The Intersection of Domestic Politics and Foreign Affairs

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addresses reporters in Israel.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney addresses reporters in Israel.

Israel was in the news this week, as both Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta met with key Israeli leaders to discuss, among other things, the Iranian nuclear program.

During his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, Mitt Romney was unreserved in his position, asserting that ensuring the security of Israel and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability “must be our highest national security priority.” Romney’s senior national security aid, Dan Senor, clarified Romeny’s statement, concluding that, “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision.”

With his statements, Romney was trying to draw a sharp contrast between his position and the position of the Obama administration. Just two days after Romney’s meeting with Netanyahu, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was expressing a more reserved tone. In his meeting yesterday with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he urged Israel to show restraint in its dealings with Iran.

The New York Times reported that there are growing concerns in the Obama administration that Israel may be preparing for a unilateral military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities as early as this fall. Secretary Panetta’s visit was just the most recent in a series of flurry of trips to Israel by high ranking administration officials in recent weeks . Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon each recently visited Israel as well.

These visits occurred amid increasing rhetorical attacks by the Israeli government. On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that discussion of sanctions against Iran were useless. Netanyahu concluded that, “Right now, the Iranian government believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program. This must change and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”

The Israeli calculation is highly influenced by the timing of the US presidential elections. Most observers believe that if an Israeli strike were to occur, it would likely be in September or early October. As the New York Times observed, “Mr. Netanyahu feels that he will have less leverage if President Obama is re-elected, and that if Mr. Romney were to win, the new president would be unlikely to want to take on a big military action early in his term.”
Perhaps the largest problem facing the international community the lack of viable options. Ongoing negotiations with Iran have failed to produce the desired outcome. Sanctions have not been historically effective in promoting policy changes, as the longstanding US embargos against Cuba and North Korea attest. And an Israeli strike against Iran would likely produce a strong response from the Iranian government, perhaps including Iranian missile strikes against Tel Aviv. In such a scenario, the United States could well be pulled into another war in the Middle East.

What do you think? How should the United States deal with Israel and Iran? Can sanctions be effective? And how do the domestic politics of the United States affect the ongoing developments in the Middle East?

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