Sandwiched between the Clinton-bashing and UFO-sighting there was much talk of Iran at last night’s Democratic debate in Philly — as there has been at each of the eight debates so far. And for good reason. By all accounts Iran is involved to some degree in aiding and abetting the sectarian chaos in Iraq and it’s clearly working to develop a nuclear reactor. These are not insignificant details and will be among the most important issues the next president will have to confront. Then why could I do little more than yawn last night when the candidates were asked about Iran?
If you’ve listened to the debates, you know that Iran-related questions are always framed in one of two ways: Would you as president of the United States allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb? Or, more precisely, Would you, as president of the United States, bomb Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb?
We got it again last night, this time in the form of a pledge to the American people that Tim Russert, the debate’s co-moderator, tried to get each candidate to make, that “Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president.”
Even the audience understood, by the time the third candidate, Barack Obama, was forced to make the pledge, that this is a fundamentally uninteresting and unenlightening question. Obama even said so, to much laughter from the auditorium: “I think all of us are committed to Iran not having nuclear weapons. And — and so, you know, we — we — we could potentially short-circuit this.”
Any candidate with even a shred of hope of being elected president wouldn’t say otherwise. They all want to prevent nuclear proliferation, and especially to a country that has expressed the kind of belligerence we’ve heard from Iran’s leaders. Case closed. Even Kucinich, the leftiest of the bunch, agrees with this statement.
The more interesting discussion would be how the candidates would propose stopping Iran. But here, too, the question always hinges on whether the candidate would be ready to drop bombs. This sets up a situation in which there seem to be only two options, either doing nothing or taking the most extreme measures. Hillary Clinton presented a critique of just this line of questioning last night as a:
false choice between rushing to war — which is the way the Republicans sound; it’s not even a question of whether, it’s a question of when and what weapons to use — and doing nothing. I prefer vigorous diplomacy, and I happen to think economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy.
I have yet to hear an interesting discussion among the candidates of what various tools in the diplomatic tool box they would be willing or not willing to use. The debates consistently frame the question of what to do about Iran in such a way that the candidates are forced to take maximal or minimal positions that shed absolutely no light on how they would realistically deal with this situation once in the Oval Office. Leaders weigh costs and benefits and they take small steps towards bigger goals. It would be much more illuminating to force these candidates to describe the process of how they would deal with Iran than forcing them to check off boxes indicating a vastly oversimplified yes or no.
Another problem with journalists posing the Iran question in such an extreme way is that it is potentially dangerous. Dennis Kucinich - yes, him - actually made this very point last night to Russert and Brian Williams:
With all due respect to our friends from the media here, the media itself has to be careful how you frame these questions. We don’t want to be put in a position where we are taking this country to the threshold of war. The media did play a role in taking us into war in Iraq, and I’m urging the members of the media to urge restraint upon you and our president, whose rhetoric is out of control.
Now, Kucinich is being a bit hyperbolic, but the question he raises is an important one. Journalists have to take responsibility for the kinds of questions they ask. If the only conversation about Iran that they ever prompt is one that demands to know whether or not we are going to war, then they shouldn’t be surprised when that is the rhetoric that dominates the national discourse on this matter. To the Democrats’ credit, unlike the Republicans, they usually don’t take the bait. For the most part, they refuse to consider hypotheticals and demand that different kinds of questions be asked. Journalists manning these debates should listen. They can either help initiate a productive exchange about Iran and the options available to a future leader or they can shut down the conversation completely. In a setting such as the one last night, they have that kind of power and they should use it wisely.