Washington Watch: Banging the war drums

Netanyahu will be in Washington next month to speak to the AIPAC policy conference. Obama will tell the Israeli leader that sanctions are showing results and should be given more time to work.

US President Barack Obama 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
US President Barack Obama 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Larry Downing)
The Obama administration has taken some unusual steps to discourage an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities in the coming months. After diplomatic, intelligence and military leaders failed to get the message across in private, they went public.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, through columnist David Ignatius, said his biggest worry is the strong likelihood of an Israeli attack before summer.
Panetta and President Barack Obama have cautioned that Israeli military action would “derail an increasingly successful economic sanctions program,” Ignatius wrote. In his view the administration was “signaling” Jerusalem that if it decides to go ahead, “Israel is acting on its own.”
On Super Bowl Sunday the president took a different tone but delivered a similar call for restraint. “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do,” he told NBC’s Matt Lauer. “I will say that we have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we’ve ever had. We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this – hopefully diplomatically.”
Obama may have been talking to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when he said, “Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us. It could have a big effect on oil prices, we’ve still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran, and so our preferred solution here is diplomatic.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Israel last month and reportedly told his counterparts that the United States would not participate in an Israeli-initiated war against Iran without prior agreement and advance notice. In other words, don’t start a war and then expect us to follow you in. He returned convinced the Israelis wouldn’t agree but were confident their American supporters would force Obama to fall in line since this is an election year, reported Gareth Porter of the Inter Press Service.
For the most part, the discussion of a possible Israeli strike has focused on the strategic aspects, particularly the time when Iran is expected to reach what Defense Minister Ehud Barak has called the “immunity zone” – securing key nuclear assets deep underground and beyond Israeli or American reach. But the political element may be equally determinative, as Gen. Dempsey indicated.
Netanyahu, who has a penchant for dabbling in American politics, will be in Washington next month to speak to the AIPAC policy conference. Look for him to whip up the activists long schooled in lobbying for a get-tougher Iran policy.
They’ll take the message to Capitol Hill with enthusiasm.
If past performance is any indicator, Obama will tell the Israeli leader that sanctions are showing results and, along with diplomacy, should be given more time to work. Netanyahu will respond that the Iranians are not serious about diplomacy and use it only to stall while they go full speed ahead on their nuclear program. Obama will repeat assurances of “ironclad” US support, and Netanyahu will dodge the president’s plea for patience and his request for advance notice.
It is no secret that senior American officials across the board distrust Netanyahu, believing he does not level with them, does not keep his commitments and is manipulative. Israeli analysts suggest Netanyahu could decide to hit Iran during this election year, believing Obama would be reluctant to try block him for fear of offending Jewish supporters. The window of political opportunity is wide open, in Netanyahu’s view.
Republicans are trying to make support for Israel a wedge issue and are accusing Obama of being hostile to the Jewish state. They say his willingness to negotiate with the Iranians is a sign of weakness. The president has been in make-nice-to-Israel mode, effectively shelving any effort to revive peace negotiations, which pleases Netanyahu. The president’s assumption is that peace process progress is impossible so why ruffle any feathers among Israel’s friends. Netanyahu has argued there can be no progress in peace talks until the Iran problem is resolved.
If Netanyahu does decide to strike Iran this year, with or without US administration backing, Republicans could be expected to turn that into a campaign issue against the Democrats.
Obama can expect to be accused of forcing Israel to attack by failing to stop the Iranian nuclear program, and blamed for any Iranian retaliation. War in the Gulf, even a brief one, will certainly cause a major disruption in oil supplies and a spike in fuel prices, and if Iran carries through on its threats to close the Straits of Hormuz, it could damage an already fragile global economy.
America is vulnerable to Iranian retaliation because it has extensive assets in the region, including ships, bases, tens of thousands of troops and civilians and many American businesses. Retaliation against them would trigger a major American military response, sparking a wider war this country cannot afford.
The American public does not want another war in the Middle East, and President Obama will be blamed if one erupts, whether triggered by an Israeli attack or Iranian retaliation.
Republicans may criticize the president for cautioning against another conflict, but Jewish voters, who traditionally support Democrats 3:1, are not likely to shift to the GOP because it bangs the war drums loudly and wants to follow Netanyahu into battle with Iran.
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