On the threat from Iran, we got some good news, bad news and even worse news last week.
The good news: Both presidential candidates think the prospect of Iran going nuclear is a bad thing.
Republican candidate John McCain went straight to the bottom line in the first presidential debate last week when he flatly stated, "We cannot allow a second Holocaust." Should Iran gain nuclear capability, he declared, it would be an "existential" threat to the existence of the State of Israel, as well as a danger to the rest of the world.
Moments later, his Democratic rival Barack Obama echoed some of those sentiments when he, too, asserted, "We cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would be a game changer. Not only would it threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally, but it would also create an environment in which you could set up an arms race in the Middle East."
A bipartisan consensus that Iran is a genuine threat to world peace is essential, and the fact that both candidates affirmed this stance, while disagreeing about just everything else, was an important step toward building support for action on the issue.
Diplomatic Dead End
The bad news is that there is no such consensus as to what can be done about Iran.
McCain spoke of tough sanctions to be enforced by his pet notion, a "league of democracies," led by the United States and its principal Western allies, which would bypass the United Nations and inflict so much economic pain on Tehran that it would give up its nuclear ambitions.
Obama dismissed McCain's "league" idea, saying that for sanctions to work, we would need non-democratic nations, such as Russia and China, to help us. He believes direct diplomacy with both those nations, as well as Iran, can do the trick.
But neither option ought to inspire much hope.
McCain's "league" is a grand idea, but the notion that Britain, France and Germany, not to mention the rest of Western Europe, will abandon the U.N., as the instrument of policy on this question, is unrealistic. If push comes to shove on Iran — and it almost certainly will — what the world will need is an America that is not willing to be fettered by our feckless allies. Anyone waiting for Europe, even democratic Europe, to take action before that "existential" problem is resolved hasn't been paying attention to the continent recently.
As for Obama's blind faith in his ability to win over China and Russia, let alone Iran, the kindest thing one can say is that he's a trifle optimistic. The Iranians have used every meeting with the West (including one that was the result of a recent humiliating retreat on the part of the Bush administration) as evidence that they can't be stopped. Both Beijing and Moscow have also been crystal clear that they will not allow the U.N. or the United States a free hand on the issue and haven't the slightest intention of backing the sort of crippling sanctions that could actually bring the Iranians to their knees.
What could be even worse than that? The fact that, while the presidential candidates were talking tough on Iran, the object of their rhetoric spent a triumphal week in New York City addressing the U.N., CNN and even a Quaker dinner — to applause.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his speech before the U.N. General Assembly, as well as a typically fawning interview with CNN's Larry King, to spout Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic lies about Zionism, Israel and the Palestinians.
Even after all this, there is still some debate about how seriously to take the Iranian. Obama rightly pointed out in the debate that he is not actually the most important person in Iran and that his diatribes are mere "nonsense" that ought not to prevent us from sensible diplomatic outreach.
But while he may appear to be a clown to Americans, Ahmadinejad is serving his role of front man for the Islamist ayatollahs quite well. More to the point, his provocations are showing the Islamic world that America can do nothing about him.
Iranians who chafe under the despotic rule of the Islamists could take no comfort from the way the U.N. and the press failed to hold Ahmadinejad accountable for his threats of genocide against Israel. Indeed, the night before the presidential debate, he was feted at a Ramadan dinner sponsored by Mennonite, Quaker and other religious groups, including the American Friends Service Committee.
These "humanitarians," who seem to share Tehran's disdain for Israel, were joined at their party by the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, a Nicaraguan diplomat and Catholic priest. Jewish groups protested his presence, but did anyone expect that either the world body or the Quakers would shun a Jew-hater like Ahmadinejad?
Unfortunately, the mass demonstration planned by Jewish groups to protest Ahmadinejad's presence in New York illustrated that, even among Jews, there is a lack of urgency or even a real sense that a crisis is at hand.
How else to explain the backbiting over the question of who would speak at the rally, to which both leading Democrats and Republicans were invited?
When the GOP produced vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as their representative, Sen. Hillary Clinton, the leading Democrat slated to appear, refused to honor her commitment. Rather than face the possibility of a replay of a now-famous "Saturday Night Live" comedy sketch featuring the two women, Clinton ditched the rally. And instead of matching Palin with her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joseph Biden, or trumping her with Obama, the Democrats within the leading Jewish groups sponsoring the event forced the organizers to "disinvite" Palin.
In the end, the rally went off with no star power and had little effect. Those who justified shunning Palin claim that the vice presidential nominee would have "politicized" the event, or that her appearance would have violated their tax-exempt status (even though nonprofit groups are often addressed by politicians, without causing trouble). But the truth is, her appearance only became a partisan bone of contention because some Democrats preferred to sabotage the rally rather than let her take part.
So, if even the Jews couldn't rise above the partisan rage of the moment to advance the cause of isolating Tehran, how can we expect Washington or Europe to heed our warnings?
Though many will take comfort from the candidates' pledges on Iran, vague talk about diplomacy should reassure no one. Iran's steady progress towards its goal of acquiring nuclear weapons continues, with no effective monitoring in place from the U.N. or anyone else. And, as Ahmadinejad's week in New York proved, the campaign to isolate the Iranians is failing miserably.
That is a reality that the next president will have to confront in the next four years, whether he'd prefer to ignore it or not. Soon the question will no longer be whether to meet Ahmadinejad, with or without "preconditions," but whether the next president will have the courage to make good on his promise to prevent Iran from possessing nukes after diplomacy has predictably failed.
Time is running out.