Postscript: Pieces on the board

The flood of leaks from the Pentagon, US National Security Council and White House on the Iranian nuclear issue part of campaign by some to keep Israel from attacking.

Chess 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Chess 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
At the AIPAC conference in Washington earlier this month, US President Barack Obama said that it was time to become more tight-lipped on the Iranian nuclear issue and the military options surrounding it.
Since then, we have been witness to a flood of leaks from the Pentagon, the US National Security Council and the White House, to The New York Times, among others, on just this issue. The results of so-called war games, which see masses of Americans dead if Israel strikes Iran’s nuclear facilities, and other dire scenarios, all of which are negative, have been made available to the media in one form or another, as never before.
People who follow these matters, and understand how governments and media work (or rather how governments work the media) can see a clearly labeled campaign by some in the American administration to create negative American and international public sentiment against an Israeli attack – this either with or without the knowledge of the president.
The focus of the American military today is the Pacific, not the Middle East. It needs to face off China while undertaking an honorable and orderly retreat from Afghanistan, and to mend its fences with the Pakistanis who, after all, do have the bomb. They do not now want to get diverted into a potential war with the Iranians, or to see the oil-sensitive Gulf shipping routes literally go up in flames, especially now with the ever tightening sanctions on Iran making oil supplies more precarious as it is.
So, it is entirely possible that while the US president says, and even means, one thing, there are powerful links in the chain of command who see otherwise and, in their own way, actually believe they are carrying out the president’s true will when they whisper dark secrets into the ears of willing reporters. I know. I’ve been there.
Without being cynical, the strategists who run the world’s only superpower see Israel as another piece on the chess board, not necessarily a pawn, but no more than a rook or a knight, an important piece, but one that can be sacrificed in the grand scheme of things.
When they look at the Iran nuclear issue, they see a tightening sanctions regime in place, greater Iranian openness to inspectors, an intensive diplomatic effort by a broad spectrum of allies being applied to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and an acceptable period of time before the issue really becomes critical.
They see perilous oil prices, thinly deployed troops and Chinese expansion in an age of diminishing American defense budgets. They see a status quo that is acceptable, and one that would be upset by an Israeli attack on Iran’s facilities.
They also sense that the internal situation in Iran, as the impact of the embargo becomes more real, is causing real political rifts in the Iranian regime for the first time, and that the elements of regime change so many have waited for so long, finally seem to be falling into place.
An Israeli attack, they feel, would unhinge all this, and cause the Iranian people to fall in step with their government again. It would reignite international Iranian terrorism on a massive scale, resulting in yet another diversion of American resources from primary strategic goals to tangential ones – something no responsible policy planner can afford to do lightly, and hence the leaks.
The more the American president finds himself in situations where he has to make commitments to Israel that go beyond what his security professionals deem prudent, the more Israel’s leadership speaks about our need to defend ourselves and wave pictures of the Holocaust around, the more intense the leaks will become. A pawn will be moved here, and a castle there; this secret will be revealed and that assessment anonymously made to an important reporter from an important newspaper.
There are those optimists who claim what we are seeing is actually a sophisticated “good-cop-bad-cop” routine by Israel and America working in consort, with America pushing diplomacy forward while Israel carries a threatening stick of military action over everyone’s head.
Initially there may have been some truth to this. Now the folks at the Pentagon, in the broadest sense of the word, do not want unilateral action by Israel. They want to pull the plug on anyone who may have interpreted some of the president’s remarks made at AIPAC as a green light to Israel to move forward on its own, and have done so with each revelation made to the press in the weeks since then.
Now, they want Israel to put its stick away and talk softly, a suggestion that has much merit to it.
For at the end of the day, while we play chess with each other, the other side is sharpening its sword.
The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. His latest book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, is the recipient of the National Jewish Book Award in the history category for 2011.