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October 28, 2010

The Danger of the “Nuclear Capable” Standard

How difficult would it be for a President to drag us into another war in the Middle East based on questionable justifications?  According to George Friedman of Stratfor, it would be quite easy:

The most obvious justification would be to claim that Iran is about to construct a nuclear device. Whether or not this is true would be immaterial. First, no one would be in a position to challenge the claim, and, second, Obama’s credibility in making the assertion would be much greater than George W. Bush’s, given that Obama does not have the 2003 weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle to deal with and has the advantage of not having made such a claim before. […] The Republicans could not easily attack him. Nor would the claim be a lie. Defining what it means to almost possess nuclear weapons is nearly a metaphysical discussion. It requires merely a shift in definitions and assumptions. This is cynical scenario, but it can be aligned with reasonable concerns.

Friedman is right on one thing: while many policymakers intone the need to keep “all options on the table”, there is no real standard for what the US considers “unacceptable” in terms of Iran’s nuclear progress.  Previously, President Bush warned that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons “knowledge” it would trigger World War III.  Now, the current standard being thrown around in Washington is that a “nuclear capable” Iran is unacceptable.  But it is unclear what “nuclear capable”, actually means.  In fact, it is a completely malleable term—a placeholder—for which the “definitions and assumptions” could be adjusted at will.  Thus, there is an enormous vacuum that could be exploited by a President—or, more likely, a Presidential candidate or an opposition Congress seeking to paint a President into a corner.
Ron Kampeas writes in JTA on how a new Congress may press Obama for military confrontation and undermine engagement efforts with Iran (via Lobelog):

[GOP House Minority Whip Eric] Cantor, in his interview with JTA, emphasized that Obama must make it clear that a military option is on the table.
Congress, however, cannot declare war by itself, and while a flurry of resolutions and amendments pressing for greater confrontation with Iran may be in the offing, they will not affect policy — except perhaps to sharpen Obama’s rhetoric ahead of 2012.
Should Obama, however, return to a posture of engagement — this depends on the less than likely prospect of the Iranian theocracy consistently embracing diplomacy — a GOP-led Congress could inhibit the process through adversarial hearings.

One problem with Kampeas’ piece, however, is that Congress is the very branch of government that can declare war.  But short of such a drastic step, the power of the gavel means Congress could have plenty of options to confront Obama on Iran and help define the terms of the debate as we enter the 2012 Presidential campaign. A Congress itching to portray the President as soft on national security could unilaterally declare, with the help of a few hearings, that Iran is imminently “nuclear capable”.  And in lieu of a real standard for what that means, we could start hearing familiar echoes that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”.

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