The Lose-Lose Scenario
I can't really take issue with how President Obama is handling the extremely delicate politics of the Iran-Israel standoff. He's walking a delicate line between keeping a real deterrent option on the table--one he's made credible, like it or not, by his track record of using force in that part of the world for operations large and small--and signaling to all parties that he'd really prefer not to start another war in that part of the world. He's handling the domestic politics responsibly as well, acting as a relative brake on the rush to war... in stark contrast to the Bush administration in Iraq, not quite ten years ago.
That said, I'm sadly in agreement with Sullivan that the Israeli government, a coalition of fairly run-of-the-mill hawks and religious absolutists who eerily if unsurprisingly mirror their enemies in Teheran, might push for war in part to hurt Obama in the presidential election. It's hard to believe any leadership group could be that reckless and cynical, but the paranoia of Netanyahu and the Likudniks plus the messianic impulses of the fundamentalists combine to make this all too plausible.
I'm not sure whether there's a material difference whether the attack is carried out by Israel or the U.S. (Israel surely would prefer the latter), assuming it's not a joint strike. This is an important question, because if Israel acts unilaterally and the U.S. doesn't back its action--the "Suez scenario"--everything I'm about to say might not hold up. But I find the idea that the U.S. wouldn't support Israel pretty far-fetched, particularly after Obama's statements at AIPAC today.
An attack on Iran might or might not have the desired effect of slowing down their nuclear program, assuming (as I do, for what it's worth; I see no reason to trust the Iranians) that there really is one. I am, however, pretty sure it will result in three things:
1) an indefinite reprieve for the despicable regime of the mullahs, as the Iranians rally 'round their flag;
2) the undoing of whatever goodwill Obama has managed to create in the Muslim world these last three years; and
3) sustained gas prices at levels easily high enough to wipe out our economic recovery, costing millions of jobs here at home.
Since an air strike alone wouldn't suffice to remove the threat and Iran surely would take retaliatory action directly or through surrogates, we also could reasonably expect, sooner or later--sooner, if the Republicans win or Obama concludes that inaction would guarantee same--a new ground war in Iran that, in addition to horrific human costs, would undo whatever budgetary savings are now projected from winding down the war in Iraq. Further, as Iran is more competent at this sort of thing than our last foes, an attack almost surely would prompt significant terror strikes inside the United States. This in turn would lead to new "security measures" that will erode our civil liberties, degrade our public spaces, and reduce our quality of life.
The effects of the Iraq War were generally quarantined to those fighting, their families, and the communities in which they concentrated, at least in real time. (The budgetary and geopolitical consequences are still unfolding, and affect all of us.) Given the likelihood of new acts of terrorism and the near certainty of a renewed economic downturn, we'd have no such luck this time. As people ask the question of how we could be so stupid as to start two wars in the Middle East in less than ten years, I strongly suspect the answers would prompt a surge in anti-Semitic sentiment to levels we haven't seen in a century, as "the Jews" are scapegoated for all the human and economic misery. Read some of the comments in the Times piece linked above if you doubt that possibility.
All told, it doesn't seem remotely worth it even if the mission succeeded in materially disrupting and delaying Iran's nukes program. No rational actor would make the decision to go forward. But the mix of bad history, bad religion and bad politics means that we're in a mode of multiple irrationalities.