Interesting Times: Testing! Testing!

Why all the candidates for US president need a serious foreign policy.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
Whether a Democrat or a Republican wins the US election this year, the next president will have to come up with a post-Bush foreign policy. What will that look like? It is not easy to tell based on the candidates' statements. A prominent Democratic activist admitted to me recently that none of his party's candidates had cogently described a foreign policy. Especially since the stock market fell, the whole issue has tumbled off the political radar screen. But whether or not American voters are in a mood to hear it, the next president will need a foreign policy. While the elder Bush came in with substantial experience in global affairs, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were both elected, and expected to be, domestic-oriented presidents. It didn't exactly work out that way. In fact, the next presidency will be dominated by foreign policy, regardless of who is chosen and their inclinations. The US has lapsed into a cross between pre-9/11 complacency and post-Bush burnout. Americans do not see themselves at war, but facing the equivalent of a cold that won't go away - it's annoying, but not something to pay much attention to. When America turns its back on the world, the world has a way of - how can we put this delicately - making itself known to America. This is true even if a global totalitarian threat has just been defeated, such as after World War II and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is all the more true when there is a very active war going on that Americans have trouble acknowledging, even though they are under direct attack. The Democratic activist I met with said that, frankly, he wasn't convinced that the threat from militant Islam was as great as it was being made out to be. He is right, if one were to look at it in static terms. THERE IS always some amount of turmoil in the world, and terrorism is hardly new. Even the war in Iraq is going a bit better lately. An American general, John Abizaid, has argued that a nuclear Iran can be dealt with. Besides, the National Intelligence Estimate said that's not something anyone need worry about too much now, didn't it? The problem is that the threat is not a static one. Like the Nazis in the 1930s, who were considered appalling thugs but hardly a global problem, the threat from totalitarian Islam is not that great now, but will grow unless it is stopped. And Abizaid is mistaken: Deterrence is not enough against a power that subverts and attacks through proxy terrorist forces. This will become obvious quickly after Bush leaves office, and perhaps even before. The reason is that the next president, whether Republican or Democrat, will be tested. Just as Barack Obama is basking in his endorsement by the Kennedys (Caroline and Ted), we should be reminded of how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tested John F. Kennedy by trying to station nuclear missiles in Cuba. Iran, in particular, has a rich history of testing American presidents. The 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Teheran was clearly such a test, one that Jimmy Carter failed. But so was the bombing of US Marines in Beirut, a test Ronald Reagan failed when he quickly withdrew US forces from Lebanon. Later, Reagan was tested again when Iran started firing at Kuwaiti and Saudi oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. This time, it was Iran that was forced to back down after the US reflagged foreign oil tankers and, on October 19, 1987, obliterated two Iranian oil platforms in a 90-minute artillery barrage. The US explained that it had exercised a "measured response" in its "lawful... right of self-defense." The recent incident in the Gulf where Iranian military motor boats buzzed American navy ships is an indication that the testing may have already begun. We do not know if the Iranians are disciplined enough to wait a year until Bush is safely (from their perspective) out of office. We also know that the Iranians were so afraid of Reagan when he replaced Carter that they released their American hostages, after 444 days, on the day he took office. So sometimes the advent of a new president cuts the other way - as a sign of American strength rather than weakness. Accordingly, if John McCain, who has a serious military record and has succinctly said that "the only thing worse than the military option is a nuclear Iran," becomes president, the Iranians may hesitate. But not for long, as the Reagan experience made clear. THE TRUTH is that the Iranians will eventually test any new president, Democrat or Republican, because that's what megalomaniacal totalitarians do. Accordingly, the remaining candidates have to start thinking now: How can they not only dissuade Iran from mistaking American complacency for weakness, but reverse what has become a growing Islamofascist threat? What is sorely needed, and what neither party has really developed, is a wider range of techniques to force rogue regimes out of the nuke and terror business. The Afghan and Iraqi regimes were physically booted from power, and Libya subsequently cried uncle without a fight. But Iran, the largest and most dangerous of all terror regimes, is fighting back and invasion is not an option. So far, what passes for debate is the Democrats saying the US should talk to Iran and the Republicans saying that's a mistake. Neither position constitutes a coherent policy. All the presidential candidates should start putting forward a serious three-pronged approach to Iran: support for the Iranian people, a major push for draconian multilateral sanctions, all backed up by the military option. Talking to Iran is fine once there is something to talk about, namely, that Iran has good reason to back down completely, as Libya did. Unless Iran faces a convincing combination of these three prongs, there is no reason for it to give in. The strongest candidate, in this respect, is not necessarily the one with the most experience or the one that looks scariest to Iran. If Obama, for example, made clear that his first step would be to tell the Europeans that they must impose much tougher sanctions now or risk war, then he could be no less, and perhaps more, effective than a Republican might be. On the other hand, a Democrat who comes in actually believing that talking to Iran, without having a proven and credible stick in hand, will by itself make a difference, will shortly find him or herself facing a nuclear Iran and a very rocky presidency. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11