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Who Can Be Trusted to Act on Iran?

With Mitt Romney arriving in Israel this weekend, the focus of the presidential campaign will turn, albeit briefly, to a discussion of the way the Obama administration has distanced itself from the Jewish state and whether the president or his challenger can be trusted to act on the Iranian nuclear threat. In an in-depth interview with Haaretz prior to his visit, Romney reiterated his familiar positions of stalwart support for Israel. He made clear his disagreement with Obama on the fundamental question of whether it is wise for the United States to seek to publicly pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. But he will get the most attention for his explicit avowal that he will not rule out the use of force against Iran.

President Obama has pushed back hard against talk about using force against Iran, but his rhetoric has been equally strong about the need to prevent the Islamist regime from gaining nuclear weapons. That leaves us pondering which of the two men is more likely to do what needs to be done to actually make good on their pledges of preventing a nuclear Iran. Romney’s position seems far less equivocal. Earlier this week in his speech to the VFW he explicitly said Iran should not be allowed to refine any uranium, a position that contradicts a weak compromise offered Iran by Obama in the P5+1 negotiations. Though Romney continues to speak of force as a last resort, he does not seem to labor under the same illusions that Obama has about the efficacy of diplomatic outreach with Iran. Nevertheless, in his column at Bloomberg today, Jeffrey Goldberg outlines the case for believing it is Obama rather than Romney who is more likely to actually take action against Iran. Though he makes some cogent points about the problems a Romney administration would face, the argument fails because it rests on the shakiest of all possible assumptions: that Obama fully understands the danger and has the will to do whatever it takes, even the use of force to stop the Iranians.

It should be acknowledged that Goldberg is absolutely right it is always easier for a Democrat to wage war than a Republican. Most liberals will only back a military intervention launched by a Democrat, while most conservatives can be counted on to follow the flag and back any military adventure. If Romney were to order a strike on Iran, he must expect to be subjected to the same sort of opprobrium that George W. Bush got, whereas Obama would be widely applauded.

Goldberg is also right to point out that next year when it is likely that the proverbial manure will hit the fan on Iran’s nuclear program, Romney’s foreign policy team would be inexperienced. They might hesitate to attack Iran, something Bush refused to do.

But Goldberg’s assumption that Obama will act on Iran seems unsupported by anything we have observed about the president. Though he has often said the right thing about the Iranian threat, he is in marked contrast to Romney, who seems to instinctively understand the realities of the Middle East better than Obama even though he has little foreign policy experience. Obama is too much a believer in the efficacy of multi-lateral diplomacy and too eager to be loved by the Muslim world. Goldberg believes the president’s experience in building an international coalition against Iran is another reason to believe he could act effectively. But the coalition he has built is predicated on the ability of its least trustworthy members — Russia and China — to block any effective diplomacy let alone the use of force. Rather than being a reason to act, the president’s love of the United Nations and faith in diplomacy will act as a deterrent to action, not a spur.

It is entirely true we don’t really know what Romney will do once in office. He may prove to be a disappointment. But his statements about Israel demonstrate that, unlike Obama, he understands the Jewish state’s dilemma. As he rightly said in his Haaretz interview, the problem in the Middle East is not the debate about a Palestinian state but the effort to eradicate the one Jewish state. His instincts and principles on these issues are clearly good. And we already know Obama is someone whose views incline him to be less supportive of Israel even though Iran is just as much of a threat to America as it is to the Jewish state. Goldberg has every right to doubt Romney and to point out the difficulties he will face if elected, but his blind faith in Obama’s willingness to act on Iran is a leap of faith unsupported by any objective criteria.

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