Washington Watch: Red lines and green lights

What happens on Capitol Hill in the coming days can have a significant impact on whether Iran builds a nuclear weapon.

Bodies from Syria chemical weapons attack 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)
Bodies from Syria chemical weapons attack 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)
Politics makes strange bedfellows, and none stranger than the trio in the latest Syrian crisis that brings together Iranian ayatollahs, congressional Republicans and Barack Obama. Watching with great interest from the sidelines are Bashar Assad and Binyamin Netanyahu.
Assad’s survival is in the balance. Strong evidence indicates he has used poison gas more than once to kill and wound thousands of his own citizens. Obama, who was caught bluffing on previous threats to take strong action against the brutal Syrian regime, says this time he is serious about making Assad pay, but shied away from immediate action to seek approval from a Congress, which his foes have gridlocked. That hesitation could prove costly for him, but not for Assad or the ayatollahs, who understandably interpret it as American weakness and lack of resolve.
Iranian leaders have their own dilemma. They can decide to protect their Syrian client who has become a dead man walking or trade their own pariah status for international acceptance by brokering a political settlement in Syria. That would be only half the price for their new respectability; they would also have to enter into serious negotiations with the West over the future of their nuclear program.
But why bother if the United States is weak, indecisive and unable to present meaningful incentives (i.e. threats)? That’s where congressional Republicans come in. They have, with the help of some Democrats (most will eventually fold when it comes time to vote), pressed the president to get congressional approval to attack Syria and are inclined to vote no in order to guarantee him an embarrassing defeat.
But even in the process of handing Obama a loss in the policy debate, they could deliver him a partisan political victory.
For many Republicans Obama is the real enemy, and his failure is a higher priority than stopping chemical weapons, punishing Assad or even protecting Israel.
Obama faces a plethora of bad choices. He says his goal is not regime change but to discourage Assad from a repeat performance and to encourage a political solution, but neither he nor anyone else is quite sure how to do that.
He already appears to many as weak and indecisive for having sought congressional permission, but those who block action risk being considered Assad’s enablers, particularly if the Syrian dictator takes congressional disapproval as license to strike again.
The risk for Republicans in refusing permission to attack Syria is that in their overriding desire to destroy Obama they will be shifting the blame for future Syrian chemical attacks and Iranian nuclear development from the White House to the GOP.
But don’t hold your breath; hatred of Obama and the endless jockeying for partisan gain could trump the moral imperative to stop Assad’s chemical atrocities and send a clear signal to others that such wanton killing won’t be tolerated.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu is very wisely keeping quiet and telling his government to do the same. The actions of both Obama and Congress are raising questions across Israel about what this means for Obama’s promise to have Israel’s back in the ongoing confrontation with Iran.
Many believe the main reason Netanyahu agreed to go to the peace table with the Palestinians was not as much to make a deal with them as to protect his relationship with Washington and keep Obama on board in the effort to halt Iran’s nuclear quest.
Republicans made a major effort in last year’s presidential campaign, often with Netanyahu’s encouragement, to convince Israel and American Jewry that they are more reliable and faithful friends of Israel than Obama, especially when it came to blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If they turn around and block an attack on Syria, Iran’s major client, they’ll be telling Netanyahu, you’re on your own.
The administration has decided to play the Israel card, stressing the potential fallout for Israel if Assad gets a get-out of- jail card. Protecting Israel is a central theme of the administration’s bid for congressional backing, according to Politico.
So far the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has tried to stay out of the debate – except for its fund-raisers, who are busily exploiting the crisis – but it may have to get involved.
That poses a dilemma: The Jewish community wants to avoid a repeat of the inaccurate and spiteful accusations of the Mearsheimer-and-Walt crowd who accused Israel of pushing the US to war against Iraq.
But much more is at stake here than punishing Assad. It goes to the heart of AIPAC’s lobbying agenda for more than 20 years – blocking Iranian nukes. If the Iranians take away from this debate that either Obama doesn’t have the resolve or support to carry through on threats to block the bomb or that Republicans will block him from acting, green lights will be flashing at every reactor and centrifuge in the Islamic Republic.
Would Obama, stinging from a defeat by congress, shy away from acting against Iran when it reached the nuke threshold or would he decide the matter is too important to leave to Congress to decide, especially a hostile GOP, and thus strike out on his own? I doubt even he could answer that question right now.
Israelis appear less worried that Assad would retaliate against them in the event of an American attack – after all, Assad blustered but didn’t act when Israel destroyed his nuclear reactor and at least two missile shipments destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon – than they are about how the American action or inaction will be interpreted in Iran.
Before leaving on an extended vacation, the House passed 400-20 a new set of tougher sanctions on Iran; the Senate is expected to take the bill up in September. Congress has consistently pressed several reluctant administrations to tighten the pressure on Tehran. Obama wants to hold off on new sanctions to test whether Hassan Rohani, the new president, is bringing new policies and new approaches to nuclear negotiations.
But that could become moot if Congress cuts off the president’s legs in their ongoing partisan effort to hand him a defeat at any cost.
The Iranians as well as North Koreans and other states with nuclear ambitions will be watching the debate and vote in Congress closely to judge American determination to avert the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
What happens on Capitol Hill in the coming days can have a significant impact on whether Iran builds a nuclear weapon.
[email protected] www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_bloomfield