Obama's Dilemma: How will He Deal with Israel Over What the U.S. Will Do to Stop Iran Getting a Nuclear Bomb?
At present, foreign policy is not playing a part in the campaign. But with a looming crisis coming with Iran over the state of its nuclear capabilities, it will not be on the back burner for long. Soon, both President Obama and the Republican candidates for the nomination will have to make clear specifically how they would handle events. There is simply no escaping that formidable task.
In the important dispatch that is the cover of Newsweek International this week (but not the American edition of the magazine, whose editors evidently think it is too serious and will not sell copies), reporters Daniel Klaidman, Eli Lake, and Dan Ephron discuss the various impediments that might interfere with Barack Obama dealing meaningfully with the mullahs' program to give Iran a nuclear weapon. The major problem remains differences on the issue with Israel, for whom an Iranian bomb is a real existential threat, not one that can easily be overlooked on the belief that if Iran gets the bomb, it will adhere to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, as did the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
As the Newsweek team reports, as recently as January 12 Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to inform him that the U.S. wants the time and space for sanctions to take effect, and most importantly, to convey that the U.S. “doesn’t want Israel to start a war -- not yet, anyway.” Obama, they write, has three goals he must constantly juggle: to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran, to prevent the oil-economy from collapsing, and to manage Israel, which they consider a “wild card.”
The problem is that the various goals interfere with each other. The Israelis have tried to discern what would happen if Israel does strike Iran. They do not know what the U.S. will do if Israel’s leaders decide they must launch a strike against Iran. Nor does Israel know just how much the Obama administration really is committed to preventing a nuclear Iran.
The heart of the issue is a difference over when each power thinks Iran will attain nuclear capability. The authors write that a Pentagon source informed them that some of Israel’s activities -- such as suspected assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists -- interfered with the opportunity for a diplomatic solution the Obama administration prefers. After last year’s AIPAC meeting, they reveal, previous close cooperation between Israeli and U.S. intelligence and military officials ended and discussion between them over “planning, analysis and training cycles for a possible attack on Iran” also came to an end.
Now, a year later, Israeli officials believe that the Obama administration has changed, enough so that they see a “positive evolution” by the president on the question of what to do about Iran. They think that Obama is now ready “to attack if worse comes to worst,” and that the U.S and Iran face a “growing risk of a big conflict.”
The administration, reportedly, is also worried that if the U.S. does nothing or does not stop Iran, American power will decline and the U.S. will not be taken seriously by other nations. That worry might reveal why the president has told his staff and the NSC to read Robert Kagan’s new book and the excerpt that appeared in The New Republic. The problem is the risks. The reporters write:
Obama’s calculus, however, has to take in other factors as well -- from the fate of Amir Mirza Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine sentenced to death in Iran last month for alleged spying, to the fate of every American and Iranian who would be involved in waging an overt war. Iran is a country of 80 million people, compared with about 30 million in Afghanistan or Iraq. Its territory of 1.65 million square kilometers, including deserts and rugged mountains, gives it impressive strategic depth. (Israel, by contrast, exists on 20,000 square kilometers.) Iran is a major oil producer and looms in perilous proximity to the most critical petroleum and gas supply lines in the world, from the Strait of Hormuz in the south to the Caspian Sea in the north. The United States would certainly aim to avoid a land war, but once bombs and missiles start flying, the endgame is hard to predict. What happens if Iran manages to sink an American warship? Or, more likely, what happens if an air assault only consolidates support for the regime while the nuclear program, only partly hidden today, becomes entirely secret? Is there a war of attrition? An all-out invasion? Yet another long, wasting war for America in the Middle East? Already many commentators are pointing out apocalyptic risks. Mike Lofgren, for decades a Republican staffer on the Hill, recently warned of a toxic mix of international tensions and American domestic politics analogous to Europe in 1914, when a relatively small and unexpected event triggered the first war to engulf the world.
Others are worried that economic sanctions might backfire, and the president might have to issue a waiver to protect the U.S. economy, which would “make the United States look like a paper tiger in the eyes of the mullahs.” The major difference now, they conclude, is that U.S. and Israeli officials differ over how much time is left for a negotiated solution. American policymakers, according to Israeli sources, think the world can wait until Iran is on the verge of weaponizing, while Israel does not have that option as a valid one for itself. Its leaders believe that it might have to act “before Iran could shelter much of its program deep underground.” And that means an Israeli strike before the United States believes military action should occur.
Israel, they report, has therefore asked President Obama for assurances that if sanctions fail, the U.S. will use force against Iran. That request was not met by a yes. “Obama’s refusal to provide that assurance,” they write, “has helped shape Israel’s posture: a refusal to promise restraint, or even to give the United States advance notice” should they decide to strike Iran.
