Will the close presidential race start a war? It just might.
By many measures, President Obama should be in trouble. The economy is lousy and would be in recession were it not for unsustainable, trillion-dollar deficit spending. Unemployment has been above eight percent for the longest time since the Great Depression. The Obama presidency has been a net killer of jobs, with more than a million fewer of them today compared to when Obama took office. One in seven Americans is now on food stamps — far more than the ten percent who were when recession-weary voters fired Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992.
And yet challenger Mitt Romney has been unable to pull ahead. In the RealClearPolitics averages of polls, Romney trails Obama in the battleground states of Ohio and Virginia and is tied in Florida — even after registering a three percent bounce in averages nationally in the ten days after naming Paul Ryan his vice presidential candidate. Romney must win all three swing states unless there is a big surprise elsewhere. The Republican should get a short-term convention bounce and may still win, but no foreign government will bank on that today.
That includes Israel. This is important because some analysts who track Israel closely think the prospect of a second Obama term could move up the date of a notional attack by Israel on Iran’s nuclear weapons program to sometime before this November’s presidential election. The theory is that Obama would be much more likely to support or at least not seriously obstruct Israel if he still must face American voters.
Unlike Israeli strikes on earlier Middle Eastern nuclear programs, like Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, a strike on Iran’s nuclear program would involve much more complexity and risk. Iran’s uranium and plutonium bomb efforts are spread across more than a dozen facilities. The uranium project is the closest path to a first bomb for the Islamist, terrorist-sponsoring regime. At a minimum, an Israeli strike would have to damage the uranium-enrichment sites near Qom and Natanz. Ideally, it would destroy those and a half-dozen other vital locations.
The greater complexity and distance will require a larger force than the 12 planes Israel used in 1981 against Iraq’s Osirak reactor. The aircraft will require mid-air refueling. Rather than take the long way around Saudi Arabia, they would likely overfly at least two countries without permission before entering Iran. Iraq is a likely candidate for a portion of the operations, since Baghdad has no operational air force and will not receive its first U.S.-made F-16s until 2014.
This raises the prospect of several governments that will feel aggrieved by Israel even if they are privately relieved that Iran’s nuclear program has been set back. Prudence dictates that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should expect a portion of the Israeli air force to be shot down, potentially creating a prisoner of war spectacle. Iran may counterattack directly with missiles, taxing Israel’s anti-ballistic-missile armaments. Iran may use its proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza to strike back at Israel as well. Thus, Israel would like to rely on the United States to protect it diplomatically and to replenish military supplies without delay. Washington would be called on to veto action adverse to Israel at the U.N. and soothe matters with Arab governments behind closed doors.
Mr. Netanyahu likely has concluded that all of this would be easier before a notional Obama re-election. It has only been 15 months since Obama announced the day before Netanyahu visited Washington that Israel should renew negotiations with Palestinians through a unilateral concession of territory. With Obama’s fruitless “reset” of relations with Russia, counterproductive apology tours in Europe and the Middle East, flippancy toward China’s economic and cyber war, loss of Egypt to Islamists, aborted appeasement of North Korea, and phony “pivot to Asia” providing the makings of a disastrous foreign policy chapter of the Obama story, it is safe to presume an early task in an Obama second term would be demanding Israeli concessions for feel-good talks with Palestinians. Without such a “breakthrough,” Obama’s foreign policy record would look like Jimmy Carter’s, but without the Camp David Accords. So a re-elected Obama would be in no mood to help Israel, especially after an air strike Washington had discouraged in the first place.
Of course, the U.S. election is not the only factor Netanyahu is considering, or even the most important. The timing of when Iran would get its first bomb is at the top of the list. The U.S. intelligence bureaucracy reportedly believes that there is a year or two left. But this is the same bureaucracy that reported falsely in 2007 that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003. Jerusalem has probably concluded the point of no return is sooner, and further delay may be risky, both politically and militarily.
Oddly, the candidate who might benefit most from an early Israeli strike might be none other than Barack Obama. The president who has been campaigning for re-election since the day he took office would probably venture nothing more severe than a mild tut-tut for Israel, especially with the polls close in Florida, where Jewish votes are decisive. Foreign crises always draw attention to the president, who likely would appear resolute as he vowed the Persian Gulf would remain open to oil shipments. Oil prices would spike, but then ebb, and the crisis would pass. It would be ironic if a center-right Israeli prime minister helped re-elect an American president he dislikes by degrading a threat Washington refused to confront.
Christian Whiton was a senior advisor at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. He is a principal at DC International Advisory.