Over at his always interesting blog, Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation) responds to a complaint from Conor Friedersdorf. Actually, it’s not so much a complaint, as a complaint masquerading as a rhetorical question.
In response to Mitt Romney’s utterly conventional claim that preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapons program is America’s top national security priority, Friedersdorf writes:
I hope Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. But is preventing it really our highest priority? Is it more important than preventing Al Qaeda from buying or stealing a nuke? More important than preventing a bio-weapons attack? More important than disrupting another 9/11-style attack on multiple American cities? More important than avoiding an unnecessary military exchange with China or Russia? I think those should be higher priorities.
It’s difficult to know if Mitt Romney actually regards Iranian nukes as his highest priority, or if he just thinks it’s the subject on which he can most usefully draw a contrast with President Obama (though it’s unclear what the differences in their actual positions are, especially since both men are prone to changing them).
Goldberg’s response is pretty generous. He takes the question in good faith and responds, basically, yes it should be our top national-security priority. I don’t have any objection to that.
My problem with Goldberg’s response is that it misses (or ignores) the rhetorical maneuver in play, one that often gets used by people who do not like a given policy priority (or policymaker). Friedersdorf lists a number of scary scenarios, most of which are hypothetical, in order to downplay the entirely un-hypothetical prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Why stop with this parade of horribles? Why not compare the Iranian threat to an attack from Mothra? Is the Iranian nuclear program really more important than the potential horror of the Upper Midwest going zombie? What about Great Britain being compelled by vampires to declare war on us?
Now obviously these threats are a good deal more unlikely than an “unnecessary military exchange with China or Russia.” But the argument ad absurdum merely highlights the basic point. When politicians and policymakers talk about foreign threats, they tend to give weight to things that might actually happen and/or that we know about. Right now, the highest priority I have for my daughter is that she’s ready for fourth grade math. But, if there were a rabid bear in my home, my top priority would be to protect her from said bear, we can cover long division later. But since there is no such ursine menace lurking in my home, I don’t say to my wife when she says it’s time to work with the flash cards, “Honey, don’t you think we should concentrate on preventing bear attacks?”
Right now, the pressing concern is Iran’s nuclear program precisely because it is real and looming. As far as I know, the threat of a multi-city attack from al-Qaeda, a la 9/11, is real but not looming. Moreover we know our policies are working somewhat in that area. There’s less evidence our policies have done much to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
I do think it’s fair to worry about al-Qaeda or some other terrorist group from getting a nuclear weapon, but preventing that and preventing Iran from getting one, don’t seem unrelated. As for unnecessary military exchanges with Russia or China (is Friedersdorf less worried about necessary exchanges with Russia or China?), I’m no foreign policy wonk but I would think if Romney — or Obama — gave a big national-security speech in which they said “Our top national-security priority must be to prevent bloodshed between the United States and China,” people would think it a) weird and b) bellicose. That said, if tensions between the United States and China or Russia took a sudden turn for the worse, I would be very open to moving that threat to the #1 spot.
I don’t read Friedersdorf much, so maybe I’m unfairly misreading his tone or intent, but in general this approach to policy debates bugs me. It’s a way of belittling a valid and concrete policy priority by throwing up a lot of hypothetical confetti. I wonder: If Romney had said in his speech that his top foreign-policy priority would be preventing an unnecessary military exchange with the Russians, would Friedersdorf say “Way to go Mitt!”?