Editor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon specializes in national security and defense policy and is senior author of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan Index projects. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.
By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN
When Republican candidates convene Tuesday night at 8p.m. on CNN to debate foreign policy once again, the moderator should push them on two issues in particular - U.S. policy toward Iran and the Defense Department budget.
Strike Iran? At what cost?
Mitt Romney has been discussing Iran and its nuclear weapons program avidly in recent weeks. Romney has argued that he would use military force to prevent Iran from getting the bomb if other means failed. Romney suggested that a vote for Obama was, in effect, a vote to allow Iran a nuclear bomb. He said he was sure to prevent that potentiality if elected president.
Romney’s position is sober and serious but it raises several questions that he, along with any others so bluntly favoring the use of force, should be asked.
First, it might be worth asking him why he thinks that President Bush prevented Israel from carrying out such a strike in 2008. In other words, Obama has not been the only skeptic on the issue.
Second, it would be useful to ask him whether such a strike might be seen as a revival of Bush’s “preemption doctrine” that became so controversial around the world - and whether that is a price worth paying.
Third, one might ask how sure he would be that all of Iran’s nuclear sites had actually been identified in advance of the strike - and more broadly, how long he thinks the attack could delay Iran from getting a bomb (most estimate a couple years, no more).
Fourth, it would be worth exploring whether he has thought through the likely Iranian responses (including possible terrorism against American and Israeli interests worldwide) and how he might respond subsequently without risking all-out war.
And fifth, to avoid a confrontation, could Romney or others live with a scenario in which Iran retained its enrichment capabilities (which current U.S. policy would not allow) but capped the amount of uranium it enriched as well as the purity of the ensuing U-235 while also allowing monitors to stay present in the country?
If Tehran would accept such a deal, could some or most international sanctions then be lifted? This may be the best case outcome we can hope for under existing leadership in Tehran so it would be interesting to know if Romney could accept such a compromise.
I do not raise these points to be dismissive of Romney’s concerns or his position. While it is true that I tend not to favor a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, there are clearly downsides to my preferred approach as well. The point would be simply to probe Romney's thoughtfulness and depth of preparation on the issue. It is easy to say one would use force if all else failed, but harder to wrestle with the subsequent big policy choices and consequences.
How to pay Defense Department bills?
In addition, it would be useful to explore more about the GOP candidates’ views on the defense budget. Due to the failure of the super committee, we now appear headed for sequestration, meaning $900 billion cuts in the ten-year defense plan (and additional cuts in war costs).
If necessary, would any GOP candidates agree to Democratic preferences for higher taxes, especially on the wealthy, to avoid that defense spending eventuality? And for Romney again, if he is against even the smaller defense cuts mandated by the budget law in August (of some $400 billion), how would he pay for the larger defense budget? Higher taxes? More radical cuts in entitlements like those in Congressman Ryan’s plan?
Again, my point is not to force any candidate into a corner. There is a case, for example, for the Ryan budget, and I am more sympathetic to elements of it than most of my fellow Democrats. But to govern is to choose, and it is time that we learned more about how the GOP field would make tough choices between mutually exclusive policy options.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.