Into the Fray: Barack, Bibi and the bomb

Is a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv the only evidence that the Obama administration will accept as proof of Iranian intentions?

Netanyahu and Obama 390 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Netanyahu and Obama 390
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The truth is that America and Islam are not exclusive. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings– Barack Obama, Cairo, 2009
Until now, I have refrained from writing on the Iranian issue for various reasons – but mainly because, without being privy to updated intelligence or to Israel’s true operational capabilities, it is almost impossible to provide informed assessments of the real policy options available to the Israeli leadership.
I felt I had nothing of substance to add to the speculative analysis that has flooded the public domain.
However, in the wake of the AIPAC conference and the rapidly diminishing sand in the hourglass in run-up to the US presidential election, the political (as opposed to the operational) context is becoming increasing crucial for Israel. On that I do have something to say.
The Cairo caveat
After the first three years of his presidency, political exigencies, domestic and foreign, have forced Barack Obama to try to reinvent himself with regard to his attitude toward Israel.
The initial hallmark of his administration’s foreign policy was his outreach to the Muslim world and blatant – some might say brutal – belligerence toward Israel. It is important to remember this in assessing just how much store Israel – and pro-Israeli Americans – should place on the president’s charm offensive at the recent AIPAC conference.
For while it is true that much water has flown in the Potomac (and the Nile) since Obama’s initial outreach address to the Muslim world in Cairo (June 2009) shortly after he took office, the significance of the sentiments conveyed in that speech should not be underestimated.
Because it was delivered when he was still unencumbered by domestic constraints and foreign frustrations, it reflected most accurately the political instincts he brought to the Oval Office.
Although Obama did chide the Muslim world for the lack of political freedom, gender equality and religious tolerance, the overall tenor of the address was one of glowing accolades for Islamic achievement and imaginative apologetics for its failures – based on questionable, at times fanciful, interpretations of history – as the introductory excerpt above illustrates.
‘I have known Islam on three continents...’
Obama’s attempt to establish any sort of equivalence between American and Islamic approaches to “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings” should be a matter of deep concern to Americans and Israelis.
It is difficult to conceive of anything more antithetical than societies based the precepts enshrined in the US Constitution and those based on Islamic Shari’a.
And with the recent demise of secular Kemalist Turkey, one would be hard pressed to find any Muslim-majority country that displays anything remotely reminiscent of an “overlap” with America’s value system.
By contrast, many that epitomize the negation of those values spring readily to mind – Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan... and of course, Iran – to name but a few.
One is left to wonder what the new US president had in mind when he drew such a breathtakingly inaccurate and inappropriate parallel – for Obama cannot plead ignorance when it comes to the nature of Islam or Muslim society.
He has vaunted his familiarity with them: “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed,” he said.
Few – if any – of his predecessors had his first-hand experience with Islam, and whatever one might believe of his current religious affiliation, it is undeniable that it constituted a major factor in his formative years.
This is matter of consequence for it impinges on one of Obama’s key AIPAC pronouncements, namely: “I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Reassuring or alarming?
Whether this declaration is a cause for reassurance or alarm depends entirely on how one believes Obama interprets “US interests.”
As IDC professor and Jerusalem Post contributor Barry Rubin recently diagnosed, this statement of intent is “the key line,” and he cautioned that “there’s a catch: Obama is the one determining what US interests are and what defending them means.”
In this regard, there is definite cause for concern, for the Obama administration has done much to earn Israeli distrust and suspicion.
A highly plausible case can be made that the manner in which Obama perceives US national interests comprises a radical departure from the manner in which previous administrations – for all their differences – have perceived it – with the possible exception of the Carter administration.
For if the president really believes that there is a large “overlap of shared principles” between Islam and America, would he view the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood quasi-caliphate across North Africa and the Middle East as inimical to US interests? And if so, why?
Likewise, despite his AIPAC-compliant commitment, would Obama really see a nuclear Iran as an unacceptable violation of US interests? And if so, at what stage? Or would he – especially in a post-election context – prefer the counsel of those such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt who “do not believe a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel.”
Amicable or inimical?
To be fair, Obama’s record has not been one of unadulterated anti-Israel enmity. Thus, although admitting that “mistakes” were made in Obama’s Israel policy, which at times was “wrongheaded,” Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman has pointed out that the administration has acted frequently and forcefully to preserve Israeli interests on a number of critical issues.
Such measures have included enhancing military aid for Israel, exercising a US veto to block a one-sided Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, and strongly supporting Israel at the UN to block the Palestinian unilateral bid for statehood.
These and other decisions beneficial to Israel undertaken by the Obama administration are far from trivial. They should not be denied or disregarded.
The more circumspect – or cynical – might suggest that this pro-Israel largesse (and the assurances conveyed at the AIPAC conference) should not be ascribed to any favorable change in sentiment toward Israel. Rather, it should be seen as a result of growing concern over the consequences of a Jewish voter backlash, fueled by what many considered a grossly biased approach toward Israel.
