How Democracies Make War

When Hurting Your Negotiating Position Doesn't Matter

Ali Gharib argues against Jeffrey Goldberg's contention that American officials shouldn't speak frankly about war with Iran.

Richard Ellis / Getty Images

In his new interview with Mitt Romney, Jeffrey Goldberg gives plenty of space to the GOP candidate to air his gripes with President Obama's Iran policy. Later, Goldberg rightly opines, "Some of this is campaign bluster," and yet much of it passes unchallenged. (Romney said, for instance, that "Obama deliberately remained silent during the Green Revolution," though he didn't.) But then Goldberg gets in sync with Romney's hawkish side:

Romney’s more potent criticism of Obama has more to do with statements made by Obama’s underlings. It is true, as Romney wrote, that administration officials have discussed publicly the risks of an American (or Israeli) attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. There are risks, of course—potentially catastrophic ones—of attacking. But it doesn’t help the American negotiating position to publicly telegraph to the Iranians these sorts of doubts.

Then, taking to his Atlantic blog, Goldberg hits the theme again, suggesting that "whenever a senior official of his administration analyzes publicly the dangers of a military confrontation to the U.S., we should assume the Iranian leaders breathe a sigh of relief, and make the calculations that Obama is bluffing on military action."If Obama is serious about potentially launching another Middle East war should Iran cross his red line of nuclear weapons production, then the administration should not only sacrifice its negotiating position, it must do so. The responsibility that falls on political leaders to have frank discussions with their democratic constituencies before making war supersedes whatever message Iran may take from this democratic discourse.

Were the administration not willing to publicly discuss the potential consequences with its public, then the threats better be a bluff—because to launch this war without a national dialogue would be a monumental disservice to American democracy, not to mention irresponsible. The stakes are simply too high: an eminent group of foreign policy heavyweights recently said an attack could spark an "all-out regional war"; former top Israeli security officials say strikes could be counterproductive, spurring Iran to build the bomb, and justify it. That's to say nothing of the incredible potential these scenarios—deemed likely by experts—hold for spilled American blood and treasure.

Did we learn nothing as Bush administration officials spoke of a "cakewalk," then declared of the nascent Iraq war, "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators?" Do we not remember the $800 billion spent, the nearly 4,500 of our men and women in uniform lost? Do we not remember the reporting that exposed the head spokesman of Bush's occupation in Iraq Dan Senor—now a top Romney adviser—saying, “Well, off the record, Paris is burning. But on the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq”?

Speaking of Senor's unwillingness to speak frankly in general, when NPR asked him directly if Secretary of Defense Panetta's public comments about potential consequences of war were accurate, Senor refused to respond. Instead, he stammered, "I mean I would let him explain, you know, the reasoning behind each one of those." So a more detailed discussion of what an attack to delaynot halt—Iran's nuclear ambitions would mean? I'm game.

What the Iranian government thinks of our democracy in action be damned; it's the American people who deserve better.