Miscoding Presidential Candidates on Iran


Someone forwarded me an email to take this American Public Media quiz that would select my preferred candidate based on my policy preferences. It’s a very appealing approach to abstract away personalities and nuance and purport to objectively measure candidates simply on the issues. And it appears to be quite popular with 11570 responses last I checked.
But like all empirical research, there’s the inevitable mediation of data that injects a set of assumptions, personal interpretations, and delimitation of options, all of which can problematize such a test. And I happened upon a fairly significant one in this test when it came to the candidate’s positions on Iran.
The prompt stated:

If you were the commander in chief, would you declare that you will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power and would use any means — specifically military action, if diplomacy is not successful — to stop it?

Being the decline-ist, defeatist, apologist I am (my friends attest that I always manage to rationalize the fly in my soup), I prefer not to open up a third front by way of war with Iran.
According to the test, the candidates who appeared to agree with me were Clinton, Edwards, Huckabee, and Paul. But I was surprised to find that Obama was not on that list and instead grouped with McCain, Romney, and Giuliani (all of whom have considered the option of a tactical nuclear first-strike).
It’s particularly intriguing as Clinton is generally regarded as more hawkish on Iran, especially after her Kyl-Lieberman IRGC vote, and has cast Obama’s statements about negotiations with allies as signs of naivete. Obama, on the other hand, is surrounded by and has been praised by a set of foreign policy realists (including Zbigniew Brzezinski and Sen. Chuck Hagel) who were pushing back against the Iran hawks even before the declassified NIE.
Moreover, Obama’s statements, featured on page one of the New York Times in November of 2007, suggest he’s gone to greater lengths than Clinton to detail his diplomatic strategy with Iran — particularly dropping conditions as a precursor to negotiations as well as shedding the counterproductive regime change language (and policy), both of which inhibit an eventual strategic rapprochement.
Curious about this seeming mischaracterization, I decided to probe further. The test not only shows you how each candidate scores with you on each issue, but also goes offers a tab explaining why they are coded a certain way along with a hyperlink to the hard evidence, in the case of Clinton and Obama’s Iran positions, a debate transcript.
For Obama, it states:

CANDIDATE’S POSITION: At a debate on 9/26/07, Obama said, “I make an absolute commitment that we will do everything we need to do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. One of the things we have to try, though, is to talk directly to Iran, something that we have not been doing. And, you know, one of the disagreements that we have on this stage is the degree to which the next president is going to have to engage in the sort of personal diplomacy that can bring about a new era in the region. And, you know, that means talking to everybody. We’ve got to talk to our enemies and not just our friends.”

For Clinton, it simply reads:

CANDIDATE’S POSITION: Asked by Tim Russert at a debate on 9/26/07 whether Israel would be justified in a nuclear strike against Iran, Mrs. Clinton said, “Well, Tim, I’m not going to answer that…”

Somehow, not answering is interpreted as being against military action on Iran. But more importantly, that answer was given when Russert asked whether Israel would be justified to take military action against Iran (there was no suggestion of a “nuclear strike”). And this was in the context where Clinton was justifying and supporting Israel’s pre-emptive strike on a Syrian facility.
APM or Minnesota Public Radio ought to have another look at this to square it with the seemingly contradictory statements.
I suspect the Obama campaign will not be happy with the mischaracterization of his position on Iran when that is what he touts as one of his significant departures. And I’ll bet the Clinton campaign — trying to sell their candidate as the seasoned veteran with years of foreign policy experience — would also be unhappy with the impression this leaves that she made the politically naive mistake of taking military options off the table.
— Sameer Lalwani


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