There has been considerable discussion of the meaning, or lack thereof, of the apparent difference of opinion between the United States and Israel over both the desirability and the possible timing of going to war with Iran. Those Americans who still revere the Constitution and the advice of the Founding Fathers should rightly be appalled that a war is even being considered on behalf of a small client state with which the United States has no treaty obliging such intervention. War with Iran would undoubtedly follow the usual pattern, being authorized by the White House without the constitutionally mandated declaration of war by Congress and likely developing out of an evolving situation in which Israel is being given a free pass to initiate the conflict.
That the United States is in such a parlous condition is directly due to the effective work of Israel’s principal lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has just completed its annual convention. Consider what AIPAC and its friends in Congress and the media have accomplished: Understanding that the truth about Iran would not support their case, they have completely skewed the narrative about the threat posed by that country. Iran has no nuclear weapon, has not made a decision to acquire one, and may not even have the technical ability or financial resources to do so even if its government decides to move in that direction. Yet, AIPAC has succeeded in convincing the American public that Iran is already a nuclear power and is somehow a threat to the United States, all despite the fact that Iran, far from being an aggressor, has been on the receiving end of covert operations run by Washington and Tel Aviv that have killed scores of Iranians. President Barack Obama has unhesitatingly endorsed the AIPAC line, emphasizing in his speech to that organization on March 4 that Iran is a security problem for the United States and the entire world, an elaboration straight out of Israel’s playbook that was noted approvingly by no less than Tom Friedman of The New York Times. Friedman asks “whether he [Obama] is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most.”
AIPAC has also been effective in lining up Capitol Hill in its support. One third of Congress attended the AIPAC conference, and a number of individual legislators have been actively promoting the lobby’s line. Sen. Carl Levin is now calling for a military blockade of Iran, a clear act of war. Thirty-two senators, including Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman, are supporting legislation that will essentially authorize taking military action against Iran because it has the “capability” to create a nuclear weapon, a line that has already been crossed by Tehran as well as by other states in the region, including Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Why pick on Iran? Because that is what Israel wants (Israel, one might add, has, unlike Iran, attacked a number of its neighbors in recent years). Israel also possesses its own secret nuclear arsenal, giving it a combination of political recklessness and potentially cataclysmic military power that apparently causes no heartburn in Congress.
It is being argued in some circles that Obama has been resisting the Israeli drive to go to war because his defense and intelligence chiefs insist that the “red line” with Tehran is the actual possession of a nuclear weapon, but is that really true? He has muddied that apparent position by insisting that he will “prevent” the Iranians from obtaining the bomb. Prevention means preemption, possibly based on the same type of fabricated intelligence Americans saw in the lead-up to Iraq. To be sure, the Pentagon and the intelligence community are undeniably cool on the prospect of a new war in the Middle East, understanding clearly that the unintended consequences after the last bomb is dropped could be devastating to the economy and to the sustainability of the remaining American presence in places like Afghanistan. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has been active in trying to persuade the Israelis to defer action, stating both that Iran is a “rational actor” and that a war right now would serve no one’s interest. For his pains, Dempsey has been called everything short of an idiot and his judgment has been denounced by strategic geniuses such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. In truth, Iran has been demonized to a point where it is difficult to imagine any nonviolent way out of the current contretemps.
Would that Obama had stood firm behind Dempsey, but he did not. Instead, in his interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that preceded his speech at AIPAC, he does little more than pander to the Jewish community by offering bromides and assurances. He told both Goldberg and AIPAC that the United States has “Israel’s back” and that the U.S. commitment to Tel Aviv’s security is unquestioned while assiduously avoiding the fact that Israel pays little regard to Washington’s regional and global interests. There is no nuance in statements like those made by the American president. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who repeatedly and hyperbolically calls Iran a threat to the whole world, has the whip hand in the relationship and he knows it, even if Obama thinks that he might have contrived some wiggle room. Steve Clemons correctly describes it as “the emotional and political leverage that Netanyahu has engineered over Obama.” Ironically, it creates one of those exceedingly rare moments in which one might wish for the return of George W. Bush. Bush, for all his manifest failings, told Israel not to attack Iran, and the Israelis respected or feared him enough to desist.
Or, to make the same point in another way, if Israel attacks Iran next week and Iran retaliates, a virtual certainty, then the United States will inevitably become involved in the conflict, with Congress and the media leading the charge, just as they did against Iraq. On March 9, 86 Republican members of Congress demonstrated how it will work, sending a letter to Obama pledging “unwavering support” for Israel and concluding that the White House must “make our offer of support and assistance to Israel crystal clear if Israel finds it necessary to take action against Iran.” So Israel is empowered to make the decision whether America goes to war or not, at least for those 86 Republicans, who would almost certainly be joined by numerous Democrats. Given that reality, if someone can come up with an alternative scenario in which automatic American involvement does not take place, it has yet to be explained plausibly. Will Obama simply refuse to play? In an election year? Not likely. Many are convinced the war is coming, including White House senior staff.
So what can the rest of us do when the war comes? Very little. The only man who can conceivably stop it, President Obama, is clearly thinking of timing. If the fighting starts too soon and goes sour, which it will, he will lose the presidency. If it happens just before elections, he can pitch in to help brave little Israel and ride to victory as the latest in America’s unforgettable series of wartime presidents. If there is no war at all, Obama wins because he kept the peace. So the timing must be right if there is a war, and this is another thing that the Israelis understand. They and AIPAC can make or break Obama, and the president can do little to derail the process. Will Bibi want to continue with the man he dislikes and distrusts in the White House or will he feel more comfortable with Mitt Romney, a man who has already stuffed his foreign policy team with the same neoconservative Israel-firsters who brought about Iraq and who genuinely do have Netanyahu’s back come hell or high water? Stay tuned.