Will bin Laden Bluster Help Obama Weather Iran Debate in 2012?

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There have been innumerable references in the wake of the death of Osama Bin Laden to Barack Obama’s 2007 assertion that he would go into Pakistan to kill the al-Qaeda leader with or without Islamabad’s permission.

What most have forgotten is that the saber-rattling threat was crafted specifically to counter a dovish gaffe. Days before Obama’s speech, the still-green candidate had gone off-message without consulting his advisers and declared that he would negotiate with the leaders of North Korea and Iran and other countries without precondition during his first year in office.

The gaffe, made in response to a video question at the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate on July 23, 2007 against seven other opponents, painted Obama as a soft-headed peacenik. The next day, then-candidate Hillary Clinton called Obama’s remark “irresponsible and frankly naïve” and within days Obama’s campaign was meeting to craft the language of the Bin Laden assertion to push back.

The political interplay between two key national security issues—terrorism and rogue states—is worth keeping in mind as we calculate the effect of OBL’s death on the 2012 elections. Success fades fast; failure often lasts. And though the death of OBL has given Obama a predictable bounce, how will it effect other foreign and national security issues, especially Iran?

By this time next year, Iran will be back on the table as a top foreign policy campaign issue, just as it was in 2008, and Obama has little to show in the way of changed Iranian behavior. Tehran is still resisting all attempts to negotiate its return to compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency and United Nations demands. In fact, the Iranians have stepped up their efforts to enrich uranium in violation of international safeguards.

In that sense, Obama’s prescription for the Iranian nuclear problem—an open negotiation policy backed by tougher sanctions—has failed, and Republicans will focus on that fact. But the GOP will have a harder time gaining traction on Iran than they did last time for a several reasons.

First, Obama did get tough international sanctions passed at the UN that few thought he’d be able to deliver. The sanctions haven’t changed Iranian behavior, but they have made life more difficult for the regime in Tehran. And Republicans in the Senate have been relatively supportive of that tougher diplomatic approach, providing Obama cover.

Second, Obama will be able cryptically, but effectively, to point to the cyberwar sabotage of some of the Iranian enrichment equipment by the Stuxnet virus. Declining to provide any details of any decisions he may or may not have been involved in for fear of revealing national secrets, Obama will nevertheless be able to suggest that behind the scenes he’s been tougher than his continuing unsuccessful offers of negotiation make him appear.

Third, that hint of willingness to use covert means to hamper the Iranian program, combined with the boldness of the Osama Bin Laden raid, will give credibility to Obama’s suggestion that he might use military force to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Israel helps him here, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has at points said Obama has been very reassuring and specific about his intention to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.