Living On a Thin Line

As I have repeatedly argued, Barack Obama is in a reasonably strong position heading into this fall’s presidential election: The economy is improving (though still vulnerable), his opponent seems inadequate to the task of unseating him, and his personal popularity with the American people has never left him. Nevertheless, we should not forget that national security and foreign policy can play a decisive role in domestic politics – often at the most unexpected times. Nuclear negotiations with Iran and a provocative rocket launch by North Korea, combined with the broader shifts taking place in global power politics, should serve as a reminder that while President Obama is in good shape for the time being, the biggest obstacles to his reelection campaign may well be far beyond his control. The United States and the other members of the P5+1 group (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) are entering “last chance” negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program in Istanbul this week. Even as the United States and its allies demand that the Iranians close the heavily-fortified Fordow nuclear facility and surrender its enriched uranium, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has asserted that Iran will defend its “nuclear rights.” A breakdown in negotiations at this point could spell disaster for an already unstable Middle East. Israel desperately fears the prospect of an Iranian bomb, and once it become clear that an agreement cannot be reached, it will strike Iran — with or without the United States, consequences be damned. In addition to the regional effects of a war with Iran, the domestic impact could devastate the president. If he fails to aid Israel, Mitt Romney and the Republicans will have an open line of attack against a president who has (with good reason) built a reputation as a tough and decisive commander-in-chief. If he does attack Iran, he risks ensnaring the United States into an unpopular war that the military does not want to fight, for obvious reasons.

Obama’s domestic situation is not as dire as it was, say, last summer, when his debt ceiling negotiations with Speaker of the House John Boehner fell through, and the president suffered the worst job approval ratings of his administration. But with the economy still far from full strength, Obama needs to keep his political options open — that is, he can and will pursue multiple paths to victory in the Electoral College, and the Iranian problem cuts into that strategy in more ways than one. Most obviously, in the event of an attack on Iran by Israel, the United States, or both, the price of oil will skyrocket and the economy will be in the toilet. In that situation, Obama will see all of his margins narrow, and Romney will compete with him even in states that are otherwise considered Democratic safe havens. But there are more subtle problems for Obama, especially with Jewish voters. While a clear majority of American Jews want to see Obama reelected, a breakdown in US-Israeli relations over the Iranian issue would have a significant impact on the campaign. This is because swing states, like Florida and Pennsylvania, have disproportionately large Jewish populations and even a small shift in support could give Romney the edge there, assuming that other factors work in his favor.

The Iranian issue is only one potential crisis in a world chock full of them. Syria is on fire, North Korea is rattling the saber, and the Russian reset, for all the hype, appears to be fading (if it can be said to have ever truly existed) as Vladimir Putin prepares to reclaim his place in the Kremlin. These momentary flashes of instability do not pose any strategic risk to the United States, but they are legitimate points of concern and do pose a real threat to the president’s campaign —given Romney’s ineptitude as a candidate, they may pose the only threat to it.