President Barack Obama just received a double slap in the face. Russia’s paramount leader, Vladimir Putin, in a display of steely contempt, has said “nyet” to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s entreaties to sanction the Iranians for developing nuclear materials for weapons use. Furthermore, Reuters reports that the Russians will not preclude the use of nukes preemptively — nearby or far away.
However the White House or Foggy Bottom spins it, Putin’s boorish refusal to play ball must be a jolt to our Nobel Laureate president, who, but a few short weeks ago, came to Putin lugging a hefty olive branch.
To Putin and, incidentally, to his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, the president gave the gift of the pulled plug — on elements of a land-based missile defense in Eastern Europe. Nothing expected in return — well, not entirely. There are always strings. But Mr. Obama expected nothing tangible in return. Not the relinquishing of one megaton of destruction. Not even a squirrelly pledge from Putin to keep his hands off the Ukraine or Georgia. Not even a bowl of Borscht.
What the president expected, one guesses, was consideration and cooperation. Giving the heave-ho to the Poles and Czechs was supposed to thaw Putin’s icy veins.
When Mrs. Clinton came a-knocking on behalf of Mr. Obama in a spirit of one-worldliness, Putin was supposed to demonstrate a readiness to put the kibosh on the mullahs’ nuclear ambitions.
Instead, Putin flatly refused. Talks with the Iranians, he argued, were underway. Sanctions would be premature. Let’s not act so precipitously, he counseled.
By refusing to join hands with Mr. Obama, Putin gave a big gift to the mullahs: the gift of time. More time to develop nuclear materials, leading to nuclear weapons capability. It’s the Putin Grand Stall; a gift that he may just keep giving to the Iranians if he can pull it off. By a degree of separation, though, it was really Mr. Obama’s gift to the Iranians. The president’s unilateral capitulation on missile defense telegraphed to Putin that he’s a Grade-A patsy. All Putin did was re-wrap Mr. Obama’s offering.
So, what President Obama is getting in return isn’t cooperation from the Russians, but a lesson in the often merciless law of unintended consequences. His ill-considered gesture toward the Russians makes a nuclear-armed Iran more likely, not less.
And following the logic, the more imminent Iranian nuclear weapons capability is, the more likely Israel is to strike Iran preemptively — and unilaterally if necessary.
For the Israelis, the Holocaust isn’t ancient history or an abstraction. It happened to their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents, and they know darn well it can happen again. Moreover, it’s about the moral imperative of survival and the moral obligation to prevent genocide.
But military action by the Israelis to take out Iranian nuclear development facilities will have consequences of their own. The Iranians will unleash a vicious retaliation — and not just against Israel, but against the United States and any other nation perceived to be culpable for the attack. For the mullahs, it will be time to even scores and indulge their hate.
A general conflagration, encompassing the Middle East, Persian Gulf, and Iran proper, isn’t out of the question. After all, World War I started with a mere spark, when the Serbian Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated.
But what are the Israelis to do? They haven’t the luxury of nursing fantasies or wishful thinking. They’re not going to sacrifice themselves in the service of some unattainable, half-baked ideal. Nor will elegies and lamentations penned in the New York Times bring the dead back to life.
And preemption? Clearly the Russians don’t share liberals’ squeamishness about striking an enemy before that enemy strikes them. And the Russians are likely to do so with a lot less verification than an American president or an Israeli prime minister would require.
By not taking preemption off the table, the Russians are signaling enemies and dubious friends and allies alike not to mess with them. With a Muslim problem on their southern flank, the Russians are saber-rattling with real purpose. And that’s the most potent sort of saber-rattling: when the possibility of drawing the sword isn’t considered a bluff. The Russians have a long history of killing en masse. Chechens and Iranian mullahs have surely gotten the message. For the Iranians, the carrot comes with a stick.
It’s also aimed at shaking the cages of their erstwhile vassals in Eastern Europe. Getting uppity with the Russians might not be a smart move.
And when the Russians say that preemption doesn’t nix nuclear arms reductions agreements with the United States, it begs the question: How many nuclear weapons does preemption require? Hiroshima and Nagasaki were taken out with one atom bomb each.
When the out-to-lunch chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, was asked why Mr. Obama won the peace prize, he cited Mr. Obama’s desire to heal the rift between the West and Islam and “scaling down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe.”
Mr. Jagland and his fellows evidently have much to learn about the law of unintended consequences. Regrettably, so does President Obama.