Republican Mitt Romney called for economic sanctions against Iran “at least as severe” as those imposed on South Africa during its apartheid era, in an effort to isolate the Central Asian nation and convince it to give up its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Addressing a security conference in Israel, the former Massachusetts governor and potential 2008 presidential contender also urged states to divest in Iran, to seek the indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on genocide charges, while also making it clear that pursuing nuclear weapons “can also be a source of peril” for Iran. (AP)

So, Gov. Romney went to Israel and gave a wild, Santorumesque speech about Iran.  Leave aside the sabre-rattling, the crazy talk about divestment, which will never happen in the countries where there are investors in Iranian firms, and the far-fetched talk of genocide charges against Ahmadinejad.  The sanctions proposal is probably the nuttiest of all in its way, because, even once they are established established, they are almost certain not to work.  First, extreme isolation through international sanctions rarely achieves the policy goal that supporters seek, and second it gives the targeted government an immense boost in popularity as the population inevitably rallies around its political leadership in the face of global hostility.  Sanctions and calls for sanctions are classic examples of how governments engage in what are effectively symbolic declarations of displeasure.  These declarations have real-world consequences, almost none of them good for anyone.  In case there was any doubt, Romney has aligned himself with a reckless, confrontational sort of foreign policy that, at first glance, sounds every bit as unhinged and dangerous as anything Mr. Bush has uttered. 

Nothing better aids obedience to the targeted regime and a whipping up of nationalist outrage than the use of heavy-handed tactics to compel a government to change one of its internal policies.  This is even more the case when a broad majority of Iranians believes, correctly, that Iran has the legally-recognised right to develop nuclear energy technology.  You would think experience with Iraq and Yugoslavia sanctions would have taught us that these tactics help shore up governments that are, in fact, much weaker than anyone imagines at the time.  By providing the regime with a foreign threat and the reality of a crisis, sanctions cause dissidents to become silent of their own accord and they cause dissidents to resent the idiotic foreigners who have just made their position impossible.   At the same time, sanctions will tend to inflict terrible costs on the civilian population, whose resulting suffering simply reinforces the view that they should support the policy of their government.  Nothing is more likely to ensure that Tehran proceeds with the development of a nuclear weapon than the use of a blunt instrument like sanctions.  International isolation helps to secure the grip of authoritarian and dictatorial governments.  It plays into the hands of the people whom Gov. Romney most wants to oppose.  This tells me that his foreign policy judgement is extremely poor and that his foreign policy views are informed mainly by the understanding that he needs to appear more belligerent and pro-Israel than the next guy to secure his position in the primaries. 

No doubt his biggest fans think that his irresponsible speech is great.  These are probably also the same people who think that Santorum showed “leadership” by comparing himself to Churchill and warning us about the danger from Venezuela, among other dire threats.  I would ask the Romneyites this: is it your position that such provocative statements about U.S. policy in the Near East should be made by former governors/presidential candidates?  Do you really think that is wise?