Most likely to attack Iran

One of the White House's favorite Middle East reporters insists -- as a compliment -- that Obama deserves the title

Published July 27, 2012 12:29PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

When it comes to praising President Obama's foreign policy skill and Toughness (in the neocon sense of that term: i.e.a willingness to risk other people's lives with the use of military force against foreigners), The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has been one of the most reliable and vocal voices. Considered by Obama aides "as the 'official therapist' of the U.S.-Israel relationship," Goldberg has been particularly important in vouching for Obama to Israelis and American Jews on the ground that nobody will be Tougher on Iran than Obama (in return for this service, Goldberg -- like all helpful journalists are -- has been rewarded by the White House with substantial career-boosting access). In his Bloomberg column this morning, Goldberg argues that Israeli officials should pray for Obama's victory in the November election, and makes this argument in support:

On the matter of Iran, however, Netanyahu would be wrong to root for Romney. Barack Obama is the one who’s more likely to confront Iran militarily, should sanctions and negotiations fail. He has committed himself to stopping Iran by any means necessary, and he has a three-year record as president to back his rhetoric. Romney has only rhetoric, and he would be hamstrung in many ways if he chose military confrontation.

He goes on to argue that despite the GOP challenger's Tough rhetoric, "Romney would face several critical challenges in a conflict with Iran that Obama would not"; specifically:

Romney, by all accounts, is uninterested in inheriting the mantle of President George W. Bush, who invaded two Muslim countries and lost popularity and credibility as a result. Romney, despite his rhetoric, is more of a pragmatist than Bush, and far more cautious. An attack on Iran is an incautious act, one that even Bush rejected.

The unilateral use of force in the Middle East for a liberal Democrat like Obama is a credential; for a conservative Republican like Romney, it could be an albatross. I argued in a previous column that Romney is more likely than Obama to oversee a revitalized Middle East peace process. That’s because conservatives are better positioned to make peace; liberals are generally better positioned to launch preventive strikes at the nuclear programs of rogue nations. We know that U.S. voters, and world leaders, allow Obama extraordinary leeway when it comes to deadly drone strikes, precisely because of his politics, character and background. (We are talking about a man, after all, who won the Nobel Peace Prize while ordering the automated killing of suspected Muslim terrorists around the world.) Romney will get no comparative slack.

In other words, Obama will be freer to attack Iran than Romney would be because Democrats, progressives, and the "international community" (that's neocon for: Europeans) passively accept or even cheer for violence, aggression and executive power abuses when ordered by a sophisticated, urbane, Constitutional Law Professor with Good Progressivism in his heart, and only cause a messy ruckus when done by an icky, religious, overtly nationalistic Republican.

To see how true that is, just compare the years-long screeching over President Bush's mere eavesdropping and detentions without any judicial review or transparency -- he's assaulting the Constitution and Our Values! -- compared with the reaction to Obama's more extremist assassinations without any judicial review or transparency. Or consider how a high-level aide to John Ashcroft marveled with envy over Obama's ability to prosecute whistleblowers with such abandon, noting to The New York Times that the Ashcroft DOJ was deterred by the prospect of a political storm that Obama simply does not face:  "We," lamented the Ashcroft aide, "would have gotten hammered for it."

This was the same dynamic that led former Bush OLC official and current Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith to explain quite presciently (and celebratorily) back in May, 2009, that Obama -- by leading progressives and Democrats to support his embrace of Bush/Cheney Terrorism and civil liberties policies -- was doing more to entrench those once-controversial policies as bipartisan consensus than Bush and Cheney themselves could ever have dreamt of doing:

The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric. . . .

The new president was a critic of Bush administration terrorism policies, a champion of civil liberties, and an opponent of the invasion of Iraq. His decision (after absorbing the classified intelligence and considering the various options) to continue core Bush terrorism policies is like Nixon going to China. . . .

If this analysis is right, then the former vice president is wrong to say that the new president is dismantling the Bush approach to terrorism. President Obama has not changed much of substance from the late Bush practices, and the changes he has made, including changes in presentation, are designed to fortify the bulk of the Bush program for the long-run.

(Cheney himself eventually came around to realizing, admitting and praising this continuity as well).

Exactly the same argument was made by the CIA in a largely overlooked, secret memo prepared by the agency in 2010 and published by WikiLeaks. In it, the CIA worried that Western European populations were rapidly turning against the war in Afghanistan and would force their governments to abandon it. But the agency concluded that their biggest asset in preventing this was having Obama use his popularity with Western Europeans to persuade them of the war's merit. In other words, replacing the swaggering, smirking, cowboy imagery of the despised George Bush with the prettier, kinder, gentler, and more intellectually elevated Obama as the face of American militarism would make the war appear more justified and noble, and thus more popular.

I'm not adopting Goldberg's argument per se; the fanatical neocons with which Romney has surrounded himself makes it difficult to state definitively that Obama would be "more likely" to attack Iran. But what's notable is that Goldberg is not some left-wing critic of the President trying to undermine him by depicting him as a warmonger. The opposite is true: Goldberg is an unabashed fan of Obama -- one who is close to the White House -- and he considers what he said about Obama this morning ("Barack Obama is the one who’s more likely to confront Iran militarily") to be a compliment: probably the highest compliment he can give to a politician. And what's undoubtedly true is Goldberg's observation that Obama -- as he has proven -- can get away with far more aggression and belligerence by all but eliminating the pervasive political conflict that arises when done under a Republican President.


UPDATE: Liberal Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman, one of the few prominent voices to be as critical of Obama executive power abuses as he was of Bush's, gave a five-minute interview to The Economist about Obama's record in these areas that directly relates to (and bolsters) many of the arguments discussed here:


UPDATE II: Daniel Larison makes the reasonable case that Romney is more likely to attack Iran than Obama is. As I said, my point here was not to agree with Goldberg's ultimate conclusion that Obama is more likely. That's more speculative than anything, and I think the case can be made both ways, though ultimately, as Larison himself put it just recently: "On anti-terrorism, Iran, and the Arab Spring . . . Romney and Obama do not disagree on these things in any meaningful way." For me, the apsects of Goldberg's argument worth highlighting are his reasons why Obama faces less constraints than Romney would when ordering the use of force and aggression.

By Glenn Greenwald

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Conflict International Relations Iran Israel Middle East