- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Newt Gingrich called the U.S.-Israeli decision to put off joint military exercises scheduled for the Negev Desert "the greatest act of presidential weakness he has seen in his lifetime." He was implying that it was done to appease Iran. As it happens, according to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the exercises were put off not by the U.S. but at the request of the Israelis. Facts aside, as they often are, the only true weakness revealed by the statement is Gingrich’s own. He’s desperate. If current polls are to be believed, the remaining shelf-life of his campaign can be measured in hours. And that’s a charitable assessment. More gimlet-eyed observers might conclude the campaign hasn’t been viable since it collapsed from front runner status to also-ran in Iowa under the weight of the candidate’s blustering intemperance.
Gingrich, despite his declining political relevance, does trigger a couple useful thoughts with this latest crudely inflammatory comment. The first is that he reminds us what old-fashioned war mongering is really like. War mongering, like cheese mongering and fish mongering, has a good old-fashioned sound to it. It makes one think of the tub-thumping pols of old, back in the days when war was glorious and generals watched battles from astride white steeds high atop a hillside far from the action. Of course, like all forms of mongering, it’s a dirty business and even when it doesn’t produce mayhem and tragedy it leaves behind a dirty, smelly residue.
Ron Paul calls Gingrich and the others seeking to tough-talk our way toward confrontation with Iran "chicken hawks." Not only does this have a satisfyingly sleazy allusion to a sexual subculture within it, it also correctly observes that it’s no skin off Gingrich’s expansive backside to urge America into war with Iran.
The problem is that while Paul’s war-avoiding impulse is nobler than Gingrich’s posturing, his approach to Iran suffers from a similar flaw. Both are the classic product of political campaigns: they are not so much policies as they are provocations, conceived as much to produce a reaction in the lizard brains of potential followers as they are to actually suggest a way to advance U.S. national interests. All the candidates are guilty of such statements. Romney and Perry have also made over-the-top statements about what they would do if they got their hands on Iran (not to mention over-the-top statements about their devotion to Israel, their anger with the Chinese, their contempt for Eurosocialism, and so on.)
The reason they overdo it is that nuance doesn’t show up well even on large-screen HD TVs. In fact, people viewing the world 55 diagonal inches at a time want bright colors, action, drama, 3D foreign policy where all the bits and pieces seem to fly right off the screen and straight into your living room. It’s one of the reasons that foreign policy often plays a secondary role in campaigns.
That said, 3D full-color, high-impact nuance is not impossible. And the irony is that nothing illustrates this as well as the Obama administration’s smart, multi-layered, tough and often courageous Iran policy. You can tell it’s nuanced because so few people are happy with it. Today, for example, on "Morning Joe," Zbigniew Brzezinski asserted that the covert attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists presumably undertaken by the Israelis perhaps with the tacit endorsement of the U.S. "debased" foreign policy. Now, there are few people in the U.S. foreign policy community for whom I have greater regard than Brzezinski. But this remark bemused and troubled me. On the one hand I find the notion that foreign policy can be debased laughable when it so often deals in death, lying, bribery, and other such practices. More importantly, I can’t help but think that Brzezinski wouldn’t have minded such actions against Soviet enemies during the Cold War. He just doesn’t think the threat posed by Iran is comparable (it’s not) nor does he, I believe, much like the U.S. working so closely with Israel (a more complicated issue than we can deal with here effectively.) But the boldness of these attacks — like the Stuxnet cyberattack and the drone activity in that country — has sent a message that has clearly been received by the Iranians as well as the critics. This president and his allies are not simply going to rely on "soft power" to contain the Iranian nuclear threat, especially when it seems clear that Tehran has such disregard for diplomacy and prescribed international processes. This makes threats to do more credible and the ability to achieve goals while doing less likely.
At the same time, the administration’s "soft power" tourniquet has also been applied effectively. Not only are have they maintained for many months tireless multichannel diplomatic efforts to nudge the Iranians to an agreement to stop its progress toward the development of nuclear weapons, they have engineered one of the most effective economic sanctions programs undertaken by the international community against any nation in the recent history of the world. "Soft" though this power may be, it is causing real pain and discomfort for Iran’s leadership. In a region that has seen plenty of governments totter under economic stresses, the ayatollahs increasingly are seen as wanting a way out from the pressure. (The situation in Iran has reportedly gotten so bad that periodically Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bolts from Tehran to go to his home town far from his enemies in the high ranks of the government…and then must be escorted back to the capital at the emphatic insistence of his bosses in the top tiers of that country’s religious hierarchy.)
The point is that the president takes the threat seriously and has for now at least, found a way to very forcefully deliver a message that Iran must cease and desist without actually going to war. Should he have to take that next step, he will be able to honestly say that thing every president should be able to assert prior to putting troops in harms way, that he has tried every other available option. He has also approached this problem in conjunction with the international community thus adding both legitimacy and effectiveness to the undertaking.
The GOP candidates will wave their arms and talk tougher than teen-aged boys in a locker room. Or, in the case of Paul, he will talk tough and wave off serious threats as someone else’s problems. But they will all overstate because they think they must…even as the President admirably illustrates that there is another course, one that involves such a complete and energetic use of almost every tool short of open warfare in the national security tool box that I suspect someday if things turn out right (and no foreign policy initiative can guarantee an outcome because, of course, other players and many variables are involved) it will be studied as an example of how to do foreign policy right-big, bold, 3D and nuanced.