Obama and Democratic National Convention must clarify on Iran

Obama plans to play up his foreign policy at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. With Romney's tougher stance on Iran and its nuclear program, Obama must help voters have a clear choice.

Baz Ratner/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (c.) attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. Mr. Netanyahu is urging the international community – meaning perhaps President Obama – to get tougher on Iran, saying that without a "clear red line" Tehran will not halt its nuclear program.

If elections help clarify a country’s direction, the 2012 presidential race is chance for Americans to decide if they will support a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Last month’s Republican National Convention only touched on the issue. GOP candidate Mitt Romney asserted that the United States is “less secure” because President Obama has failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat. Mr. Romney’s previous statements suggest he would attack Iran if it simply showed a capacity to develop an atomic bomb.

Mr. Obama’s “red line” for an attack is not clear. At the Democratic National Convention, however, the Obama side plans to play up its foreign policy, starting with a speech Thursday by Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts. Perhaps the convention can better clarify Obama’s position on Iran and how it differs from Romney’s.

As head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry champions the current strategy of dissuading Israel from conducting a unilateral strike on Iran while keeping the option of a US attack if diplomacy and economic sanctions appear to fail.

Vice President Joe Biden, however, seemed to undercut that position of keeping the American military option on the table. On Sunday he claimed that Romney is “ready” to go to war with Iran. Does that mean Obama now rules out war?

A large percentage of Americans see Iran as a serious threat. But there is little consensus on whether an attack is the answer.

By its very nature, a preemptive war is a difficult call. In an age when weapons of mass destruction can quickly wipe out entire populations, such wars require a nation to conduct a rigourous debate and reach a wide consensus, often based on judgment calls about the other country’s weapon capabilities. Even in Israel, a consensus on whether to attack Iran is lacking.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 turned out to be based on bad information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons, although his capacity to develop them remained real. The United States cannot afford the same miscalculation about Iran’s capabilities.

The US must develop a wide, bipartisan consensus about the potential trigger for an attack – and whether to attack at all. Americans must be prepared for possible repercussions. Iran could unleash terrorist attacks and might openly declare its intentions to develop nuclear bombs, defeating the very purpose of the attack. And then there would also be the effect on gasoline prices and the US economy.

War talk in a political season isn’t always healthy. It can led to undue pressure for war, especially when it involves protecting Israel. But knowing where the candidates stand – and hoping for common ground on an effective strategy – can help voters decide on the risks and benefits of a preemptive war.

As Americans have learned from the Iraq war, more information, not less, is needed for decisions of peace and war. During campaigns, both political conventions and presidential debates should serve to help voters decide questions of war. And a preemptive war especially requires a preemptive debate on what a leader should ultimately decide.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial had the incorrect day for Sen. Kerry's convention speech.]

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