In the past 10 days, something remarkable has happened: President Obama has gone on the political offensive on Iran. It started just over a week ago when Benjamin Netanyahu took a swipe at Hillary Clinton and tried to pressure Obama into setting a deadline for military action.
Until then, conventional wisdom had been that Obama would do just about anything to avoid looking soft on Tehran. But Obama refused to change his policy or meet Netanyahu in New York. Barbara Boxer, the normally AIPAC-aligned California senator, followed up by chastising the Israeli prime minister. And then on Sunday, in an interview with 60 Minutes, Obama not only insisted, contra Netanyahu, that “I’ve got time” to reach a diplomatic deal with the Iranian regime but accused Romney of being cavalier about military action. “If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war,” declared Obama, “he should say so.”
What’s changed? For starters, I suspect Obama has been emboldened by Romney’s foreign-policy ineptness. Obama began the campaign with a solid public image when it came to national security, and since the summer, Romney has made Obama’s position even stronger through a series of blunders, panders, and insults that have dismayed even prominent Republicans. For decades, the GOP entered any foreign-policy debate with an advantage: Americans saw it as the party of strength. Today, that’s no longer true. In fact, any day that Obama spends debating foreign policy—as opposed to the economy—is likely a day that helps his reelection bid.
It’s also become clearer that Americans deeply oppose military action against Iran. According to a recent Chicago Council survey of American foreign policy (PDF), a majority of Americans oppose military action against Iran even if it enjoys United Nations approval. And when asked about the far more likely scenario of a unilateral U.S. strike, 70 percent of Americans disapprove. Fifty-nine percent say the U.S. should stay out of a war between Israel and Iran. And the percentage of Americans who see Iran’s nuclear program as a “critical threat” has actually dropped four points since 2010, despite the enormous attention the media—and Congress—have devoted to the issue.
Lurking behind these findings is the legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that despite the Romney campaign’s efforts to pretend they never happened, have left a deep imprint on the public’s view of military force. As the Chicago Council poll reveals, Afghanistan and Iraq have made Americans less supportive of maintaining military bases overseas, more inclined to cut the defense budget, and more skeptical of new military entanglements. This is particularly true for younger voters, who now constitute the most dovish segment of the population. The Obama campaign surely realizes this, which is why in his 60 Minutes interview Obama connected the Iran debate to Afghanistan and Iraq (and Romney to George W. Bush), noting that he would “not jump the gun when it comes to another military involvement after a decade of war.”
In a sense, Obama has come full circle. In 2008, he ran to Hillary Clinton’s left on Iran, criticizing her for talking about “obliterating” the Islamic Republic, and for voting to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group and pledging that he would meet Iran’s leaders in his first year. For Obama’s top advisers, his refusal to pander to the right on Iran represented a continuation of his stance on Iraq, a war he had opposed even as many Washington Democrats voted yes to shield themselves from allegations that they were soft.
In recent years, many Democrats have forgotten that earlier, edgier Barack Obama. To be sure, Obama’s had his foreign-policy successes. But from his drone policies to his Afghanistan surge to his capitulation on the Israel-Palestinian peace process to his refusal to close Guantánamo Bay to his appointment of Hillary Clinton, he’s pursued a safer, more establishment foreign-policy line than his core supporters had hoped.
Now, in the last few weeks, the Obama of 2008 has resurfaced. Suddenly, the man who won the Democratic nomination because on Iraq he was more interested in being smart than looking tough has been applying the same perspective to Iran.
And it’s helping him politically once again.
It’s crucial that Obama keep hitting Romney on Iran in the weeks between now and Election Day. The more Obama defends the possibilities for diplomacy and the more he accuses Romney of rushing to war, the more freedom of maneuver he’ll enjoy in his second term. It’s not clear that Tehran’s leaders will ever cut a deal to curb their nuclear ambitions. They may prefer a cold war with the West to a rapprochement that could undermine their hold on power.
But for diplomacy to stand any chance, Obama will have to risk a confrontation with Netanyahu and the Republicans in Washington, both of whom will likely oppose any agreement Obama could plausibly reach. The more Obama can argue that he made Iran an issue in the campaign, the more he’ll be able to claim a mandate for diplomacy and the harder it will be for hawks in Washington and Jerusalem to block him.
In 2008, one of Barack Obama’s signature words was audacity. This month, for the first time in ages, he’s exhibiting it once again.