As they digest results from yesterday's off-off year elections, pundits of all stripes are weighing in on 2010. And depending on your point-of-view, yesterday's returns in Virginia, New Jersey and upstate New York can be interpreted as:
(A) The resurgence of conservatism in the Republican Party.
(B) A major defeat for the policies of President Obama, especially his national health care scheme.
(C) A failure by Democrats to run electable candidates in the Garden State and the Old Dominion.
(D) A rebellion by the electorate, fed up with escalating taxes, skyrocketing government spending and a sour economy.
(E) The inability of the New York--and national--GOP establishment to come together behind a conservative candidate in an upstate district that's been controlled by Republicans for more than a century.
(F) All the above.
As for what this portends for next year, well, the 2010 elections are still a long way off. In the wake of Obama's victory last year, few would have predicted that a Republican would win the governor's race in newly-"purple" Virginia by almost 20 points, and take most of the GOP ticket with him.
Indeed, this time last year, a lot of supposedly "smart" people in the state had their eye on Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chair who was preparing to open his fat checkbook and buy the Democratic nomination for governor. Everyone assumed the Bob McDonnell would be the Republican nominee, but in the wake of the party's disastrous 2008 showing, there were real questions about GOP unity and its ability to match McAuliffe's unlimited personal resources.
Obviously, the smart people were wrong.
So, what's in the crystal ball for 2010? Conventional wisdom--and two centuries of electoral results--suggest that the party in control of the White House will lose seats in the House and Senate. The exact number depends on a myriad of factors, ranging from the economy, to the quality of candidates (and their challengers) and their ability to raise money.
But let's throw one more variable into the mix. It's an issue that didn't even register at the ballot box yesterday, but it could be the overriding factor a year from now.
We refer, of course, to a conflict with Iran.
While largely ignored by the mainstream media (and de-emphasized by the White House), the Iranian "problem" continues to fester. Since late summer, we've learned that Iran has built a second uranium enrichment facility, renewing concerns about a possible, parallel covert nuclear development effort--and how soon Tehran might have the bomb. When confronted with that evidence, the Iranians hemmed and hawed, then "agreed" to ship much of their yellowcake out of the country for enrichment.
However, that deal lasted only a few days. Tehran promptly reneged on its promise, leaving the much-hailed, multi-lateral nuclear talks at something of an impasse. Meanwhile, western intelligence analysts warn that Iran could have a viable nuclear device within the year.
None of this has been lost on the Israel, which (increasingly) views Iran as a go-it-alone proposition. In last Friday's Wall Street Journal, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote of an Israeli populace bracing itself for war with Iran.
In the last few years, Israelis have been asking themselves two questions with increasing urgency: Should we attack Iran if all other options fail? And can we inflict sufficient damage to justify the consequences?
As sanctions efforts faltered, most Israelis came to answer the first question affirmatively. A key moment in coalescing that resolve occurred in December 2006, when the Iranian regime sponsored an "International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust," a two day meeting of Holocaust deniers. For Israelis, that event ended the debate over whether a nuclear Iran could be deterred by the threat of counter-force. A regime that assembles the world's crackpots to deny the most documented atrocity in history—at the very moment it is trying to fend off sanctions and convince the international community of its sanity—may well be immune to rational self-interest.
Opinion here has been divided about the ability of an Israeli strike to significantly delay Iran's nuclear program. But Israelis have dealt with their doubts by resurrecting a phrase from the country's early years: Ein breira, there's no choice. Besides, as one leading Israeli security official who has been involved in the Iranian issue for many years put it to me, "Technical problems have technical solutions." Israelis tend to trust their strategic planners to find those solutions.
Mr. Klein Halevi also notes that Israelis have largely lost confidence in the U.S.'s ability to halt Iran's nuclear program and ensure their national security. That perception, coupled with Tehran's steady progress in its nuclear program, reinforces the notion that Israel must strike--and soon.
The exact timing for such an attack would depend on several variables. First, Israel must have some assurance that the strike would deliver a crippling blow, setting back the Iranian program by at least several years. Additionally, Israeli military planners would prefer to launch a raid before Iran acquires a state-of-the-art air defense system, like the Russian S-300. Rumors of a possible S-300 sale to Tehran have been a staple in defense circles for years. While those reports have not panned out (yet), it's probably just a matter of time before advanced Russian anti-aircraft missiles arrive in Iran, greatly complicating Israeli attack planning.
Those criteria suggest the early months of 2010 would be the most likely time for an Israeli strike. Beyond that window, Iran will either have a bomb, or dispersed key elements of its nuclear program, reducing the effectiveness of a possible attack by the Israeli Air Force. The longer timeline also gives Tehran more time to acquire (and deploy) the S-300, posing a major threat to Israel's operational planning.
How exactly does this fit into our domestic political equation? With his preoccupation with health care and tax-and-trade, Mr. Obama has largely ignored the Iranian issue. So far, the President has invested all of his efforts in diplomacy, hoping we can "talk" Tehran out of its nuclear ambitions. Good luck with that one.
Meanwhile, the centrifuges at Natanz keep spinning and the Israelis keep watching. At some point, early in the New Year, an IAF strike package will head east, and the conflict with Iran will begin. And Mr. Obama's response will become the defining moment of his presidency.
What should we expect? No one can say with any certainty, but this is the same president who can't make up his mind on a troop increase in Afghanistan, despite deteriorating conditions there. According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, a final decision in that matter is still "weeks away." And the conflict in that country doesn't have the capacity to escalate past the nuclear thresh hold in a matter of minutes.
Clearly, "decisive action" by Mr. Obama would go a long way in bringing the crisis to a successful resolution. Incidentally, we define that phrase in terms of (a) unqualified support for Israel; (b) the use of U.S. ISR and missile defense systems to defend Israel as required, and (c) a massive American response to any Iranian attack against our military forces--or our allies--in the Middle East.
That sort of stand would also help Obama's political standing (and that of his party) heading into the 2010 elections. Make no mistake; the consequences of a war between Israel and Iran would be felt far beyond the region. Get ready for oil at $300 a barrel--or higher--and rising prices for just about everything else, to boot. The economic consequences of the conflict would likely drive the U.S. (and other western economies) from a deep recession, into a full-blown depression.
But voters might be willing for forget about some of that pain, provided the President responds effectively, and lays out a clear vision for stopping Iran, once and for all. But that sort of response isn't Mr. Obama's stock-in-trade. In fact, his indecisiveness is actually making various situations worse.
So imagine if you will, a sudden Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Tehran and its terrorist allies respond with all-out missile strikes on Israeli population centers, using chemical and biological weapons. Massive civilian casualties prompt Tel Aviv to respond with a nuclear strike, using long-range Jericho II missiles. The entire region plunges into war; the Strait of Hormuz is closed (at least temporarily) and oil prices head to stratospheric levels.
That is likely to be the backdrop for next year's elections. If Mr. Obama doesn't take dramatic action (diplomatically and militarily) he will be blamed for the coming catastrophe in the Middle East. And his party will pay a staggering political price.