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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How committed is President Obama to stopping Iran?

Jeffrey Goldberg and Yossi Klein HaLevi talk about President Obama's (lack of) commitment to stop Iran.
Here is an interesting (to me, at least) exchange (originally published in The New York Jewish Week)  I had with my friend and sparring partner Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, on the subject of President Obama's Iran policy. Yossi is one of those Israelis who is, to my mind, irrationally fearful of Obama, and Yossi wanted to test my sangfroid.
I don't believe that there's any such thing as an Israeli who is 'irrationally fearful of Obama.' Obama has given us more than enough evidence with which to work.
Dear Jeff,

Like many Israelis, I don't trust President Obama's resolve on Iran. When he says that all options are on the table, I remain deeply skeptical about this President's willingness to order a military strike if all other options fail.

More than any journalist I know, you've been at once clear-eyed on the Islamist threat and also a strong advocate of trusting Obama on Iran. So, as someone who takes the Iranian nuclear threat as seriously as we do here, tell me what we Israelis are missing about Obama.

Dear Yossi,

I think Obama takes the threat very seriously. I think he takes it just as seriously as Netanyahu takes it. More, maybe. It seems to me sometimes that Netanyahu, if he truly believed his rhetoric, would have acted already against the Iranian bomb threat. I know there are people in Washington who think he's not actually serious about striking Iran, should all else fail. And these are people who six months ago thought he would do it.
I don't believe the question is whether Netanyahu believes his rhetoric. I think that Netanyahu, like everyone else, acknowledges the reality that an American strike on Iran is far more likely to take out the Iranian nuclear program than an Israeli strike. And so he hedges his bets - constantly threatening an Israeli strike in a bid to force an American one. At some point, Netanyahu may decide that he has no choice but to strike. That's one of the reasons we are going to elections now - he wants a coalition that he can trust to stand behind him. He doesn't have one right now, at least with respect to Iran. 
What you and other Israeli skeptics don't get about Obama is this: He is deadly serious about stopping nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. It is a core belief of his. He has enunciated on many occasions compelling reasons why he believes it to be unacceptable for Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. He also knows that the reputation of his presidency is riding on this question. If Iran goes nuclear against his wishes, he looks like Jimmy Carter. He doesn't want to go down in history looking like Jimmy Carter.
Obama has a core belief in nuclear disarmament. He has an equally strong belief in resolving disputes by negotiations. Which belief is stronger? I think he's willing to risk an attack on Israel because he believes that the horrible reality of a 21st century nuclear attack may spur the rest of the world to disarm.  And that he is willing to take that risk by continuing to 'negotiate' even when there is no real partner on the other side.
The flipside of this, of course, is that I believe Mitt Romney would be less likely to act, especially in 2013, which may be the year of decision. He'd be a new president, one with an inexperienced national security team. And he won't want to begin his presidency by plunging the U.S. into another Middle Eastern war.
Maybe. But I believe that Romney is more likely to give Israel a green light, and is much more likely to back Israel up if it does act. And he's less likely to try to extract a diplomatic price (on the 'Palestinian' front) for doing so.
It is so much harder for a Republican to confront Iran than it would be for a Democrat, for so many reasons. Obama's drone war is a good example; he gets away with things George W. Bush couldn't even imagine doing. Such is the nature of politics in America.
You mean that the Democrats in Congress will oppose Romney striking Iran and they won't oppose Obama doing so. Maybe. But if this election goes poorly enough for the Democrats, tht will matter a lot less.
Dear Jeff,

You make an important point about the advantage of a Democratic president over a Republican president in waging war. A similar dynamic has been at work in Israel. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fought two wars - against Hezbollah in 2006 and then against Hamas in 2009 - and yet is still widely considered a dove, while Netanyahu, who has never led a military campaign in either of his two terms in office, is widely regarded as belligerent. Only the Likud, the old adage goes, can make peace, because it can deliver the moderate right for an agreement. By the same measure, perhaps only the Israeli left (or a national unity government) can effectively wage war and for the same reason: It can bring consensus.
This is true - for now - and it's a sad comment on the state of our country. But it may not be true for much longer. I believe Netanyahu will go to war if he feels that he needs to. On the other hand, I believe that Netanyahu  is a greater deterrent to our enemies than anyone on the Left (because 'that nutcase' might actually go to war).

There's also another difference between the US and Israel that's relevant here: the US doesn't vote by party.
But the question regarding Obama and Iran, of course, is whether this Democratic president is capable - temperamentally, ideologically - of ordering a military strike against Iran. At issue isn't whether Obama wants to stop Iran but whether he has the determination to match his rhetoric.

Do you believe that the current level of sanctions, however economically painful, are enough to deter Iran? Do you believe the Iranians will agree to a negotiated solution? From reading you carefully over the last few years, I don't think you do. And so, Jeff: If Obama won't bring the sanctions to the point where they can truly stop Iran, then how can we trust him to use military force?
I would add to this that the sanctions - for which Obama is now going all out to take credit - were actually adopted against his will.
What seems to me inarguable is that he has failed to effectively set limits to the Brotherhood, failed to challenge its growing domestic repression. Instead, he wants to increase foreign aid to Egypt. If this were not an election year, he would have likely met with Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, during the latter's recent visit to the UN. The result of that policy of accomodationism is that it is Morsi who is setting conditions on America for the relationship between Washington and Cairo (as he recently did in a New York Times interview).
Finally Obama showed misjudgment in repeatedly condemning the ludicrous YouTube anti-Muslim film. By taking out ads on Pakistani TV to condemn the film, the administration encouraged the perception that extremists had a legitimate grievance.

