Sarah Palin has suggested that President Obama could improve his re-election prospects by declaring war on Iran.
“Say he played the war card,” she told Fox News’ Chris Wallace. “Say he decided to declare war on Iran. ... I think people would perhaps shift their thinking a little bit and decide, well, maybe he’s tougher than we think he is today. And there wouldn’t be as much passion to make sure that he doesn’t serve another four years.”
Never mind what this says about the level of Palin’s foreign-policy smarts. Does anyone really think it would help America’s security — or Obama’s re-election chances — to embroil the country in another Middle East war? Bizarrely, the answer is “yes.”
As the source of her idea, Palin cited a column by Pat Buchanan. In fact, Buchanan’s column opposed a military strike against Iran. However, he also claimed that a war strategy would boost Obama’s standing at home.
Although she never mentioned him, the hawkish columnist Daniel Pipes claimed credit for Palin’s remarks, citing his National Review column “How to save the Obama presidency: Bomb Iran.” Pipes referred to an October Pew Research Center poll that said 61 percent of Americans would favor taking military action if it’s necessary to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
This poll result is driven by a real problem: Tehran’s failure to respond to Obama’s policy of engagement, and suspicions that Iran is developing the capacity to make nuclear weapons. However, those who heedlessly urge a U.S. (or Israeli) attack on Iran revive nightmares of the heedless rush into Iraq.
Contrary to their claims, such an attack would harm U.S. security interests, while failing to stop Iran’s nuclear program — and it would sink Obama’s election prospects. It would also doom the best hope of changing Iran’s nuclear policy from within.
Iran is going through its most dramatic internal political upheaval since 1979. The regime has been unable to crush those who believe that the June elections were rigged and are demanding their human and political rights. They were be back on the streets on Thursday, the 31st anniversary of the revolution that ushered in the Islamic republic.
It’s unclear whether Iran is yet on the verge of another revolution. However, a process has started that will be hard for the regime to reverse, and the United States should not do anything that would shut it down.
Given the internal political confusion in Iran, it’s unlikely the regime will agree to any nuclear compromise in the near term. That means Obama may have no option other than to push for tougher economic sanctions, while strongly supporting international human-rights protections for the opposition.
Keeping this balance won’t be easy. Israel, the target of vicious Iranian rhetoric and threats, is pressing for a tougher U.S. position, and it may want to attack Iran if we don’t. But Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has pointed out that any strike on Iran’s nuclear program, much of which is dispersed and underground, would not destroy it, but only cause a delay.
Moreover, a military strike could lead to Iranian retaliation against U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which border Iran. Such a strike would also spur Iranian retaliation in the Persian Gulf, sending oil prices soaring as the world struggles to emerge from a deep recession. And it would enrage the publics of Muslim countries such as Pakistan, where the presence of jihadis plus nuclear weapons presents the most potent threat to the United States.
Equally destructive would be such a strike’s impact on the Iranian opposition. As Gen. David Petraeus has noted, it could benefit the regime by inflaming nationalist sentiment, pushing the opposition to unite with the regime against Iran’s attackers.
Abbas Milani, an Iran expert at Stanford University, put it well on the Charlie Rose show: “Almost nothing can save this regime. But there is one thing that I think will save it, and that would be an Israeli attack.” (I would add: Ditto for a U.S. strike.)
“If Israel attacks,” Milani added, “not only will there be widespread instability throughout the region, but I think this regime will be saved. And I don’t think that saving this regime is in the long-term interests of Israel.” Or America, either.
So let’s cool the war talk and let Iran’s political drama take its course. Internal change offers the best hope for ensuring that Tehran’s nuclear program will be peaceful, and for opening Iran to the world.
— Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. firstname.lastname@example.org