Obama Triangulating His Way To War

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who has been consistently hawkish on Iran, scored a revealing interview with President Obama ahead of the Israeli prime minister’s visit and the concurrent AIPAC conference next week. In his remarks, Obama characterized himself as a staunch friend of Israel and was explicit that a military option would be chosen over containment should Iran decide to break out to full nuclear weapon status.

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff. I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say. Let me describe very specifically why this is important to us.

In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel, one of our strongest allies in the world; in addition to the outrageous language that has been directed toward Israel by the leaders of the Iranian government — if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation.

Goldberg’s interview points up the very first difference of opinion between Obama and Netanyahu, as well as between Obama and more hawkish members of his own administration: the difference between possessing a nuclear weapon and a nuclear capacity. It is set to become the difference that determines whether there is war with Iran or not. Hillary Clinton, often more aggressive in her rhetoric towards Iran than either Obama or the Pentagon, yesterday told the House Foreign Affairs Committee something far more in line with Bibi’s wishes:

”œIt’s absolutely clear that the president’s policy is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons capability,” she told the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, when asked whether the US would allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state, short of actually building nuclear weapons.

But Obama was very, very careful to only use the phrase “nuclear weapon” in his Goldberg interview. His argument to Bibi will be that, since the IAEA and US intelligence community agree that Iran hasn’t even decided to break out to a full weapon yet and couldn’t yet even if it wanted to, debating the meaning of “capacity” is premature – that there’s still plenty of time for sanctions to pressure Iran and to either bring Iran to the table or develop a military option. That won’t keep Netanyahu or the folks at AIPAC happy at all. As the Guardian’s Chris McGreal writes today:

The two sides are attempting to agree a joint public statement to paper over the divide but talks will not be made easier by a deepening distrust in which the Israelis question Obama’s commitment to confront Iran while the White House is frustrated by what it sees as political interference by Netanyahu to mobilise support for Israel’s position in the US Congress.

“They are poles apart,” said one diplomatic source. “The White House believes there is time for sanctions to work and that military threats don’t help. The Israelis regard this as woolly thinking.

They see Iran as headed towards a bomb, even though they agree there is no evidence Tehran has made that decision yet, and they want the White House to up the ante. The White House has the Europeans behind its position but it’s losing Congress.”

Still, the hawks at home and in Israel will be happy that Obama has now clearly taken the containment option off the table. Not so happy will be a whole raft of less belligerent foreign policy and national security thinkers who have been arguing of late that attacking Iran would be difficult and costly in terms of blowback, wouldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear programs in any case and would actually work to make Iran more determined to build a bomb. Most experts also agree that Iran is a rational actor that wouldn’t want to commit suicide at the receiving end of Israel’s substantial nuclear arsenal, and that therefore containment would work.

Obama has done his usual triangulation, trying to please everyone at the same time. In so doing, he’s committed his administration to war on Israel’s behalf if Iran should ever break out as a full nuclear power – and the hawks both at home and in Israel will now devote all their energy to shifting him from “nuclear weapon” to “nuclear capacity”. Inevitably, they will continue to erode the administration’s position. Harlan Ullman describes what will happen after that:

Unfortunately, the sound bite that “the only thing worse than Iran without nuclear weapons is Iran with them” reflects an emotional and not a rational strategy for dealing with this simmering crisis. And worse, the instability in North Africa, Syria, Iraq and the Persian Gulf states is fuel for the potentially worst conflagration of this century and possibly of the final decades of the last one.

Last week, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired U.S. Marines Gen. James Cartwright and former Central Command Commander retired U.S. Navy Adm. William Fallon sat on a panel looking at the Iranian nuclear issue and possible options. Asked whether the United States had the capacity to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons short of an invasion, Cartwright’s one word answer was, “No.”

When asked what it would take to accomplish that mission, Fallon tapped his shoe — eloquently and silently expressing that only “boots on the ground” would work.

…No one wants Iran to come into possession of a nuclear weapon. Perhaps sanctions and diplomacy will work. But, unless we are prepared to invade and occupy that country possibly for decades, we need a Plan B. Is anyone working on that?

Sorry Harlan but in the eloquent words of General Cartwright, “No”, there is no real plan B.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I’ll pat myself on the back now for my correct prediction: turns out that “nuclear capacity” means any capacity to process raw ore and then use the refined product in a domestic nuclear reactor.

    Iow, no home-grown nuclear power program unless the U.S. says so.

    As I predicted 🙁

    “He deserves death.”
    “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

  • Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor for The New Republic and a fellow of the Engaging Israel Project of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerualem. His piece today for TNR:

    Then there was the comment by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, to the effect that Iran hasn’t yet decided to build a bomb. If Dempsey’s point was to reassure Israel, he managed the opposite. Dempsey reinforced a long-standing Israeli fear that the administration is prepared to live with nuclear ambiguity—that is, a situation in which Iran could quickly assemble a bomb while choosing for the time being not to. According to this scenario, Obama would negotiate an agreement that would allow him to claim he’d stopped Iran while in fact ensuring its nuclear capability. For Israel—and for Arab countries—that outcome would hardly differ from an explicitly nuclear Iran. In either case Tehran could credibly threaten Israel and blackmail the Arab world.

    In the last few days, in anticipation of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, Washington’s tone has finally begun to change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that America’s goal is to prevent Iranian nuclear capability, period. And U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz announced that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have a detailed plan to strike Iranian nuclear sites should that become necessary.

    What a corner Obama has painted himself into.

  • Israel is trying all the tricks they saw Cheney use to hoop up war against Iraq.
    They might have the “capability” to someday maybe do something…HORRIFYING! Hide your kids under their desks!

    Smoking guns, mushroom cloud, hokey satellite pixs, blah blah blah.

    It would work if we hadn’t just had the Iraq disaster. And even the War Hawks know that Iran is going to be Afghanistan X 10 if we listen to the Likud, AIPAC, et al.

    There will be a war in Iran, as far as I can tell. The Israelis will not accept otherwise. And they know that if they are going to be able to start that war they have to do it BEFORE Iran gets a Bomb.

    The Israeli agenda is completely pre-emptive. Understandably, with the economic shape the US is in and the logistical nightmares of a full on traditional standing-army invasion still in our face from Iraq and AfPak, we are rightfully concerned that there must be a better way.

    Maybe Obama thinks he can let the Israelis lead, back them logistically, and try to manage a lower-intensity conflict than a full on Western Invasion.

    That’s not what Israel wants, but I bet, particularly if Obama is re-elected, that’s what they will have to settle for.

    If Romney wins, all bets are off. Romney will not be able to handle the Israelis even if he doesn’t want to go to war.

    I’m sorry, but it’s going to take the team they have to be effective in managing the Israel lobby. If the GOP wins the White House, Israel will walk all over them before they even have time to assemble a foreign policy team.

    We will be in the middle of another disastrous war that frankly, a lot of Republicans would rather not engage in either.

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