Existential Threats

The 2008 presidential election, scheduled to be a fight over differing visions of foreign policy and domestic spending priorities, has changed significantly. The two campaigns have been focused for weeks on figuring out how much money to take from taxpayers to insulate those same taxpayers from the costs of the decisions of a variety of parties, including the Senate to which both of them belong.

But the commonality between John McCain and Barack Obama on the giant bailout is, in some ways, similar to their overstated differences in the realm of foreign policy. Real differences exist, but in football terms, this been a boring struggle back and forth between the 45-yard lines of foreign policy thought.

Although the two candidates disagree vehemently about who said what when on Iraq policy and whether to negotiate with Iran, they agree with each other on a range of issues, including humanitarian intervention, the supposed need to make Georgia and Ukraine security protectorates, and the divine mission of America to promote democracy throughout the world. In a paper posted today [.pdf], I discuss some of these similarities and differences.

One issue where there is a clear difference, at least of degree, is on the subject of Iran. McCain repeated his view during the first debate, stating flatly that “if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to other countries in the region.” McCain went on to note that “we cannot have a second Holocaust” and to describe how his “League of Democracies” [.pdf] would hold the key to unlocking the Iran problem. Not to be outdone, Obama chimed in to agree that “we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran.”

Governor Palin cranked things up a bit further, telling Katie Couric that we should “never second-guess” an Israeli attack on Iran, because doing so would “send a message that we would allow a second Holocaust,” and because “it’s obvious” to Palin who would be “the good guys in this one” and who would be “the bad guys.”

I have argued elsewhere that the United States, with a $13 trillion economy and a defense budget the size of all other nations combined, certainly could “live with” a nuclear Iran. But since all of the candidates respond first to questions about Iran by referencing Israel, perhaps it is worth examining that country’s thoughts on the issue, since it is much smaller, weaker, and closer to Iran than the United States.

What one finds is quite interesting. It was Tzipi Livni, then foreign minister of Israel and now a candidate for PM, who noted in an interview with Haaretz last October, that she believed that Iranian nuclear weapons would not pose any “existential” threat to Israel, and that she believed that then-PM Olmert was “attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears.”

McCain, in particular, has been at the forefront of ringing the alarm bell in the United States (and abroad) that Iran does present such an existential threat, and that the prospect of an Iranian nuclear capability would necessitate U.S. military action, and all the attendant consequences.

Question for McCain: Why are you busily promoting alarmism about what a nuclear Iran would mean to Israel? Why are you more alarmed even than those charged by Israeli citizens with protecting their well-being? Does this in any way represent responsible statesmanship?

It’s a question that’s more important, though almost certainly less entertaining, than the scheduled programming of McCain implying Obama is a terrorist and Obama shooting back that McCain is a crazy old man.