Vague Threats To Counter Vague Threats

For all the attention that was paid to Mitt Romney’s saber-rattling in his recent VFW speech and in Israel (not to mention the even louder saber-rattling of Dan Senor, Romney’s chief Middle East policy advisor), The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright points out something that didn’t draw a lot of commentary: Team Romney’s emphasis on “nuclear capability” in stressing his comparative toughness towards Iran.

Senor alarmed many observers by issuing what looked like a blank check of support for Israel in doing whatever it wished with respect to Tehran, and then Romney “walked back” the comment by reserving America’s right to make its own judgments. But both used the squishy term “nuclear capability” in drawing its “red line” defining unacceptable Iranian behavior, which makes the talk of hypothetical military strikes that much more dangerous. Here’s Wright:

[I]f you want to, you can define the term so broadly that Iran already has a “capability”–even though by standard reckoning (1) it would take Iran years to develop a deliverable nuclear warhead; (2) it would take Iran at least a year to develop even a crude, testable-but-not-deliverable bomb; (3) Iran couldn’t move even that fast unless it embarked on a headlong program to weaponize–and we’d know if that was happening, because Iran would have to break seals that international inspectors have placed on its nuclear facilities.

In short, the term “capability” is so mushy that Israel could bomb Iran tomorrow and say that it did so because, by its definition of “capability,” Iran was exactly a day away from possessing it!….

Some people are trying to find signs of moderation in Romney’s reference to his “fervent hope” that “diplomatic and economic measures” will succeed. But the fact is that by making the mushy-to-the-point-of-useless term “capability” the red line (or red blur), he has empowered Israel to say at any point, “Sorry, but diplomatic and economic measures have failed; the bombs were dropped this morning.”

The bottom line is that it’s a really bad idea to make vague but menacing threats to counter vague but menacing threats, all the while supporting the right of another country to counter vague but menacing threats with military action. Perhaps Romney thinks his relationship with Netanyahu would create a level of communications that would make an unnecessary war with Iran into which the United States would be drawn improbable. But perhaps Netanyahu thinks the same relationship makes communications beside the point. Don’t know about you, but I’m not eager to find out which supposition is correct.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.