The Democrats’ Iran dilemma

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Robert No­vak

Sen. Barack Obama, des­per­ate to cut down front-run­ning Sen. Hil­lary Clin­ton, did not take ad­van­tage of one open­ing in the Nov. 15 Las Ve­gas Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial de­bate. Mr. Obama pulled his punches on Mrs. Clin­ton’s Septem­ber vote for a res­o­lu­tion that he ear­lier said can be used to go to war against Iran. His ret­i­cence may be traced to his cospon­sor­ship of a sim­i­lar hawk­ish amend­ment back in March.

Mr. Obama was softer to­ward Mrs. Clin­ton than he was last month when he called her “reck­less” for vot­ing to name the Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, claim­ing it would give Pres­i­dent Bush a pre­text to at­tack Iran. For her part, Mrs. Clin­ton did not raise Mr. Obama’s in­con­sis­tency and was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally silent about Iran. The two lead­ers for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion were muz­zled by mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion, re­flect­ing a Demo­cratic dilemma.

Democrats want to as­sume a strong anti-ter­ror­ist po­si­tion while de­plor­ing U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion against Iran as it de­vel­ops nu­clear weapons. While such an at­tack be­fore Mr. Bush leaves of­fice is re­viled on the Left, no Demo­crat can be seen as soft on an Ira­nian Is­lamist regime whose nom­i­nal pres­i­dent de­nies the Holo­caust and calls for the de­struc­tion of Is­rael. The trick is to con­demn both Dick Cheney and Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad.

This bal­anc­ing act was up­set Oct. 11 when the Manch­ester (N.H.) Union Leader pub­lished Mr. Obama’s op-ed col­umn as­sail­ing Mrs. Clin­ton’s vote for the res­o­lu­tion spon­sored by Repub­li­can Sen. Jon Kyl and In­de­pen­dent Demo­cratic Sen. Joseph Lieber­man. By des­ig­nat­ing the Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, wrote Mr. Obama, “we’re still fool­ishly rat­tling our sabers” in pass­ing “this reck­less amend­ment,” 76 to 22. Mr. Obama con­tended “the Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion could use the lan­guage in Lieber­man-Kyl to jus­tify an at­tack on Iran as part of the on­go­ing war in Iraq.” Mr. Obama missed the vote.

Mr. Obama en­er­gized Lanny Davis, Wash­ing­ton lawyer and long­time sup­porter of the Clin­tons. In an Oct. 16 let­ter to The New York Times, Mr. Davis noted Mr. Obama was one of 68 sen­a­tors — in­clud­ing Mrs. Clin­ton — who on March 22 co-spon­sored Se­nate Res­o­lu­tion 970, us­ing lan­guage sim­i­lar to Lieber­man-Kyl in brand­ing the Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards. On his Oct. 24 web­site, Mr. Davis wrote: “It is a com­plete mys­tery why Sen. Obama or his cam­paign man­agers thought he could get away with crit­i­ciz­ing Sen. Clin­ton on the Kyl-Lieber­man res­o­lu­tion and call­ing it reck­less while know­ing about his own cospon­sor­ship of S. 970.”

The re­sponse to Mr. Davis came one day later from an­other Wash­ing­ton lawyer: Gre­gory Craig, Mr. Davis’s comrade de­fend­ing Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton and now Mr. Obama’s for­eign pol­icy ad­viser. Email­ing sup­port­ers, Mr. Craig did not ad­dress S. 970 but in­di­cated the Kyl-Lieber­man res­o­lu­tion went be­yond a ter­ror­ist des­ig­na­tion. Call­ing co-spon­sors Kyl and Lieber­man “two of the most hawk­ish mem­bers of the Se­nate on Iran,” Mr. Craig sug­gested their res­o­lu­tion “can be used to jus­tify a U.S. at­tack on Iran.”

This dis­pute was not raised by Mr. Obama in Las Ve­gas as part of his many-sided at­tack on Mrs. Clin­ton. Not un­til the floor was opened to “un­de­cided” vot­ers did an Iraq war vet­eran’s mother ask about Iran. Sen. Joseph Bi­den, chair­man of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, said of Kyl-Lieber­man: “It’s a se­ri­ous, se­ri­ous mis­take. [. . .] [I]t con- vinced the rest of the Mus­lim world this is re­ally a war against Is­lam. [. . .] If he [Mr. Bush] takes the coun­try to war in Iraq [he meant Iran] with­out a vote of Congress [. . .] then he should be im­peached.”

CNN’s Wolf Bl­itzer, the mod­er­a­tor, im­me­di­ately turned to Mrs. Clin­ton as “the only one on the stage who did vote for that res­o­lu­tion.” Mr. Bi­den, per­haps re­mem­ber­ing Bill Clin­ton’s com­plaint that “the boys” were gang­ing up on his wife, in­ter­jected: “I wasn’t at­tack­ing Sen. Clin­ton.” Mr. Obama next called the res­o­lu­tion “a mis­take,” but he said of Mrs. Clin­ton only this: “I agree with Hil­lary that we’ve got to ini­ti­ate bold diplo­macy.” Mrs. Clin­ton said not a word about Iran and kept away from Mr. Obama’s past de­sire to brand the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards.

So, Iran got few min­utes at Las Ve­gas, with im­por­tant ques­tions unan­swered. Could Mrs. Clin­ton or Mr. Obama co-ex­ist with a nu­clear Iran? Do they for­swear the mil­i­tary op­tion in Iran? Would they join Mr. Bi­den in im­peach­ing Mr. Bush if he at­tacks Iran? They can­not want to face those dif­fi­cult queries.

Robert No­vak is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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