By Erik Voeten, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Erik Voeten is an associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Government. He blogs at The Monkey Cage. The views expressed are his own.
Last night’s foreign policy debate contained few surprises. As expected, both candidates sought to bring the focus back to domestic issues whenever they could. Each candidate vied to convince the public that he loved Israel more and that he would be tougher on China. Each tried to sound strong without coming across as bellicose. David Brooks observed in the post-debate analysis that Romney mentioned peace more than George McGovern ever did. On most issues, Romney did not disagree much with the strategies pursued by the Obama administration. He just claimed that he would have executed them better.
This is not unusual. On foreign policy, the candidates mostly try to persuade the public that they are competent. Partisan differences towards foreign policy issues are relatively minor, at least during this election season. The key is to convince the public that when you are in charge, Americans will be safer and more prosperous, more “bad guys” will be killed, and more “good guys” will live happy productive lives and thank the United States of America for it.
There was one pressing foreign policy issue on which the two candidates did have notably different strategies: Iran. Both candidates agree that the United States should be willing to use force to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Both candidates also see military action as a “last resort.” Yet, they presented vastly different strategies on how to prevent war.
Americans still underestimate the urgency of the Iranian issue. Since no candidate seems eager to enter into war – and the Iranians also seem unexcited about that prospect – it must surely be that war can easily be avoided or delayed? This is not necessarily true. To start with, the decision to launch an attack may come very soon in the next presidency. Analysts estimate that by the spring of 2013, Iran will possess sufficient 20 percent uranium to convert into weapons-grade uranium for one bomb. At that point they are weeks away from developing enough fissile material for a bomb. This does not give them a nuclear weapon. They would still need to build an effective delivery mechanism. Yet once they have the fissile material the U.S. options to stop them become much less attractive. Before then, the U.S. could bomb a few installations with known locations. This would at least set the program back some years. If no further enrichment is needed, then the Iranians can hide the fissile material in different locations. This makes it much more difficult to stop them with military action. And, if that option is off the table, diplomatic routes may also become less likely to succeed.
In order to avoid a clash, Iran would have to accept a humiliating deal in which it agrees to abandon its nuclear aspirations and subject itself to intense international inspections. How do the two candidates plan to get Iran this far? Obama emphasizes the importance of building coalitions. The argument is that only sanctions that are adhered to by all major players will be sufficiently crippling for Iran to change its calculus. If Iran is isolated, then it will also be much less likely to escalate the conflict in the event of a strike.
The Romney campaign counters that the process of coalition building has resulted in delayed sanctions and vague language that have led both the Iranian and Israeli governments to question the credibility of the U.S. government’s commitment to use force. Romney promises to use tougher language, implement additional unilateral sanctions, and draw a clear red line beyond which Iran cannot go. Romney has also criticized the Obama administration’s openness to bilateral diplomatic solutions, charging that these have allowed the Iranian government to play the delay game.
Each strategy comes with its own risks. The Romney strategy is risky because it leaves the Iranian government with very few opportunities to surrender while saving face. Moreover, it risks alienating those states that are currently partaking in sanctions. This could also leave the U.S. in a difficult position when it is trying to limit escalation after a strike. A risk to the Obama strategy is that it may be perceived as overly conditional on the support of others. Timing is important here. The U.S. and its allies may have different preferences on when exactly Iran has had its last opportunity to comply with international demands. In the absence of explicit multilateral support, Iran could question the credibility of the U.S. willingness to use force unilaterally. Thus, both the Romney and the Obama strategies could lead to a war that we would all like to avoid.
A conflict with Iran could have modest consequences: surgical strikes with few casualties, a brief disruption of oil markets, and a few counterstrikes. But it could easily escalate into a much larger war in the Middle East. The man this country will elect on November 6 will have a lot to do with making sure that we will never find out which way it turns out.