Does President Obama even know what he wants? Having what appeared to be an endorsement of the Cordoba Project mosque being built on Ground Zero, the New York Times ran the headline: “Obama Strongly Backs Islam Center Near 9/11 Site.” Suddenly late Saturday, the president ran for cover and told both Politico and the New York Times “that he wasn’t endorsing the specific project but making a general plea for religious tolerance toward all.” As the once paper of record reported on Saturday, “ he was ‘not commenting on the wisdom’ of that project, but rather trying to uphold the broader principle that government should treat ‘everyone equal, regardless’ of religion.”
The White House press office quickly explained, “Just to be clear, the president is not backing off in any way from the comments he made last night” — except, just to be clear, he is backing off from them. Can we be any more confused? In seeking his outreach to the Muslim world, the president now seems to be emulating the Arab leaders whose respect he courts — the same leaders who regularly say one thing to their own constituency and something else when talking to the West. But in this case, the president was addressing Americans on both nights — and hence made obviously contradictory statements, only one of which can be true.
Is it then any wonder that when it comes to what the Israelis think of Obama, they are totally confused and perplexed when they try to figure out what he really thinks of their nation and of America’s “special relationship” with it? In this regard, one must turn to the very important and penetrating lead article in the latest issue of The Atlantic by their star reporter on the Middle East, Jeffrey Goldberg.
I cannot think of a more essential article than the one Goldberg has just published. He has talked and spoken to every important player on both sides of the world, including a one-on-one with Benjamin Netanyahu a short time before he was sworn in as prime minister. Goldberg leaves Israel with the thought that if sanctions against Iran do not work by next spring — and few believe that they will — then Israel will have no option left but to bomb Iran. Of course, it would be better if the United States, and not Israel, did the job. But would Obama do it if all signs point to its necessity? The key paragraph in Goldberg’s article comes at the beginning of his long essay:
“But none of these things—least of all the notion that Barack Obama, for whom initiating new wars in the Middle East is not a foreign-policy goal, will soon order the American military into action against Iran—seems, at this moment, terribly likely. What is more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran—possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq’s airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft. (It’s so crowded, in fact, that the United States Central Command, whose area of responsibility is the greater Middle East, has already asked the Pentagon what to do should Israeli aircraft invade its airspace. According to multiple sources, the answer came back: do not shoot them down.)”
So we evidently will not stop Israeli aircraft from doing the job, but we will leave it to them. The reason they will do so, Goldberg writes, is rather simple: “[T]he Israelis will tell their American counterparts that they are taking this drastic step because a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people. The Israelis will also state that they believe they have a reasonable chance of delaying the Iranian nuclear program for at least three to five years. They will tell their American colleagues that Israel was left with no choice. They will not be asking for permission, because it will be too late to ask for permission.”
And as you undoubtedly knew before Goldberg told us, the Israelis — people from the left to the right — do not trust Obama. Goldberg writes: “But the Israelis are doubtful that a man who positioned himself as the antithesis of George W. Bush, author of invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq, would launch a preemptive attack on a Muslim nation. ‘We all watched his speech in Cairo,’ a senior Israeli official told me, referring to the June 2009 speech in which Obama attempted to reset relations with Muslims by stressing American cooperativeness and respect for Islam. ‘We don’t believe that he is the sort of person who would launch a daring strike on Iran. We are afraid he would see a policy of containing a nuclear Iran rather than attacking it.’”
After Saturday’s turnaround on the Ground Zero mosque, their skepticism is if anything more than well-founded. Goldberg ends his article with some ruminations from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who tells the journalist: “We don’t want to win over the president. …We want the president to win.” But as Peres certainly fears, with great justification, Barack Obama is not likely to do what has to be done to win over Iran; hence Goldberg’s prediction that if Iran does not change course, Israel will act alone.
Goldberg himself does not agree with the Israelis. He previously wrote how he endorsed the mosque being built on Ground Zero — showing a complete lack of familiarity with the real issues that have led many to oppose it — but he also writes that on the issue of Iran, he prefers to stick with Obama’s current plan. As he explains it on his blog:
“I think the idea of a preemptive attack on Iran is a bad idea; I think it is important to allow President Obama’s plan — and yes, he has a plan, and he’s sticking to the plan — to play out. Increasingly harsh sanctions, combined with an open invitation to dialogue (plus the credible threat, lurking in the background, of eventual military action) could conceivably work to bring the Iranian junta around on the nuclear question.”
The problem is Goldberg’s complete naiveté, and his surrendering of his mind to wishful thinking. As he reluctantly acknowledges: “The problem comes if the Obama plan doesn’t work.” Really? What makes him even think this is a possibility? You mean Obama’s dreams might not come true? And I thought Goldberg considers himself something of a realist. Well, he is undoubtedly correct that all future options are bad. As he puts it: “I suspect that the price of inaction might be greater than the price of action, but the opposite could just as easily and plausibly be true. People who think there is an easy answer here are kidding themselves.”
And my problem is that if we just sit around avoiding any decision because they are all bad, before we know it, Iran will have the bomb. Unfortunately, Israelis do not have that option available to them. They know it is their country that will be destroyed if the mullahs get the bomb, and the rest of the world will sit and watch. And they are not going to let that happen, whatever the cost.
Obama’s indecision about the proposed mosque at Ground Zero is simply emblematic of his continuing indecision and procrastination. It does not offer hope for what faces us shortly.