I generally approve of what Barack Obama is doing on foreign policy lately, weaving together proposals that media simpletons will treat as incongruously dovish (talking with leaders of Iran, Cuba and Venezuela) and hawkish (attacking Al Qaeda leaders if Pakistan won't act on actionable intelligence), but actually fit within a principled liberal foreign policy vision.
But Obama's Iran oped last week in the New York Daily News, while not substantively awful, is a step behind.
The substantive proposals are fine: combining plans for economic sanctions with plans for direct diplomacy. That's just basic "carrot and stick" foreign policy, which doesn't work unless you legitimately have both.
But Obama isn't president now. Bush is.
And his veep is apparently orchestrating a fresh PR campaign to build pressure for an Iran attack.
Obama's main critique of Bush is that there's been "tough talk with little action and even fewer results." Since when are we worried that there's not enough "action"from Bush?
More problematic, Obama essentially lays out a case for attacking Iran ("supports violent groups ... in Iraq", "fuels terror ... across the Middle East," Ahmadinejad wants Israel "wiped off the map.")
That's not to say Obama wants war, but he's foolishly echoing the premises for war in an attempt to sound "serious" and hard-headed, setting himself up to support future "action."
Yes, it's a cute maneuver to try to sound more hawkish than Bush. But the Iran situation is a live one, and "action" may well be around the corner.
It is correct for Obama to lay out what he would do if he were in charge.
But since war is a possibility before the next president takes office, it is imperative for Obama -- as well as the rest of the presidential field and congressional leadership -- to lead now.
The debate must be reframed. The underlying rationale for war, being pushed anew by the neocons, must be challenged.
As I argued a year-and-a-half ago, key to reframing the debate is noting that 1) Iran presently has a strong, rational incentive to get nukes because of Bush is plausibly threatening regime change, and 2) Iran has acted rationally and can be reasoned with.
Characterizing Iran simplistically as a terrorist state -- and inaccurately treating Ahmadinejad as if he is the actual Iranian leader -- undermines a major plank in Obama's earlier foreign policy address: "[Bush] lumps together groups with very different goals: al Qaeda and Iran, Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. He confuses our mission."
More directly, Obama's language feeds the wrongheaded notion that Iran is irrational.
That's the critical argument neocons must make in order to portray diplomacy as hopeless and war as an unavoidable last resort.
Obama oped doesn't preclude him from expounding on Iran and making the truly serious argument that war with Iran would be another, to use Obama's words, "dumb war."
Though it's not just Obama who needs to heed this message.
There's an opening for a candidate, any candidate, who takes the lead in challenging the drumbeat for attacking Iran.
The person who takes the neocon PR campaign head on, debunks misinformation, and fundamentally reframes the debate, will have made a great case for who can best handle what's in store for the general election nominee.