by Barry Rubin
“A statesman has not to make history. But if ever in the events around him he hears the sweep of the mantle of God he must jump up and catch at its hem.”
– Otto von Bismarck.
President Barack Obama hasn’t changed but the situation has, in part due to his actions. Obama will do everything possible to escape confrontation with Iran but events, reinforced by his own statements and of course by Iranian behavior, will one day, if he is still in office, force him in that direction. Obama is not a capable enough statesman to grab the hem of the mantle of God, but he has managed–to coin a phrase–to entangle himself helplessly into it.
As usual, Shakespeare said it best, in “Hamlet”:
“For ’tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard, and it shall go hard”
The word “petard” in Hamlet did not refer to clothing but to a landmine that blew up the sapper who laid it. In other words, a tool intended for one purpose turned against its creator despite his efforts and intentions
I’ve already written a satirical article to make this point and now this piece makes the same argument in a serious style.
The debate over whether Obama is Israel’s “best friend” or just faking for electoral purposes misses the point. The personality or even the intentions of the man who lives in the White House are not necessarily the main factor shaping international events. Often, what he says and does determines outcomes in ways he never intended.
In his AIPAC speech, Obama set forward a clear strategic approach: either Iran will stop developing nuclear weapon or an Israeli attack is justified. Whatever his intentions, that gives a green light to Israel for such an operation. The only question is the timing and it certainly won’t be this year.
Much of the discussion over the speeches by Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC meeting has revolved around false issues:
- The claim that Iran is led by wackos who will attack Israel the
moment they do have a single nuclear weapon and therefore Israel must
attack right now or face genocide. This view has nothing to do with
reality or the Iranian regime’s politics or actual history over the last
- The pro-Obama camp’s claim that Obama heroically reined in Netanyahu
and prevented an Israeli attack on Iran right now. That’s a fantasy.
Among other factors, Israeli leaders always knew they didn’t have U.S.
or international support for an attack and preparations were by no
Within Israel it is well known that Netanyahu is a great talker who makes Israel’s case most effectively but is also a man who has never been a high risk-taker or advocate of military adventures.
The actual content of Israeli government statements has been: We are not eager for a war but we might have to attack some day unless you get tougher on Iran. That is precisely what has happened. Israel won its point, getting the world to be tougher on Iran and to move a big step toward accepting the necessity of an Israeli attack in future.
[Note: I’m against such an attack but am writing here as an analyst, not an advocate.]
- The claim from the anti-Obama camp that the Obama formula of
preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons is in significant
contradiction to Netanyahu’s phrasing of stopping Iran from having the
capability of building nuclear weapons.
One way or another, over time this distinction will disappear. The
U.S. government wants to postpone military action as long as possible.
Yet stalling can only continue so long if Iran’s program continues. And
what if, for the sake of argument, Iran were to stop trying to build a
bomb, knowing they could start again some time in the future? Would that
be so terrible? After all, they can’t attack Israel if they don’t have a
nuclear weapon. And if they ever did start again the same principle of
justifying an attack would apply. And this time Tehran would be given
no second chance.
Here is an “amusing” take on the situation by a left-wing writer who knows nothing about international relations, Israel, the Middle East, or history for that matter:
President Obama just gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu a serious whupping. In the process, he greatly reduced the
risk of a catastrophic war, made his saber-rattling Republican opponents
look like idiots, and seriously weakened the powerful Israel lobby. And
he did it all while pledging undying support for Israel.
The implication here is that Obama promised to combat Iran but won’t actually ever have to do anything about it. This smug triumphalism assumes that Israel was going to attack Iran within a few weeks—an idea no knowledgeable person in Israel takes seriously—but Obama stopped it through the “brilliant” strategy of lying his head off. Obama supposedly made his Republican opponents who advocated war look like idiots by promising that he would go to war in the future.
