Shadow Government

What do the Iowa results say about Republican foreign policy?

The Iowa results probably indicate that there will not be a big crack-up within the Republican party on foreign policy because the caucus returns are likely to be the high-water mark for the candidate with the most distinctive foreign policy platform in the field: Ron Paul. He did well enough to gain another week of press attention. But in the one contest best-suited to his unusual political operation, Paul did not beat expectations. He would have to really surprise in New Hampshire in order to remain relevant in the later primaries, and those are likely to be even tougher terrain for him. 

Paul is no longer likely to be a spoiler within the party. He can still play the spoiler in the general election, if he runs a Ross Perot-style third party campaign  and siphons off enough of the anti-incumbent vote to re-elect President Obama. There will be many Obama supporters cheering him on to do just that, but at least one influential Paul supporter argues compellingly against it.

Jon Huntsman is the other candidate who tried to capitalize on foreign policy divisions within the party, but he avoided Iowa altogether, thus delaying his moment of truth until next week's primary in New Hampshire. Predictions in this campaign season have been notoriously unreliable, but I am willing to bet that New Hampshire will be more of a Waterloo than a surge for Huntsman.

That means that Romney will very likely be the nominee, and whichever runners-up remain in the race to challenge him through a few more primaries will be doing so on the basis of domestic or economic policies or personality, not national security and foreign policy. Romney already had the strongest foreign policy platform of the field, and, if I am right about the fading of Paul and Huntsman, any remaining rivals -- even a surprise new not-Romney drafted from the bench -- will largely echo him on foreign policy.

There had always been a chance that the primaries would exacerbate the within-party divisions on national security, which are wider today than they have been since Reagan. A majority of Republican voters continue support the traditional "peace through strength" posture of muscular internationalism that characterized the tenures of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush (yes, there were differences across those administrations, but I would argue far more continuity than is popularly credited). A sizable minority shows more sympathy for steps ranging from retrenchment to neo-isolationism. Paul was the candidate that resonated most effectively with the latter group, but his positions were probably too extreme to serve as the foundation for a new Republican consensus. In any case, he would have to be considered a plausible candidate to win the nomination to further that debate, and I think that moment has passed.

There are still policy divisions: some Republicans think there should be essentially no cuts in defense spending, while others are willing to live with the first round of Obama cuts; some Republicans want more of a populist message on Chinese trade policy, while others want more of a traditional free trade posture; and so on.

But I think the big intra-party fight over foreign policy is over, if it ever really began.


Shadow Government

Iran starts the year with a bang

The Persian new year falls on the vernal equinox, but the government of Iran set off some fireworks to start the Julian year: announcing it had manufactured a nuclear fuel rod, test-firing three new missiles, threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz, and warning the U.S. not to return the Fifth Fleet's aircraft carrier to the Gulf.

The Obama Administration has got the response -- a very difficult balancing act -- almost exactly right: not giving Iran the lift of a high-level political statement, instead quietly proceeding on sanctions, letting the economic arguments speak for themselves, reassuring allies in the region, and having our military refute Iran's claims with our obvious superiority and the unambiguous statement that "interference with the transit or passage of vessels through the Strait of Hormuz will not be tolerated."  

Preserving freedom of navigation through the Straits would play to our military's strengths and showcase the increased political resolve and military capabilities of Gulf allies in recent years. The Obama administration has advanced cooperation with friendly governments in the region, Iran's own truculence producing closer involvement with the U.S.  

I agree with Michael Singh that assertive military operations are a valuable deterrent and should be pursued, although it looks to me as though we've been doing that pretty well for the past few years: while our military leadership has mostly played down the likelihood of strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities, they have pushed back on Iranian maritime harassment, conducted operations near Iran's shoreline, arming and exercising with regional allies, and (as the recent drone capture by Iran demonstrates), extending surveillance and intelligence operations into Iranian territory.

One of the few missteps so far is the White House attempting to forestall Congressional furthering of the very means the administration has advocated for in limiting Iran's choices. Sanctions have been biting since the United Arab Emirates began compliance last year, and are set to tighten further with Congress' action to extend prohibitions to Iran's central bank. President Obama signing the legislation over the weekend may well have precipitated this round of bellicose posturing: Iran's currency promptly lost 12% of its value (continuing a plunge of 50 percent from a year ago).

Another potential wrinkle in the strategy is Israel's isolation. An Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is more likely due to the friction between the Obama and Netanyhu governments; in making settlements the centerpiece of its peace proposals, Obama made cooperation between Israel and others more difficult and promises from us less reassuring.  Secretary Panetta's comments don't help, either. 

But still, President Obama has come a long way since the stolen elections of 2009, when he put potential relations with Ahmadinejad's government ahead of condemning the government's repression. The domestic legitimacy of the Iranian regime faces a new challenge because reformists are refusing to participate in the upcoming Parliamentary elections, stripping away even the pretense of representative government.  

Ayatollah Khameni and his wayward protege President Ahmadinejad claim that Iran is the inspiration of the Arab Spring. And they're right -- just not in the way they mean.  The uprising of Iranians against their government rigging 2009's election was the first flowering of Spring, the first middle eastern populace brave enough to stand up to tyranny. Their demands for political rights were crushed by a government that has more in common with despots overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen than with the people overthrowing them.

As the new year dawns, we should continue to tighten the screws on this Iranian government and wish the Iranian people well in ending the tyranny that has repressed and impoverished them. We will have less to fear from a democratic Iran, even if it continues its nuclear programs, than we will Khameni's repressive Iran.