Newt Gingrich and the doctrine of Iranian elimination

The Associated Press relates some tough talk from presidential candidate Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called Monday for eliminating the government of Iran if it blocks passage through a key oil route in the Middle East.

Campaigning in Tennessee ahead of Tuesday’s primary, the former House speaker said the U.S. should declare war if Iran attempts to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil exports pass.

“We should indicate calmly and decisively that any threat to close the Straits of Hormuz would be considered an act of war and we will eliminate the government of Iran,” Gingrich said in Alcoa, Tenn.

I can already see the shrieking headlines, particularly if Gingrich does well on Super Tuesday and re-ignites his candidacy: “Newt Gingrich says he wants to eliminate Iran!”

But that is precisely what Barack Obama did to the government of Libya.  Gingrich’s only sin against decorum was failing to use the sanitized term “regime change.”  He’s also entirely correct.  If Iran blockades the Straits of Hormuz, we would almost certainly initiate a process that ended with the elimination of the Iranian government.  It’s unlikely that anything less would secure the safety of international shipping.  And would any sane person in the Western world be comfortable with some kind of limited surrender that left the Iranian theocracy humiliated, licking its wounds… and really looking forward to those nuclear weapons it’s been working so hard to obtain?

The real question is whether a Western politician is supposed to speak as bluntly as Gingrich did.  (Middle Eastern leaders, of course, issue blood-curdling threats on a regular basis.)  The current Administration is shooting for a more nuanced approach:

President Barack Obama, appearing Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said “no option was off the table” to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. But he also said that premature talk of war with Iran plays into the nation’s hands.

Netanyahu stressed in meetings with Obama that Israel has a right to strike Iran pre-emptively.

If I might borrow one of Gingrich’s favorite words, this is one of the fundamental questions of diplomacy in a dangerous world.  Is it better to let the Iranian government know, in no uncertain terms, that it will not survive certain acts of belligerence, such as blockading the Straits of Hormuz?  Or is it better to huddle around a conference table, say something vague about every option being on that table, and let even a barbaric nation like Iran know that it hasn’t come anywhere near exhausting its supply of second chances yet?

Diplomacy is all about credibility.  Promises, both benign and malevolent, must be believable.  Even the most aggressive nations make cost versus benefit calculations before taking action.  They don’t run those numbers the same way a civilized democracy would, but they do consider the likely consequences of their strategies.  Every conflict is a test of national will, from the preliminary stages to the finale.  A great deal of horrific violence has been avoided through peaceful nations demonstrating both capability and resolve.

Iran has obviously calculated that it can keep the Western world sitting at the negotiating table, muttering about its options, until its nuclear umbrella goes up.  At that point, a great many options will be swept off the table.  This strategy was formulated long ago, and it’s unlikely the Iranians are currently hearing anything to invalidate it.  They only have to play for a little more time.  What happens if they demonstrate nuclear capability, and then decide to respond to crippling sanctions by grabbing the Western world’s oil arteries and giving them a good firm squeeze?

One of the most persistent criticisms of the first President Bush – made with great vigor by liberals, back in the day – was that his foreign-policy team didn’t make it sufficiently clear to Saddam Hussein that Kuwait was off-limits.  Do we want to find ourselves looking back at 2012 and thinking, “If only someone had made it absolutely clear to the Iranian dictators that they wouldn’t survive the deployment of nuclear weapons, or attempting to shut down the world’s oil supply?”