For example, it is in no way implausible to attribute – at least partially – Obama’s robust rebuttal of the Palestinians’ UN statehood bid to the shock defeat of the Democrats by a Republican – for the first time in almost a century – in the 2010 elections in New York’s 9th Congressional District. With its large Jewish population, the administration’s treatment of Israel had been a central issue in the elections, and the results were widely interpreted was a wake-up call on this matter.
Likewise, as numerous pundits have pointed out, the generous military aid is merely the continuation of levels agreed upon by the previous administration – and which in some cases has been reduced.
Thus, despite being able to point to significant pro-Israel components in its overall policy, much doubt still remains as to how the Obama regime would behave “once the chips were down” – or even if it would concede that they were in fact “down.”
The trust deficit?
This is matter of crucial import. For in Jerusalem and in Washington, the Iranian drum beats to a different rhythm. As Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin recently pointed out, the “windows of opportunity” available to the two allies have very different time frames. If Israel defers to the US request for restraint, it may lose its ability to inflict significant damage on Tehran’s nuclear installations.
Israel would thus be entirely dependent on a US decision to neutralize an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Obamaphiles have done little to enhance confidence that the president would act in a timely and resolute manner in this regard.
If not for the potential for disaster, some recent assessments by advocates of Obama’s policy of restraint would be almost comical. In an article titled “Mr. Obama must take a stand against Israel over Iran,” our trusty Mearsheimer and Walt inform us that “US intelligence is... confident Tehran has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons.”
Really? One might be excused for wondering whether the Obama administration would accept anything short of a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv as proof of Iranian intentions. In the face of such dramatic demonstrations of partisan denial, who can blame Binyamin Netanyahu for his evident exasperation in Washington when he declared with bitter sarcasm: “Amazingly, some people refuse to acknowledge that Iran’s goal is to develop nuclear weapons. You see, Iran claims that it’s enriching uranium to develop medical isotopes. Yeah, that’s right, a country that builds underground nuclear facilities, that develops intercontinental ballistic missiles, that manufactures thousands of centrifuges, and that absorbs crippling sanctions, is doing all that in order to advance medical science. So... when that Iranian ICBM is flying through the air to a location near you, you’ve got nothing to worry about – it’s only carrying medical isotopes.
When one sees France adopting positions that are more robust and more skeptical than America regarding Iranian intentions, something must be seriously out of kilter.
Gauging responses
How then are we to gauge the probability of American resolve under an Obama-led administration to protect Israel in a timely and effective manner – in post-election conditions?
Perhaps a good way to do so would be to separate administration actions/decisions that could be ascribed to the dictates of political survival/reelection calculations from those that were clearly the result of its unhindered volition.
Under the first category, we could clearly include nearly all the pro-Israel measures undertaken in the past year or so, including the thwarting of Palestinian endeavors at the UN.
Under the latter category, we could perhaps include the behavior patterns that characterized the beginning of the president’s term, and which were undertaken before any reelection considerations kicked in. It is highly plausible that these reflect most accurately his true political sentiments and inclinations – and hence may well be expected to reassert themselves in second term, when the constraints of elections are no longer relevant.
In this regard: Obama did not have to bow to the king of Saudi Arabia and to belittle the prime minister of Israel. He chose to do so.
He did not have to humiliate Netanyahu at the White House in early 2010. He chose to.
He did not have demand an unprecedented building freeze in Judea and Samaria – he chose to do so. He did not have to orchestrate a contrived crisis over a routine bureaucratic approval relating to construction of a Jerusalem suburb not included in the building-freeze agreement. He chose to do so.
The accumulated effect of these and other actions prompted the usually impeccably reserved Michael Oren, Israel ambassador to Washington, to characterize bilateral relations thusly: “Israel’s ties with the US are in the most serious crisis since 1975.... The crisis [is] very serious and we are facing a very difficult period in relations.”
So while political constraints might have induced Obama to undertake some important pro-Israel measures, he has also freely adopted an array of anti- Israel postures unprecedented in any administration in recent decades.
The real question
But it is not only the brusqueness that Obama has manifested toward Israel that is a cause for concern. It is also the lack of vigor he has manifested toward the Iranian regime.
Obama has had three years to implement the kind of “crippling” sanctions he is now asking Israel to give a chance – but has insisted on dragging his heels in instituting them. The question is why? One hardly knows which is more disturbing.
Is it because – despite all his knowledge of the Muslim world – he misjudged the nature of the regime in Tehran? Or is it because he did not? Does he really believe – despite the fact that years of severe sanctions did not bring Saddam Hussein to his knees – that similar sanctions against Iran can work before Israel’s window of opportunity closes? Or is he confident that they will not? These are the troubling issues facing American Jewry in the upcoming elections. It is not a question of Democrats vs Republicans as some such as Tom Friedman have tried to portray it.
It is solely a question of Barack Obama and how he is likely to behave as a second- term president. The prospect of a White House incumbent with an inherent affinity for Israel’s adversaries and unshackled by considerations of reelection is one that must be considered with the utmost seriousness.
US Jewry must decide whether such a prospect is an acceptable risk.