Follow-Up: Confronting Iran in an Election Year

Is Israel more likely to strike Iran because of the election campaign in America?

An interesting follow-up to a previous blog post on how domestic politics and world politics are intertwined:

In a January 8 post, I quoted Michael Cohen in Foreign Policy arguing that the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign and its associated rhetoric may constrain not only the Republican candidates’ future foreign policies (if elected) but President Obama’s current options:

“Moreover, all the tough talk on Iran will also limit Obama’s ability to open negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program if the opportunity presents itself. Considering the increasingly desperate economic and political situation there, this might not necessarily be so far-fetched.”

An insightful news analysis in the New York Times this weekend entitled “Confronting Iran in a Year of Elections” extends these arguments further and provides a scenario in which the Obama administration will be pulled into a war against its will due to an ally’s (Israel’s) manipulation of American domestic political dynamics:

“[Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu’s government may calculate that if Israel is going to attempt a strike, doing so during the presidential campaign, when it would have the sympathy of many American voters, is the only way to avoid a major backlash from Mr. Obama, with whom Mr. Netanyahu has a tense relationship. Elliott Abrams, President George W. Bush’s hawkish Middle East adviser, wrote recently that if Israel attacked “Mr. Obama would be forced to back it and help Israel cope with the consequences. It might even help the president get re-elected if he ends up using force to keep the Strait of Hormuz open and Israel safe.””

In other words, an American president during a re-election campaign cannot afford to publicly break with an ally who has strong support among key segments of the American electorate and powerful friends in Washington, and this reality could embolden that ally to take risky actions and assume unconditional U.S. support.  Furthermore, this scenario only scratches the surface of the myriad links between electoral politics and foreign policy.  For example, foreign adversaries may avoid confrontations with any president who is running for re-election and is under criticism by domestic opponents for being “soft” on foreign threats.  Such a leader is under pressure to demonstrate his hardline credentials, and foreign adversaries would do well to avoid giving him an opportunity to do so.

Do you think Israel or other countries will use Obama’s domestic constraints against him in this election year?  What kinds of foreign policy decisions by the current administration (if any) are more or less likely given the criticism that Obama is facing from Republican contenders and other political opponents?  Is there any way to insulate foreign policy from domestic political considerations, or is this an inevitable byproduct of democracy?

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