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On Obama/Romney and Iran, the difficulties of interpretation

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On Iran policy every word uttered by President Obama, Mitt Romney or their respective teams is closely analyzed. The task of analysis though is made more difficult by the reality that both the president and his Republican challenger are trying in their public statements to strike a balance between clarity and ambiguity. They want to convey their resolve on the nuclear issue (to Iran, to Israel, to voters) without limiting their policy options or coming across as recklessly belligerent. (Israeli leaders are engaged in a similar balancing act, and for good reasons.)

When it come to questions such as whether the United States would use military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program or allow Israel to do so, we don’t generally get the most direct answers. And even when statements seem pretty clear, it’s a challenge to know whether the rhetoric reflects real intent or just political/diplomatic posturing. Sometimes (either purposely or inadvertently) there may be mixed messages and, no doubt, occasionally there might even be verbal slip-ups.

Under such murky circumstances, interpretation is likely to yield many theories of meaning (which can somtimes tell us as much about the concerns of the interpreter as they do about anything else).

This past weekend Romney adviser Dan Senor raised some eyebrows when he said: “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision.”

Some interpreters saw this statement as offering Israelis an effective green light to strike Iran. Senor and the Romney campaign quickly issued statements that used softer language (without explicitly backing away from the original remarks). Ambiguity in action.

What are we to make of this? Unsurprisingly, interpretations vary.

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Blake Hounshell, Foreign Policy’s managing editor, notes that Senor’s remark would seem to represent “a real departure from the last two American presidents’ policy of seeking to dissuade Israel from taking matters into its own hands, a dangerous move that could set the Middle East ablaze.”

But then Hounshell points to the Romney campaign’s follow-up statement and suggests that its wording doesn’t seem so different from the stance articulated by Obama.

Hounshell writes:

Was the former Massachusetts governor signaling a new approach? Evidently not. Given an opportunity to repeat Senor’s comments, Romney declined — and his campaign also issued a clarification: "Gov. Romney believes we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is his fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. Gov. Romney recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it."

If that sounds an awful lot like Barack Obama’s position, it’s because it is Obama’s position. As he put it in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this year, "(U)ltimately, the Israeli prime minister and the defense minister and others in the government have to make their decisions about what they think is best for Israel’s security, and I don’t presume to tell them what is best for them."

In contrast, The Atlantic’s Robert Wright saw in Senor’s statement and Romney’s subsequent rhetoric some significant — and, he argues, dangerous — departures from current U.S. policy.

Wright focuses on Senor’s insistence in his extended comments that Iran must be stopped from having a nuclear weapons “capability” — a red line that the Obama administration has declined to embrace. (Senor had said: “It is not enough just to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program. The capability, even if that capability is short of weaponization, is a pathway to weaponization, and the capability gives Iran the power it needs to wreak havoc in the region and around the world.")

And Wright astutely notices that Romney, in his Jerusalem speech, repeated the c-word.

Romney said:

We must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability. We should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is our fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so. In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you. [Emphasis is Wright’s.]

So Wright concludes: “Romney says Israel can bomb Iran any time it wants and America will be happy to inherit the blowback. Obama doesn’t say that. I’d call that a difference of doctrinal proportions.”

Wright argues that one of the things that makes designating nuclear weapons “capability” as a red line is that it has no agreed-upon definition — it’s “mushy,” as he puts it. But while Wright is concerned that this standard’s mushiness would give Israel carte blanche to strike Iran whenever it wants, by the same token it also makes Romney’s vow sort of mushy, giving the former Massachusetts governor a wide degree of interpretive freedom. Romney, in the Oval Office, could define “capability” however he wants and would not necessarily have to accept an Israeli definition.

So who is right, Wright or Hounshell? Who knows? They both seem like smart interpreters, but it’s not easy to interpret mushy rhetoric.

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