As the Bush presidency winds down, there are probably only two things that could make a difference in the November election. American forces could capture Osama bin Laden, or we could end up in a war with Iran.
Certainly, bin Laden's capture would be popular. The political consequences of a war with Iran are much harder to predict.
Some Israeli officials are reputed to be telling their American counterparts that they would like the United States to launch an attack. The Bush administration is indicating that "all options are on the table." American special forces are rumored to be operating inside Iran already.
Leaks from Vice President Dick Cheney's office indicate that the veep does not favor an Israeli attack, only because Israel lacks sufficient force to eliminate the nuclear facilities. So Cheney is allegedly pushing within the administration for a U.S. attack. Others in the administration are allegedly pushing back.
There are also countersignals. The administration's eagerness to take North Korea off the list of terror-supporting nations is a major, abrupt shift from including that country in the Axis of Evil. The change of tone is so dramatic that congressional conservatives attacked the Bush administration's "coddling" of North Korea.
Clearly, the administration wanted a diplomatic victory that it could use to vindicate its foreign policy before the election. The United States is talking about opening up a consular-type mission in Iran, which would be a rather dramatic step to take.
A traditional view of American elections would suggest that a peace agreement before an election is a lot better than a war (see, for example, how the 1968 bombing halt in Vietnam nearly turned the election toward Democrat Hubert Humphrey).
The Iranians, meanwhile, swing from belligerence toward the United States, Israel and European nations to a sudden conciliation and then back again. One day, they give a positive response to a European initiative on nuclear disclosure and on another, they threaten to close the oil lanes if they are attacked. (American military leaders then respond that we will stop them from such a blockade.)
It's impossible to know how much bluffing is going on right now and whether any of these straws in the wind are real. Some say that the Iranians have made a preliminary determination that the Bush administration will not have the political leeway to initiate an attack on their nuclear facilities, but they certainly cannot be sure.
American military leaders like Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are on record stating that a war with Iran would overstretch the U.S. military. One obvious consequence noted by military leaders is that since our troops are currently propping up a pro-Iranian government in Iraq, our soldiers might be in some danger from Iraqi troops if the United States were at war with Iran.
Richard Nixon used to revel in his "madman theory," which suggested that it was best to keep adversaries guessing about his intentions and about whether he would be willing to undertake irrational action. One consequence of the ill-advised invasion of Iraq is that no one can predict whether Bush would take an action that has disastrous consequences, since he has already done so once.
I hate to be a party pooper, but one has to wonder exactly how the United States would manage the consequences of a war with Iran on top of the unpopular Iraq adventure, the problems in Afghanistan and the price of gasoline. Of course, noting and managing consequences is not one of this administration's virtues. And no matter how much of a mess we are in, it would be unwise to unilaterally declare that America is unable to take strong action if necessary.
The Republicans have sought to help the GOP candidate, Sen. John McCain, by putting out the word through at least one conservative pundit that Sen. Barack Obama's election would increase the likelihood of an American attack on Iran after November. (The implication, for those who are deaf, dumb and blind is that no Democrat would confront Iran, so the brave Republicans would have to go to war if the American people were foolish enough to kick their party out. Their message: You had better keep them in power.) It is a long stretch from this political argument to a certainty that an actual war would help the incumbent party.
The domestic political consequences of actual conflict with Iran are uncertain. Jewish voters differ from other American voters in their deep concern about Iran. While most American voters do not pay much attention to all these countries in the Middle East, American Jews know that Iran is Israel's most serious enemy. A nuclear-armed Iran would be a terrifying prospect. Some Jewish voters dread a war with Iran, while others favor a military confrontation.
War with Iran is not the only way to protect Israel. A diplomatic solution that takes Iran off the nuclear merry-go-round would be welcome. An agreement between Israel and Syria would be a severe blow to Iran's regional aspirations. And yet, a diplomacy-only strategy is likely to leave Iran feeling overconfident of its power.
This moment involving Israel, the United States and Iran is a fairly dangerous and unstable one. Finding a viable solution will be a real test for American foreign policy and for its defense of Israel as we seek to dig ourselves out of the Iraq disaster without losing our clout and world leadership.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. You can read Sonenshein's blog on the Jewish vote and the presidential campaign, JewsChoose2008 online here @ JewsChoose2008.