WASHINGTON — As the broader political climate within which foreign policy is made lurches to the right, the new Washington will have to contend with a fractured Congress and, as a consequence, uncertain policy choices.
American policy towards Iran is therefore entering a new, more dangerous phase, as it is not at all clear that newly elected Members of Congress will have the capacity to build the kind of consensus on foreign policy that we have experienced for the past two years.
In particular, the new Republicans that are coming to Washington are blank slates on foreign policy, oftentimes boasting proudly of their indifference to what happens beyond our country’s borders. This contrasts sharply with the Democrats, who have advanced a coherent position on a broad range of foreign policy issues that has attracted bipartisan support, especially on Iran.
To be clear, one specific wing of the Republican Party — the Tea Party isolationist wing — rejects the very notion of having a foreign policy, while the other wing — the neoconservative interventionist wing — believes that difficult foreign policy problems should ultimately be resolved through the use of military force.
This fissure has the potential to undermine the current consensus on Iran, as the arrival of isolationist Tea Party politicians creates new opportunities for neoconservative war advocates to cement their control of the conservative foreign policy establishment, creating significant dangers for our country’s ability to deter Iran’s nuclear program and its other problematic behavior.
This is disturbing, as up until recent years, Republican foreign policy leaders such as Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and George Schultz had for years successfully guided their party’s foreign policy through a moderate, centrist and consensus-oriented approach. This approach helped defeat the Soviet Union, spread democracy globally and promoted sound economic growth.
Now, however, the new breed of conservative foreign policy leadership, which has been led by neoconservative theorists and politicians such as Charles Krauthammer, Dick Cheney and John McCain, seems poised to dominate the new Tea Party arrivals. It already has one prominent convert — Sarah Palin — who is both a hero to the Tea Party movement and an aggressive leader of the ‘bomb Iran’ crowd.
As a result, the neoconservatives, with an assist from the Tea Party converts, will likely dominate conservative positions on Iran, specifically with calls for preemptive military action that would exactly mirror the approach they took in order to start a war with Iraq.
But let’s be clear. Launching a third war in the Middle East against a Muslim country will increase our vulnerability to terrorist attack, will increase the likelihood that Iran will accelerate its nuclear program, will expose Israel to powerful military attack with unpredictable consequences, will place our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk, will severely harm the Iranian people and will trigger a new oil crisis.
It is therefore ironic that while the moderate conservatives are ushered off the stage by their neoconservative brethren, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats stand poised to become the new centrist standard-bearer on foreign policy, taking positions, such as in the case of Iran, that have broad support from the American people.
Specifically, the Obama administration has been effective at advancing its dual track policy of sanctions and diplomacy towards Iran within a multilateral framework, thereby creating tremendous international support for pressure on Iran — an achievement admired event by the administration’s detractors. This pressure will take time to achieve results, but is already having a clear impact on Iran and on the Iranian government’s calculations.
So how will the Washington political establishment, which is already on edge about the new broader political dynamics, respond to the arrival of the Tea Party when it comes to foreign policy?
One prominent commentator —The Washington Posts’ David Broder — remarkably stated in an article last weekend that President Obama would be well served by launching a war against Iran, if only to secure his reelection in 2012.
When historically reasonable commentators such as Broder make such morally depraved comments about war — as if killing other human beings is acceptable in order to win elections — then it is clear that the new political dynamic taking root in Washington is going to be more poisonous on Iran policy, not less.
It is therefore likely that, as the more militant voices in the conservative movement absorb the Tea Party while trouncing their more moderate colleagues, that we will see an increase in conservative impatience with the centrist Obama policy on Iran. We will also see an increase in calls for war.
The great tragedy of such an outcome, and of this new political environment, is that as a result of the rise of the Tea Party, we may have just witnessed the end of a period of significant consensus on Iran at the expense of our national security.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)