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'Tea party' trouble on foreign policy

The risks are great if Republicans and the Obama administration don't put party differences aside in foreign policy issues, especially Iran.

November 18, 2010|By Dana H. Allin and Steven Simon

The "tea party" agenda in the midterm election focused largely on domestic issues. But the Republican gains in Congress that the movement fueled will have profound foreign policy consequences.

Bipartisanship in foreign policy has all but disappeared, and the first victim is likely to be the Obama administration's New START treaty with Russia. This agreement, which is both modest in its cuts and extremely favorable to U.S. concerns, has been the centerpiece of President Obama's attempts to reset U.S.-Russian relations. Although there are probably enough votes in the Senate to ensure the treaty's ratification, a handful of Republicans almost certainly will block it from ever coming to the floor for a vote — in large measure because of their determination to deny Obama any foreign policy victory. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could not have been clearer when he said, immediately after the midterm election, that Republicans' "top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office."

In this regard, another tempting target for the Republicans will be Iran's march toward a nuclear weapons capability, and Israeli anxieties about Tehran's intentions and capabilities. These reasonable worries are certain to be exploited by Republican politicians eager to portray Obama's diplomatic strategy as both weak and a betrayal of America's most important ally in the Middle East.

There is, to be sure, room for legitimate debate about what Washington really means when it says that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable, a mantra repeated by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Likewise, there is room for reasonable argument about whether trade sanctions are an effective way to pressure Iran.

The Republican attacks on Obama's policies, however, won't be invitations to an informed debate of the issues; instead, they will be framed as an urgent demand that the administration wake up to a clear and present danger. As far back as the 2008 campaign, conservatives accused Obama of advocating appeasement in dealing with Iran, a charge that is both uniquely emotive and extraordinarily wrongheaded. The right wing, while trumpeting its support for Israel, will grow louder in condemning Obama for attempting to contain the Iranian threat while empowering Arab moderates through palpable progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Already, a succession of Republican leaders — including Sarah Palin, the normally more coherent Mike Huckabee and congressman Mike Pence — have openly encouraged a settlements policy that is progressively wiping the possibility of a two-state solution off the map.

The drumbeat for war with Iran is also becoming louder. At an International Institute for Strategic Studies speech in Bahrain, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a hawkish independent, warned that it was "time for us to … make clear that if diplomatic and economic strategies continue to fail to change Iran's nuclear policies, a military strike is not just a remote possibility in the abstract but a real and credible alternative policy that can be exercised." And immediately after the midterm election, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told a Canadian audience that the United States should be preparing a major military assault to destroy Iran's air force and navy and cripple its Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Israel may well decide that its security requires a military option for dealing with Iran's nuclear capabilities. If this is the turn the crisis takes, much of the blame will reside in Iran's reckless defiance of demands by the United Nations that it suspend uranium enrichment. Yet we cannot pretend that such a turn would not be extraordinarily damaging to U.S. and, indeed, to Israeli interests.

Because there is so much at stake — we are talking about, after all, the Persian Gulf — and the prospect of war is so real, the debate about how we confront Iran should not be politicized and should be expressed in careful, analytical terms. The delicate task of reassuring and restraining panicky Israelis, while at the same time prodding them toward accommodation with the Palestinians, will not be helped by irresponsible rhetoric. Indeed, partisan rhetoric about Iran, intended mostly to put the White House on the defensive, will intensify Iranian paranoia and rancor toward the United States and further degrade the stability of a region in crisis.

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