Israel, created as a safe haven for the world’s Jewry in the shadow of the Holocaust, cannot avoid taking those measures that would prevent another one in our own day and age. They do not have the luxury of taking the Iranian leaders' continued pledges to destroy Israel as just mere rhetoric. And that goes against Obama’s policy, the writers conclude, that always stops “short of full-scale conflagration” in the hope that something else will succeed in stopping the mullahs.
As the election comes close, all of these questions relate to that of whether impending conflict with Iran will hurt or help Obama win re-election. What we now find is that the apologists for the mullahs are busy unleashing a new round of propaganda, arguing that the neocons are trying to push the U.S. into a new war with Iran, just as they did under George W. Bush with Iraq. Bush, they claim, lied us into war knowing that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Now they are doing the same thing, these propagandists argue, trying to mislead us about Iran’s peaceful intentions.
Hence, as Adam Kredo reports in the Washington Free Beacon, self-proclaimed progressive anti-nuclear organization the Ploughshares Fund has given funding to the Center for American Progress, J-Street, and the pro-Iran regime organization the National Iranian-American Council. Most significant is that it has given money to National Public Radio (NPR) that has led to stories and reports from its correspondents that reflect not just an anti-nuclear perspective, but which oppose any military option by the United States against Iran. In 2010 the fund gave NPR $150,000; they matched that amount again in 2011.
Kredo cites one report from NPR journalist Peter Kenyon, who said on Morning Edition on November 2010 that “many analysts believe there’s more time for diplomacy than had previously been thought. But to date, there’s been no evidence that the U.S. or its allies have come up with a diplomatic approach other than the pressure of sanctions, and the threat of military force.” As Kredo writes, despite its claim of neutrality Ploughshares' real aim is “discrediting the military option against Iran.” Indeed, the fund gave CAP $150,000 specifically for hiring two researchers “for an expanded initiative on Iran aimed at countering support for military action.” Not surprisingly, CAP’s Middle East Director Adam Duss prepared a report praising Obama for pursuing a diplomatic path with Iran.
Both Democrats and Republicans have similar concerns with some of their base. The Democrats must isolate their remaining McGovernites on the Left, who favor avoidance of any military option at all, see the sole issue as peace versus war, and tend to believe that all those who see a real threat existing are militarists. The problem is that this viewpoint is that of the majority at present in the Democratic Party, whose remaining old Cold War liberals are both few or ineffective, most of them having defected long ago to the Republican ranks.
The Republican Party has to fight any attempt to influence the party’s plank on foreign policy from the Ron Paul forces, who are united with the Left of the Democratic Party on foreign policy issues. Fortunately, these elements at present compose only a minority of Republican ranks, and are largely made up of Paul’s youthful followers and a handful of libertarians who remain old-school isolationists. Yet, because of Paul’s campaign, they may get a say in determining the party’s plank and may play a role at the Republican convention, with a Paul speech presented in prime time during TV coverage.
As Cathy Young points out in a recent article, Ron Paul supporters such as Sheldon Richman of the Future of Freedom Foundation “oppose … all American military presence abroad, advocate the withdrawal of our troops and the closure of our Army bases, as well as an end to all foreign aid and all ‘entangling alliances.’ He believes that the only acceptable reason for military action is a direct attack on the United States -- and equates economic sanctions against hostile regimes with ‘acts of war.’ Paul’s foreign affairs philosophy can be summed up as ‘we should mind our own business.’”
This position, of course, is the equivalent of George McGovern’s “Come Home, America” campaign in 1972, and one that gives our enemy -- then as now -- a great deal of happiness. Conservatives most of all should stress, as Young says, that America has been and remains a great force for good in the world, an enemy now of the new group of tyrannies -- this time of a radical Islamist bent rather than Marxist-Leninist, but very much a major enemy of our national interest. Like the Left, Richman has the precisely same position: that “all concerns about Iran’s nuclear program are a smokescreen for an effort to maintain U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the region.”
The view of libertarian “anti-imperialists,” who seem to believe that if we only stop our meddling and intervening the other side will love us, is as wrong as Gandhi’s belief that the Nazis should be met not with force, but with passive resistance. If the world had listened to his advice, we would all be living under the helm of the Third Reich.
With a decision on handling Iran one that the Obama administration will likely have to make before the November 2012 election, all defenders of our country’s heritage have to double their efforts to weaken and isolate both the Democratic Party’s left-wing anti-interventionists and the Republican Party’s isolationist libertarian wing.