A number of commentators have drawn a parallel between Israel’s national elections on Tuesday and the formation of a national unity government just prior to Israel’s preemptive attack on Egypt in June 1967. Despite stern warnings to the contrary from the Johnson administration and being at mortal risk, Israel won the Six-Day War. The decision to strike was preceded by weeks of anguished debate. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to form the equivalent of a national unity government after the elections, with the moral authority to strike Iran.
A great gulf is fixed, though, between the Cold War environment of 1967, when the U.S. feared an escalation of a Middle East conflict into a global confrontation with the Soviet Union, and the world of 2013, where America’s competitors have a marginal role in the Middle East. The Johnson administration feared that Israel might upset its Cold War calculus and give advantage to Russia. To some extent those fears were realized (Egypt’s turn toward Russia culminated in the 1973 attack on Israel), but the advantage that America drew from its alliance with the region’s strongest power more than outweighed other considerations. What does the Obama administration have to lose from an Israeli strike on Iran today? Nothing, it would appear, except its own illusions. It is much easier for Israel to disregard American warnings today than it was in 1967. Lyndon Johnson was genuinely sympathetic to Israel but concerned about spillover into the Cold War. Obama has nothing to lose but his illusions.
As Shai Feldman writes in the current National Interest:
Assuming the January 22 Israeli elections will be followed by some three to six weeks of negotiations on the formation of the country’s next governing coalition, Israel’s new government will be sworn in sometime between mid-February and mid-March 2013. By that time, the decision making environment surrounding Iran’s nuclear efforts is likely to be affected by two vectors: One is the expected further evolution of Iran’s nuclear program. The other is the likely efforts of the United States to reach a negotiated resolution of the nuclear conflict with Iran.
If the pace of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are projected into the next six to nine months, by late spring or early summer 2013 Iran will likely possess enough uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent to allow the construction of some 2–3 bombs within 2–3 months of a decision to do so being taken. At that point, Israeli leaders will become uncertain about the extent to which the difference between a nuclear-capable and nuclear-armed Iran will remain relevant. Even the more cautious, balanced, and level-headed among the Israeli defense and intelligence chiefs will then become very nervous, as so much would then rest on the ability to detect the decision of Iran’s supreme leader to order the production of nuclear weapons.
But a prospective Israeli strike against Iran will run into a buzz-saw of opposition from the Obama administration, Feldman adds, which will undertake:
…a heroic U.S.-led effort to negotiate a grand bargain with Iran to prevent it from “going nuclear.” This effort will be motivated by the Obama administration’s assessments that following the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is war-weary; that even a limited military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations might escalate, requiring another major U.S. military commitment in the Middle East; and that given the state of the U.S. economy and that of the national economies of America’s principal trading partners, a military attack aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons may prove too costly. Given their positions on this issue, the recently announced nominations of senator John Kerry and former senator Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. secretaries of state and defense, respectively, point to this likely effort.
Feldman’s summary is accurate, but dispiriting: the stakes for the United States are trivial today compared to the risks in 1967 at the height of the Cold War.
The bad news is that everything the Obama administration has undertaken in the region has failed; the good news is that it doesn’t matter much because there is no global adversary to turn American policy failures into strategic setbacks:
1) Western efforts to form an alternative government to the atrocious regime of Basher al-Assad continue to flounder. The Syrian opposition can’t even elect a government in exile, despite extensive American prodding, much less control an insurgency dominated by radical jihadis. Syria’s minorities, including Christians, Druze, and Kurds, still cling to the Assad regime for fear the Sunni jihadists would be even worse. As the New York Times put it delicately this morning:
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the main exile opposition group, gathered on Saturday to try to mold a transitional government. While the organization has won broad recognition among its foreign backers as Syria’s sole legitimate representative, it has not yet solidified support among rebels fighting on the ground or begun planning for a post-Assad future. The Western and Arab nations that pressured Mr. Assad’s adversaries into a reorganization last year had urged the coalition to select a prime minister, but no candidate has won a consensus.”
2) The Libyan war has left America with a dead ambassador and a myriad of jihadists fanning out through the Sahel with the pick of Col. Qaddafi’s arsenal. Instead of a repulsive but cautious regime in Libya, America and its allies have a metastasized strain of violent jihadism attacking the Sahel and potentially West Africa.
