Monday, February 13, 2006

Hawking a Stance

Walter Shapiro in has a summary of the Democratic likelies — Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Hillary Clinton — and their attempt to present a tougher and more coherent approach to defense.

[…] Bayh took pains to underscore his “awareness that the use of force is not a panacea and there will be adverse consequences to that as well.” But the two-term senator and former governor also stressed, “We’re talking about nuclear weapons in the hands of a state that aids and abets terrorism, with an apocalyptic and unstable leader who is also deeply hostile to us.” Bayh may have been picturing what it might be like to sit in the Oval Office weighing conflicting recommendations about how to forestall a nuclear-armed ayatollah when he said with a sigh, “It’s going to be a tough one.”

Bayh may be a bit more open than other Democrats about discussing the implications of militarily confronting Iran, but he is far from alone in his get-tough stance. The always-square-in-the-middle-of-the-road Sen. Clinton declared in a foreign-policy address at Princeton last month, “We cannot take any option off the table in sending a clear message to the current leadership of Iran — that they will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons.” It is easy to draw such lines in the dust three years before any Democratic president would be forced to act on them, but there is also a risk that such threats may ultimately sound as hollow as demanding Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.”


There is an understandable hunger in the Democratic Party for a national-security issue that makes the Bush administration look like incompetent wimps. Small wonder that [former National Security Advisor Sandy] Berger views Iran as that rare situation “where good policy and good politics converge.” But, in truth, there is also the awkward reality that threatening military action against Iran only works if Tehran believes the bluster. As Ivo Daalder, a Clinton national security staffer now at the Brookings Institution, put it, “I’m a pretty hawkish person, but I don’t think there is a military option with Iran.”

The problem with talking tough about Iran as a campaign issue is that if by some chance the Democrats win the presidential election in 2008, they will actually have to implement something. It’s easy to talk now to position yourself as more competent and trustworthy on the facts as compared to the Bush administration — right now Tony Soprano has a higher believeability quotient — but once you’re in office you have to deal with the realities of the situation: Iran is a large and rich country with a large army and a religious fanatic as its president (oh, wait…). Promising to deal harshly with rogue states while you’re on the stump in Toledo is one thing, but locking yourself in a room with a crazy man questions your own sanity.