Republican presidential candidates Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, left, former… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
Obviously, the Republican presidential candidates have the right to speak out on any issue they choose, and just as obviously, the escalation of hostility between Israel and Iran is a terribly important subject that should concern every American. But so far we haven't gleaned much wisdom from the GOP contenders, who, except for Ron Paul, are encouraging a reckless rush to war while unfairly portraying President Obama as an appeaser.
At Wednesday's debate in Mesa, Ariz., Mitt Romney assailed the administration for cautioning Israel against launching a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Newt Gingrich made it clear that he would react positively if Israel's prime minister informed him that the country planned to attack Iran. And Rick Santorum accused Obama of doing "nothing" to counter "a dangerous theocratic regime that wants to wipe out the state of Israel ... and take on the Great Satan, the United States." Not surprisingly, none of the three gave the administration any credit for ratcheting up the economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran. Nor did any address the potentially catastrophic consequences of an attack on Iran.
An Iranian nuclear weapon would be a dangerous and destabilizing development, even if Iran never launched the suicidal attack on Israel that Republicans treat as a foregone conclusion. The United States, its allies and the International Atomic Energy Agency rightly refuse to take at face value Iran's assurance that it is interested only in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. All available diplomatic steps should be taken to prevent the creation of an Iranian bomb, which, as well as posing a terrifying threat to the state of Israel, would immediately recalibrate the balance of power in the Middle East and very likely set off a new arms race among the other powers in the region.
But for an American president to give carte blanche to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be irresponsible. By most accounts, an Israeli attack would be enormously difficult to carry off and would do little more than delay the Iranian program by several years. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said an Israeli attack would be "destabilizing," and former CIA DirectorMichael V. Hayden called it "beyond the capacity" of Israel to launch an attack that would seriously set Iran back.
What's more, Iran's response to such an attack could disrupt global oil shipments, unleash Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel and threaten U.S. interests worldwide.
Dempsey said recently that in the view of U.S. intelligence, the Iranian regime "has not decided" whether to make a nuclear weapon. If so, there is time for measures short of military action to deflect Iran from that choice. There are also signs that sanctions are beginning to pinch. Iran has indicated a willingness to resume talks with the United States and other great powers. Abandoning such initiatives in favor of precipitous military action might be good Republican politics, but it would be disastrous policy.