In this kind of thinking, the future never arrives and words will always remain just words. Presumably, when Iran gets nuclear weapons Obama would just giggle, say he didn’t mean it, do nothing, and stop Israel from doing anything to defend itself. All the actual threats and crises that would emerge matter not at all and Israel will just stand by passively while this happens.
Indeed, the big argument of such Obama supporters is profoundly disgusting: that a promise to help save an ally from annihilation—and not just to Israel but to all of its remaining allies in the region—is a pledge that the chief executive should have no intention of keeping.
Hah, hah, hah! Wow, did he fool those idiots who thought the word of an American president could be trusted! Israel is supposed to depend on Obama’s promises that he will stop Iran when his own supporters openly make fun of those pledge as false! I Unfortunately, of course, such treachery would not fool any of America’s enemies.
That cynicism is matched by those on the other side who think Obama is some kind of political super-being who can get away with this, that he can say anything now and then do nothing later. Well, domestic politics aren’t everything. The outside world actually does exist and has a way of crashing in on the foolish and unsuspecting. Precisely because Obama has emboldened Iran by raising so many doubts about his determination and strength it will probably force him into confrontation.
And yet nothing should be more obvious than the fact that Netanyahu and Israel were in no way surprised by what happened in Washington. The only way this would have been a defeat is if Netanyahu expected Obama to okay an attack now and, of course, that’s nonsense.
Moreover, a president making commitments he hoped not to have to implement is how foreign wars have always come to America. America told Britain to stop kidnapping American sailors hoping London would comply and there would be no war. Instead it got the War of 1812. It warned Germany to stop torpedo attacks on U.S. shipping and thought that threat worked. Wilson was reelected on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” and then the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. This led to U.S. involvement in World War One. The United States put sanctions on Japan because of its aggression in China and that brought America’s involvement in World War Two. Another president put sanctions on Iraq demanding it withdraw from Kuwait and that led to war in 1991 and Iraq’s ignoring the sanctions that emerged from that war led to another war in 2003.
In each case, the British, Germans, Japanese, and Iraqis thought they could ignore U.S. warnings and did what they pleased. And that boldness in the face of low American credibility was a major factor ensuring that war would happen. At that point, the incumbent president was forced to respond based on prior commitments that he had made. Let me underline that point: Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and George Bush didn’t want to go to war yet they and others had made commitments, threatening adversaries with consequences if they didn’t heed threats and sanctions, that produced wars.
Such situations are also common in the history of Britain, France, and other nations. World War One? An Austrian ultimatum to Serbia that was rejected. Who led Great Britain into World War Two? A prime minister named Neville Chamberlain, fulfilling his commitment to protect Poland despite his earlier weakness and appeasement. The commitments he had made triggered the necessity of doing so.
Do you note a pattern here?
True, Obama has left Iran an escape route. Yet is it one that Tehran’s leaders will use? According to the Obama loophole, Iran could have everything needed to build bombs but not actually do so. There is no reason to believe that Iran’s rulers prefer that option which deprives Tehran of the prize for which they’ve worked so hard and sacrificed for so much.
Remember, too, that Iran believes Obama to be weak and bluffing. As has so often happened a bumbling chief executive makes America’s enemies more aggressive. And that very aggression brings military confrontation. Let’s get away from the overused Nazi Germany analogies and point out how the weakness of pre-Civil War presidents emboldened the South to secede; Jimmy Carter’s behavior encouraged Iran to escalate by seizing and holding hostages in 1979 because Tehran thought it could get away with doing so.
So why should Tehran make a compromise or stop its nuclear program? The regime will keep its foot on the accelerator, thinking Obama will veer aside because he so fears a collision.
True, sanctions are hurting Iran but this regime is hardly delicate and gives every appearance of using negotiations only as a means to stall for time. Anybody who thinks the Iranian regime will crack under sanctions is living in wishful-thinking world. No matter how many chances Obama gives Iran it’s still going to go full-speed ahead toward obtaining nuclear weapons and then matching them up to long-range missiles.
