Editorial Observer: New Beltway Debate: What to Do About Iran

Carol Giacomo , a former diplomatic correspondent for Reuters in Washington, covered foreign policy for the international wire service for more than two decades before joining The New York Times editorial board in August 2007. Read more about her in the NY Times Masthead.

Carol Giacomo
New York Times
November 3, 2008
A30 of the New York Edition

It is a frightening notion, but it is not just the trigger-happy Bush administration discussing – if only theoretically – the possibility of military action to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Of course, no president or would-be president ever takes the military option off the table, and Barack Obama and John McCain are no exception.

What is significant is that inside Washington’s policy circles these days – in studies, commentaries, meetings, Congressional hearings and conferences – reasonable people from both parties are seriously examining the so-called military option, along with new diplomatic initiatives.

One of the most thorough discussions is in a report by the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, founded by four former senators – the Republicans Robert Dole and Howard Baker and Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchell – to devise policy solutions both parties might embrace.

The report warns that the next administration “might have little time and fewer options to deal with this threat.” It explores such strategies as blockading Iran’s gasoline imports, but it also says that “a military strike is a feasible option and must remain a last resort.”

Its authors include Dennis Ross, top Mideast adviser to Mr. Obama, and former Senator Dan Coats, a McCain adviser.

Ashton Carter, a senior Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, wrote a paper for the Center for a New American Security, a prestigious bipartisan think tank, that asserts military action must be seen as only one component of a comprehensive strategy, “but it is an element of any true option.”

At a conference in September in Virginia sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “surrogates” for Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama insisted America must focus on preventing Iran from developing a bomb, not on allowing Iran to produce one and then deterring its use.

“John McCain won’t wait until after the fact,” declared the columnist Max Boot, from the McCain team. The Arizona senator has previously said risking military action may be better than living with an Iranian nuclear weapon (and to his regret jokingly sang a song about bomb, bomb, bombing Iran).

Richard Danzig, Mr. Obama’s surrogate, said his candidate believes a military attack on Iran is a “terrible” choice, but “it may be that in some terrible world we will have to come to grips with such a terrible choice.” Early in the primary campaign, Mr. Obama declared that as president he would sit down in his first year in office with – among others – Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (He has been reparsing that commitment ever since.)

Given the global economic meltdown and other crises, it is not surprising if the American public is largely unaware of this discussion. What makes me nervous, is that’s what happened in the run-up to the Iraq war.

In those days Americans were reeling from the shock of 9/11 and completely focused on hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In Washington, though, talk quickly shifted to the next target – Iraq.

Bush administration officials drove the discussion, but the cognoscenti were complicit. The question was asked and answered in policy circles before most Americans knew what was happening. Would the United States take on Saddam Hussein? Absolutely.

As a diplomatic correspondent for Reuters in those days, I feel some responsibility for not doing more to ensure that the calamitous decision to invade Iraq was more skeptically vetted.

This time the debate is not so one-sided. Most experts acknowledge that military action poses big risks and offers no guarantee of destroying Iran’s nuclear program.

Both presidential candidates have also promised new diplomatic initiatives. Mr. McCain talks of tougher sanctions and Mr. Obama proposes a comprehensive approach involving sterner penalties, more compelling incentives and direct talks with Iran.

Mr. Ross, who was top Mideast negotiator for the first President George Bush and for President Bill Clinton, said that in the prelude to Iraq, nearly all of the talk focused on military action. He says this time experts are taking a harder, more systematic look at all options – including force – because diplomatic efforts have failed to slow Iran’s rush to master nuclear technology.

“I want to concentrate the mind and make people understand, ‘Look, this is serious and you don’t want to be left with only those two choices’ ” – war or living with an Iranian bomb, he said.

With Iran projected to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon by 2010, the next president is going to have to concentrate his mind quickly. We hope he, unlike George W. Bush, will encourage a broader public debate about all of America’s options, and the high cost of another war. I will certainly be a lot more skeptical.

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