There's a pattern here of weakness against enemies, of appeasing extremists, of missing opportunities
All this is hardly surprising to you: You've written as much in recent weeks. "Obama's record in the Middle East," you wrote, "suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty." True, you also wrote the following: "On the most important and urgent issue, the Iranian nuclear program, Obama is an activist president." But can you really fault Israelis for wondering whether, at the moment of truth, Obama will avoid the ultimate missed opportunity?
It's not only Israelis who don't trust Obama on Iran. Arab leaders, as you well know, are skeptical too. Worst of all, the Iranian regime doesn't believe him. That's why it responds to Obama's sanctions and threats by accelerating its nuclear program.
There's a long list of similar 'misjudgments' that aren't listed, but the bottom line is that Klein HaLevi is right, and is reflecting what is pretty much an across-the-board consensus of Israeli Jews. Dismissing us as paranoid won't cut it. If Obama and Goldberg can't sell someone as far Left as Klein HaLevy, they're not going to sell most of the country on the notion that we should stand down and let Obama act. And they haven't been able to sell us on it until now.
If so, there's a deeper question here for Israelis: Can we trust anyone, even the most well-intentioned friend, with an issue of existential importance to us? As someone who knows us as well as any American Jew, this Israeli anxiety will come as no surprise to you.

For many of us the frame of reference is May 1967. At that time, Lyndon Johnson, as good a friend as Israel ever had in the White House, refused to honor President Eisenhower's commitment in 1957 to challenge an Egyptian blockade of Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran. Johnson, preoccupied with Vietnam, had good reason for wanting to avoid American involvement in another war. But the fact remains that, at the crucial moment, America violated its commitment to Israel.

Aside perhaps from May 1967, I can't think of a more excruciating time for Israel than now. Obama has repeatedly assured us that he understands our angst, that he supports our right to defend ourselves. And still we stubborn Israelis persist in our skepticism.
Perhaps October 1973 when Richard Nixon had to overcome Henry Kissinger's initial opposition to resupplying us?
[Goldberg] If Romney wins, and if Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power in Israel, I can almost guarantee you that you will see a melting away of whatever Democratic support there is for tough action against Iran, and a melting away of whatever liberal support there still remains for a strong America-Israel relationship. American support is a pillar of Israeli national security policy. Israel cannot thrive - and maybe it can't survive - in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran. But it will also have difficulty surviving without American support, and I'm telling you, medium- to long-term, Israel could be in trouble in the U.S.
And all those foolish American Jews are still going to blindly vote Democratic.... There's a lesson here.
To answer some of your other questions, do I believe sanctions will work to bring Iran to a compromise? No, probably not. Do I believe that sanctions could work to destabilize, and possible bring an end to, the regime? Possibly yes. I'm not sure why you believe Obama is weak on sanctions; he's certainly stronger than his Republican predecessor was. And I think Netanyahu's people are being sincere when they say that there is at least the small possibility that sanctions will work.
That's not fair. Iran is four years closer to a nuclear weapon than it was in 2008. The situation is far more urgent now. And many of the tactics that have delayed Iran (like the cyberwar) actually started under Bush.
But maybe you're right - maybe this is going to be Johnson redux. But you have to consider something else: By extracting himself from Iraq, by drawing down in Afghanistan, by staying out of the Syrian civil war, maybe what Obama is doing is preparing for the day when he has to go to the American people and say that he is taking military action against Iran. He's clearing the decks, in other words. From the Israeli standpoint, maybe you should be glad that he's taking a pause in the Middle East intervention business. This way, when the Iran issue reaches a boiling point, he won't be in Johnson's position - overextended, and unpopular, and therefore not willing to, among other things, come to Israel's aid.
But Johnson wasn't a pacificst at hear. Obama is.
[Klein HaLevi] But from where I'm sitting, it seems to me unthinkable that Obama, for all his commitment to non-proliferation, will order the bombing of Iran. This is after all the man who thought he was atoning for the abuse of American power by abandoning anti-regime demonstrators in Tehran in 2009.

As for Obama and sanctions: Yes, he's imposed far stronger measures than his predecessor, but that is, unfortunately, a meaningless comparison. Four years ago, Obama's sanctions would have been significant. Now, the only question that matters is whether those sanctions are enough to stop Tehran. I don't believe they are.

I fear that Obama still believes he's dealing with essentially rational people in the Iranian regime. And now there are reports of secret negotiations between Tehran and Washington. In the end my deepest fear is that Obama will be outmaneuvered by the Iranians, that his longing for a diplomatic solution will be played by the Iranian regime to reach the point of breakout.
But Jeff: If Obama is reelected, all I can do is pray for that moment when you will say to me, I told you so.

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At 1:40 PM, Blogger Empress Trudy said...

This is nonsense. Obama is a campaigner not a President. He has neither the temper nor the will nor the interest to bother with the details of worrying about what Iran may or may not do. He cares only about elections and bathing in the glow of idol worship. Obama barely has any involvement or interest in the US or even the electoral dynamics of his own party's Congressional battles today. He isn't going to waste any time worrying about the atomic death of 7 million Israelis. His media flacks like Axelrod tell him a) the democratic party more or less dislikes Jews, especially Israel, b) his base is pro Iranian c) whatever happens it will be after the election in which case he no longer has to concern himself with it.

An Obama second term will be concerned with one and only one thing - Obama's view to his own place in history. What's next for Obama is either leading the UN to a final Islamic victory or something equally 'global'. Perhaps a constitutional kingship of a small wealthy Islamic nation somewhere. And make no mistake, he isn't Muslim he's just ready to exploit the fact that most of his acolytes want him to be.


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