And that means there will come a time when Iran gets close to final success, whether it is 2013, 2014, or 2015. At that point, Israel’s prime minister, which will probably be Netanyahu, will inform the White House that Israel is going to attack. And he will then quote extensively from Obama’s AIPAC speech:
- “A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security
interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of
the United States.”
- Such a weapon could, in Obama’s words, “fall into the hands of a
terrorist organization….trigger an arms race….embolden Iran’s proxies….”
- In Obama’s words, “No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear
weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to
wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to
Israel’s destruction.” Note the wording. Obama is recognizing that there
is an Israeli consensus on this issue and it is not just the product of
a “right-wing” government.
- In Obama’s words, “I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Who will be living in that White House on that day? Of course, we
don’t know. If it is the Republican candidate, Israel will get a green
light. But what if it is Obama?
In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Obama gave the answer even though he didn’t understand what he was implying:
“…Every single commitment I have made to the state of
Israel and its security, I have kept….Why is it that despite me never
failing to support Israel on every single problem that they’ve had over
the last three years, that there are still questions about that?”
The answer: you were forced to do so by circumstances beyond your will. Congress; American public opinion; the behavior of Arab regimes (refusing to cooperate on peacemaking), and Iran (refusing to cooperate on anything). They rejected your concessions; they refused to use you as their instrument.
In the meantime, your policy has been disastrous for Israeli security by encouraging what would inevitably be revolutionary Islamist takeovers in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya; your refusal to support moderate opposition forces in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey; your cozying up to Turkey despite that regime’s open hatred for Israel; your long delays on dealing with Iran; and lots more.
But if you have appeared to support Israel’s security—aside from just continuing existing military aid—it has been in spite of your best efforts to damage it.
For example, you withdrew the Bush Administration commitment on letting Israel keep settlement blocs after a deal with the Palestinians but was forced by circumstances to reverse yourself when the Palestinians gave you nothing. You agreed to an Israeli freeze on construction that didn’t include Jerusalem, broke that commitment, but then had to drop it because the Palestinians gave you nothing. You tried to press Israel into major concessions toward the Palestinians and then gave up once again because the Palestinians gave you nothing.
In other words, external factors ultimately determined your behavior by giving you no alternative:
First, the Arab states, Iran, and the Palestinians refused to go along with your plans. If Syria had made a few small gestures, if Iran had sought an advantageous deal on their nuclear program, or if the Palestinian Authority had eagerly demands a peace treaty with Israel you would have done everything possible to give them lavish concessions and to press Israel into risky arrangements. As Egypt becomes increasingly anti-American and extremist you will have to change your policy toward that country, too.
Yet each time, without exception, Israel’s enemies let you down. Iran will continue to do so.
Second, Israel’s government has maneuvered brilliantly though never elegantly or on the basis of a detailed blueprint. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and President Shimon Peres remained calm, avoided confrontation with the White House, and employed precisely the right mix of soothing words while doing what needed to be done. At the end of this three-year-long process, Israel had given up nothing material–not a single actual concession–while facing the least friendly American president in a half-century.
And you can add the continued support for Israel by Congress and the American people, which Obama has had to take into account.
It is close to inevitable that the time will come when Iran is close to getting nuclear weapons. The assessments of Israel and U.S. intelligence as to the precise day will be within a few months of each other.
That situation will trigger an Israeli attack. And Obama, however reluctantly, will have painted himself into a corner. How competently he would manage the ensuing crisis is, of course, another matter. But perhaps his dilemma and mismanagement might match that of another famous, albeit fictional, leader:
“The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward;
with igniting velocity the [harpoon’s rope] ran through the groove; ran
foul. [Captain] Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the
flying turn [of rope] caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as
Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere
the crew knew he was gone.”
–Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
It was only in the film version, though, that Ahab appeared once more
for a moment before the eyes of the horrified crew, lashed helplessly
to Moby Dick’s great flank as the white whale dove forever into the
depths of the sea.