3) Washington’s decision to back the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo is becoming a major embarrassment. Cairo should be voted “least likely to succeed” in the yearbook of world governments. President Mohamed Morsi is exposed not only as a Jew-hater (which surprised no-one) but as a creature of the Dark Ages, spouting paranoid lunacy about the Jews; like the old joke about the definition of an anti-Semite, he hates the Jews more than is absolutely necessary to stay in Arab politics. Egypt’s economic situation, meanwhile, continues to sink. According to Reuters, Egypt bought only half the oil it requires for the first quarter because it didn’t have enough cash–and that’s after more than 10% of its power plants were idled in December for lack of fuel. The devaluation of its currency (by 10% in the past month) will raise the price of necessities for an already desperate population. The IMF is offering Egypt $4.8 billion on condition that it cut the government deficit in half by next summer, which means drastic cuts in subsidies. Given that about half of Egyptians live on less then $2 a day and survive on subsidies, that’s a tough one.
With Syria and Egypt in chaos, the notion that the Palestinians will become a partner for peace at any time in the foreseeable future is whimsical. I have not met a single Israeli in a responsible position in the government or private sector who bought into the grand delusion of an “Arab Spring.” On the contrary, the whole of Israeli opinion has watched with frustration as Americans of both parties pursued the bubble of Arab democracy.
On the other hand:
1) America’s closest Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, would be delighted if Israel were to bomb Iran, as we know from the Wikileaks cables and other sources.
2) Turkey would huff and puff about Zionist aggression, to be sure, but Ankara would be relieved if it did not have to worry about a nuclear neighbor.
3) Russia would be pleased, although it wouldn’t say so in public. The chess players in the Kremlin don’t like a nuclear fianchetto on their southern flank.
4) Germany would denounce a unilateral Israel action, but there would be no change in German-Israeli relations.
Minus nuclear weapons, Iran’s ability to inflict damage on the United States is quite limited (it might inflict considerable damage on Israel directly or through its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, however). Iran cannot close the Straits of Hormuz, at least not for very long. Its retaliatory capacity will be limited to a few acts of terrorism. If Israel can indeed neutralize Iran’s nuclear capacity for a significant period of time, it will be doing America and its allies an enormous favor.
An Israeli strike on Iran would inflict maximum damage on the utopian illusions of the Obama administration. What qualifies Chuck Hagel for the top Pentagon job in a second Obama administration, I believe, is that he shares Obama’s impassioned commitment to global nuclear disarmament. He is a prominent actor in the Global Zero campaign for world nuclear disarmament and a board member of Ploughshares, a pro-disarmament organization. In 2010 the Obama administration endorsed an Egyptian plan for a nuclear-free Middle East (that is, for Israeli unilateral disarmament). I expect Obama to return to this agenda in 2013.
While the Obama White House fiddles with utopian fantasies, the Middle East burns. Israel has a clearer shot at Iran than at any time in the past ten years. With the Assad regime holding on by its fingernails, the likelihood of retaliation from Syria is nil. Hezbollah’s capacity and willingness to attack Israel with its substantial missile capacity is also limited by Assad’s distress. The risk of war with Syria was always a limiting factor in Israel’s capacity to reduce Hezbollah. With Assad weakened, Hezbollah is on its own. As for Egypt: I doubt if its army has enough gasoline to move a division of tanks to the Israeli border.
After the remarkable success of Iron Dome, moreover, Israel has emerged as a pocket superpower in military technology, offering systems that are a lot better and a lot cheaper than anything the United States has to sell in a number of critical fields (rocket defense and drones, among others). Israel cannot produce the entire range of its defense requirements, but there is plenty of competition to the F-35 in the offing, for example. America’s neglect of its technological edge in defense sharply reduces its ability to dictate terms to its allies.
If Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear program successfully enough to set it back two to or three years (the gauge of success that the Israelis have employed in the past), the Obama administration will be outraged. “If only those @#(@)*(** hadn’t gotten involved, we could have fixed all the problems of the world!,” the White House will sulk. But there won’t be much that the Obama administration could to do after the fact to punish Israel.
The decision to attack Iran is Israel’s to make, not Washington’s. Israel will do what it deems in its best interests, and there is nothing the Obama administration can do at this point to change that.