The Ends and the Means

Journalists and detectives typically look for three elements in a story: motive, opportunity and means. For the narrative to work, each factor must be proportionate to the other. Nobody likes a story where the perp brings a pocket knife to rob Fort Knox or uses a stick of dynamite to crack a nut. Things have to fit. The curious thing about the recent incidents between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama is that they don't fit. The means are monstrously disproportionate to any conceivable end.

Since mid-March the administration has sent a series of forceful -- some will say insulting -- signals to Israel which would be gratuitous unless there were some X factor offstage driving them. On March 14, the White House told Israel that the approval of 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem was an insult and an affront despite the fact the homes were not in a disputed area . On March 26, the Times Online reported that President Obama humiliated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at White House meeting, walking out on him to eat dinner with a message to call him in case they thought of something new. Then it was reported that the Obama administration denied visas to Israeli nuclear scientists shortly after approving one for Tariq Ramadan, who had previously been banned for association with a radical group. Now Reuters says that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not attending President Obama's nuclear disarmament summit fearing it will be used to force Israel into signing the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.

Netanyahu's attendance would have been the first by an Israeli premier at an international nuclear forum. Aides said he originally agreed to go after being reassured by the United States that the NSS communique would focus on efforts to secure fissile material with no allusions to Israel's undeclared arms.

The NSS had also offered Netanyahu an opportunity to drum up support for sanctions against arch-foe Iran, which the West suspects of seeking nuclear weapons despite denials from Tehran. Neither Iran nor North Korea will attend the NSS.

The depths to which trust have fallen was exemplified by a Times Online report that Netanayhu was reportedly afraid to use the phones at the White House fearing they might be tapped. But they fell lower still. Reuters said that "the prime minister has decided to cancel his trip to Washington to attend the nuclear conference next week, after learning that some countries including Egypt and Turkey plan to say Israel must sign the NPT," the official said. In other words Netanyahu was afraid that Obama would double-cross him -- and practically said so.

What is President Obama hoping to gain by treating the Prime Minister of an allied country like a minion and a dupe?  He must be after big game.  No one wrecks an alliance long nurtured by successive Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses unless the jackpot is worth it. Big risks are normally run for big stakes. So what's up? A diplomatic Sam Spade might come up with some possible theories, but none of them make much sense.

Suppose that in addition to his Nobel Prize and "historical" role in mandating a public health care system, President Obama now wants to be remembered as the "man who abolished nuclear weapons". In order to do that he might risk forswearing nuclear retaliation against even those countries which attack America with biological or chemical weapons, as long as they abide by the NPT. This move was scathingly denounced by Charles Krauthammer who wrote:

Imagine the scenario: Hundreds of thousands are lying dead in the streets of Boston after a massive anthrax or nerve gas attack. The president immediately calls in the lawyers to determine whether the attacking state is in compliance with the NPT. If it turns out that the attacker is up-to-date with its latest IAEA inspections, well, it gets immunity from nuclear retaliation. (Our response is then restricted to bullets, bombs and other conventional munitions.)

But never mind. Obama is a lawyer and may think in this exact way.  But to make it stick, President Obama would have wanted Israel to go along and drink the Kool-Aid just to prove it tasted good. So the President runs this rigamarole to get Israel on to the NPT! Plus it would give Israel legal immunity from American nuclear retaliation should it decide to unleash anthrax on New York City. Who wouldn't want that deal?

But the problem with this theory is that Obama's actions have so far had the contrary effect. Reuters claims Netanyahu would have been the first Israeli PM to attend such a nuclear conference. Now he's not going. So the idea the pressures on Israel are somehow related to a nuclear disarmament agenda fall to the argument that you don't convince allies to to things by treating them like enemies.

Now let's try this: Obama is pressuring Israel because he wants to bring peace to the Middle East.  He'll succeed where no President has before. But this is so far-fetched as to be ludicrous. The instabilities of the Middle East are driven by the fact of Israel's own existence and the authoritarian character of Middle Easter regimes. That's why no President has ever succeeded in squaring the circle. So no conceivable concession by Netanyahu, assuming he could sell it to the Knesset, could possibly justify what we are seeing.

Let's come to the last possibility. The pressure on Israel is somehow connected with Iran. But in what way?  Maybe President Obama has a Grand Bargain with Teheran which would come within reach if only he could force Israel to agree to something.  But if so we would have heard of it by now. The history of Obama's outreach to Iran has been one of rejection -- by Iran. But there's another angle.  Maybe the pressures are an indirect way of keeping Israel from jumping in and taking over where Obama has failed. Perhaps Obama is sending a very simple signal to Israel. "Don't even think of attacking Iran, because unlike past administrations, I am not going to back your play.  And to prove it, I, Barack Obama am going to publicly drag you through the mud so that there will be no doubt whatsoever that whatever you do, you're on your own. And maybe we'll come in agi'n you."

Zbigniew Brzezinski in an interview with Gerald Posner at the Daily Beast sent a similar message.  He implied that any Israeli airstrike on Iran should be met by American resistance. His verbatim quote is:

Posner: How aggressive can Obama be in insisting to the Israelis that a military strike might be in America’s worst interest?

SB: We are not exactly impotent little babies. They have to fly over our airspace in Iraq. Are we just going to sit there and watch?

Posner: What if they fly over anyway?

SB: Well, we have to be serious about denying them that right. That means a denial where you aren’t just saying it. If they fly over, you go up and confront them. They have the choice of turning back or not. No one wishes for this but it could be a Liberty in reverse.

But interviews by retired officials from the Carter administration may lack force. So perhaps what we're seeing is the President himself flashing a big red light  at Israel. Zip-zap-zip-zap. There is some logical appeal to the idea the Obama administration is backpedaling furiously on past support for Israel because it fears -- desperately fears -- that having failed to contain Iran, Israel may now act in desperation to stop Teheran where the President could not. But if so, then the President is playing a dangerous game because his actions may increase Israeli desperation and induce, rather than restrain a response.

Whatever the underlying reason for President Obama's actions might be it is probably fair to say that he's upped the ante across a whole range of issues, both domestic and international: increasing the deficit to fund health care "reform"; embarking on a major disarmament initiative with Russia; picking a fight with President Karzai at the very moment when a key US support base in Kyrgystan for Afghanistan may or may not have a future; and now taking on Israel in the Middle East. What could go wrong?

A lot could go wrong. Whether one agrees with the President's initiatives or not, he is betting the farm across not just one, but several gaming tables. Newt Gingrich recently called him "the most radical President ever".  Former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin says Obama's new nuclear policies are reminiscent of a kid who says "go ahead, punch me in the face and I'm not going to retaliate", doing something dangerous in the extreme. Maybe the President is betting that he's on a roll, especially after his health care "win", which the media assures him is historic. Maybe he'll go down in history as the man who did it all: "reformed" health care, abolished nuclear weapons and kept war from breaking out in the Middle East. But what odds would you really give him? And who pays if he loses?

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