On the subject of a President Romney’s likely foreign policy, particularly towards Iran, I think David Frum deserves a more nuanced response than Andrew Sullivan provided. (For those following at home: Frum, Sullivan, Frum, Frum, Sullivan.)

Frum’s argument in a nutshell is: Romney cares more about his domestic agenda than his foreign policy agenda; so does the GOP as a whole; an aggressive foreign policy agenda would torpedo his domestic agenda; therefore he won’t be nearly as aggressive as Sullivan fears. Specifically, he won’t attack Iran – whereas Obama might well have to.

Sullivan’s response is, basically: look who’s funding him, look what he’s running on, and look who he’s hired to advise him on foreign policy. And then look at his fundamental character. Romney may be inherently cautious – but he’s got to be cautious about not drawing fire from his right as well, and the contemporary American right is nationalist and aggressive. He’s in a weak position to resist the war drums, and shows no sign of wanting to resist them.

So there are two axes of disagreement between Sullivan and Frum: what Romney really believes, and what the movers and shakers within the GOP really want. Neither of these debates is entirely resolvable. Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Frum on his read of Romney’s character (an attack on Iran would be a big gamble, and he’s a smart investor, not a gambler – unlike Bush and especially McCain) and with Sullivan on his read of the contemporary GOP (regardless of what the rank-and-file actually wants, I think there would be reflexive support for any aggressive move a President Romney would make, and there’s distinct faction in the leadership that strongly favors military action against Iran specifically, a faction which includes many of Romney’s advisors and people rumored for top positions in a Romney Administration).

But the question isn’t entirely binary. That is to say, there are aggressive policy options that Romney might have that wouldn’t involve a full-scale invasion of Iran. For example:

  • He could threaten military action if Iran didn’t fulfill one or another condition and, when they failed to fulfill said condition, Romney could blink, and refuse to follow through on his own threats, thereby badly damaging American credibility.
  • He could limit himself to diplomacy, but take a much more aggressive diplomatic line, damaging relations with China, Russia and India by putting the isolation of Iran at the top of the diplomatic agenda with those countries, without actually increasing Iran’s isolation materially.
  • He could give a green light to an Israeli attack, promising American diplomatic and logistical support, thereby provoking a war in the Middle East without being personally responsible for pulling the trigger – and once wars start, it’s hard to predict precisely how they end.

Mitt Romney is running on a platform of full-spectrum aggression. He may very well not deliver on the promise of that platform – he may limit himself to rhetorical belligerence backed up by no actual force. That might satisfy both his party and his own native caution. But why would we want to elect a man we think will shout loudly and carry a small stick?

What Romney would not have room to do as President is change course. He has done absolutely nothing to prepare the ground for retrenchment, and he has made it clear that he has contempt for diplomacy.

The more interesting question I have for Frum: it sounds to me like he’s making a case against war with Iran. Is he? If war with Iran is as costly and unlikely to succeed as he outlines, shouldn’t we be thinking about other ways to deal with the Iranian nuclear program than threatening a war we oughtn’t to want to wage? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t David Frum be enormously valuable as a convert to the cause of such alternative approaches, given his famous history?

Relatedly, I’d be very interested to hear how he thinks Netanyahu would respond to an offer by a President Romney to take care of the Iranian problem himself. Frum argues that Israel is not the main advocate of military action against Iran – that Saudi Arabia is far more invested. Netanyahu has indeed been extremely loud about the Iranian threat, and has repeatedly threatened action. But he could well be bluffing. Netanyahu, after all, is one of the rare Israeli Prime Ministers who has not fought a war during his term. And if he were truly concerned about the Iranian threat above all, and didn’t believe Israel had the technical capacity to eliminate that threat itself, you’d expect to have seen a very different Netanyahu in the first two years of Obama’s Presidency – a Netanyahu willing to bend on settlements in order to win an American commitment to action on Iran. But you saw nothing of the sort. Netanyahu behaved as if diplomatic concessions to the Palestinians were more threatening to Israel than the Iranian nuclear program. So maybe he’s bluffing?

Is that what Frum thinks? Does he think that, if Romney declines to attack Iran, Israel will also do nothing? If not, then what happens to his case that Romney would be less-likely to spark a war with Iran? And if he does think that Netanyahu is bluffing, what does that say about the objective case for our belligerent posture towards Iran?