suspension and discussion. The Europeans, however, made sure that enrichment would still need to be suspended for formal negotiations to begin.
We mention this ancient history as an example of the difficulty of turning campaign rhetoric into policy: Before Obama could even begin to convince China and Russia to take action, he had to negotiate with European allies like Britain, France and Germany on the best approach.
We have embedded below the full Romney campaign explanation of Obama’s failure on Iran so readers can read for themselves.
Here’s what’s missing from that account:
1. The U.N. Security Council resolution is only the tip of the iceberg. Obama’s initial outreach to Iran, which was largely unreciprocated, and the discovery of another secret Iranian nuclear site near Qom, did help build a stronger international coalition against Iran. The U.N. Security Council resolution is always the lowest common denominator, but passage of Resolution 1929 in 2010 provided a diplomatic rationale for other key players, such as the European Union, Japan and Australia, to pass even tougher sanctions on their own. Indeed, the template for the E.U. sanctions were ideas that could not pass muster with the Russia and Chinese at the United Nations.
2. Not all actions are spelled out. As part of the U.N. sanctions, Russian won an exemption that would have permitted an $800 million sale of S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. But then Russia canceled the sale anyway, in what can only be viewed as the outcome of successful, quiet diplomacy.
3. Consequences are sometimes difficult to predict. The Obama administration’s willingness to pursue a deal to supply fuel to an Iranian research reactor helped convince Russia and China it was serious about a negotiated end to the standoff. But bungled diplomacy and miscommunication on this issue with Brazil and Turkey led to the loss of a unanimous vote at the Security Council.
4. Congressional action can sometimes be a useful tool for diplomacy, but it can also be an irritant. All administrations try to preserve as much flexibility as possible; no one likes to have their hands tied. George W. Bush was especially aggressive about adding signing statements saying he would not be bound by some of the terms of legislation passed by Congress.
As for Romney’s complaint that Obama has failed to communicate that the military option is on the table, the president has certainly emphasized that possibility in recent days.
Romney on Sunday appeared to be responding to Obama’s speech before the annual policy conference of American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But this is what Obama said at AIPAC:
“When it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.”
And last week, this is what Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic magazine:
“I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”
At the same time, some might argue that Obama undercut this tough message with a warning in the AIPAC speech that “there is too much loose talk of war.”
“The Obama administration has repeatedly undermined the credibility of the U.S. military threat and the Israeli military threat by talking down and discouraging a military strike,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign. He pointed to a proposed $6 million cut in missile defense cooperation with Israel — though overall military aid to Israel will climb to $3.1 billion in 2013 — as “sending a signal that we are not preparing for a military strike on Iran.” He also said that Obama’s proposed cuts in U.S. military spending to deal with the deficit “sends a dangerous signal of irresolution.”
Still, the Iranian nuclear program is scattered across a vast county, unlike the nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria that were destroyed by the Israeli military. By one estimate, in David Sanger’s book “The Inheritance,” an effective air attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would require a thousand strike sorties lasting a week or two. That would be a pretty serious military endeavor.
Interestingly, a military strike was never seriously considered during Bush’s administration, according to the memoirs of senior officials. Bush administration officials also discouraged the Israelis from taking action.
Bush, in his book “Decision Points,” said a military strike “would be my last resort.” Bush said he had serious doubts about its effectiveness and was worried it would inflame the region and weaken the fragile Iraqi government. But he said his hands were especially tied after a national intelligence estimate concluded that Iran had suspended work on developing a warhead in 2003.
“After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?” Bush writes on page 419.
Former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her book “No Higher Honor,” says flatly on page 624: “The president, though keeping his options open, had no intention of going to war with Iran.” She added:
“There was no easy path ahead. One could not destroy the nuclear program by just attacking a few targets. And the mullahs had made certain that any strike on these facilities would have to take place near major population centers, exposing civilians to danger. Most experts believed that limited military action might actually strengthen the regime — provoking a unifying nationalistic response and undermining the reformers. This was a point that we also made repeatedly to the Israelis, who faced an existential threat from the Iranian nuclear program.”
Rice writes that when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia expressed the hope that Bush would “take care of Iran” before leaving office, Defense Secretary Robert Gates bluntly told him “that the United States would face the wrath of the American people over such a decision.”
Vice President Dick Cheney, in his book “In My Time,” also refers to this incident — claiming on page 478 that Gates actually said Bush would be “impeached” if he attacked Iran. Cheney said that “we had to tell the Saudis that Secretary Gates was speaking for himself and not reflecting U.S. policy.” But he lamented the incident because he felt the loss of leverage from such comments “made a diplomatic solution more difficult.”
In other words, the Bush administration gave lip service to the idea of a military option but only as a point of leverage to enhance its diplomacy. Obama, as far as we can tell, has now made a more explicit statement—“I don’t bluff”— on the military option than Bush ever did, so perhaps the calculation has changed with the passage of four years.
The Pinocchio Test
As we have noted before, it is difficult to fact check claims about feckless foreign policy performance. Certainly, though, Romney’s prediction about Iran getting a nuclear weapon if Obama is reelected falls into the category of “silly-hyperbolic campaign rhetoric.”
Moreover, Romney’s critique of Obama’s handling of Iran is missing important context, even by the standards of campaign fare. Sanctions on Iran have become robust and Tehran is more internationally isolated since Obama took office, in part with the help of Congress, even if the ultimate goal of ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions has not yet been achieved. Meanwhile, the military option is a grave choice — one that Obama’s predecessor never seriously considered.
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