Jon Weinberg is a Research Intern with the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.
In the wake of Joe Biden’s apparent suggestion on Sunday’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos that should diplomacy fail, Israel has the right to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, journalists and pundits from Washington to Tel Aviv to Doha have been reading too deeply into the vice president’s statements.
True, Vice President Biden is infamous for his many verbal faux-pas, but this slip-up does not even approach the severity of those past. In fact, it may not be much of a slip-up at all.
Perhaps Biden did not provide a suitably diplomatic answer to Stephanopoulos’ core question on Israel’s right to attack Iran, and his bluntness seemed to run counter to President Obama’s recent clarification: “What is also true is, it is the policy of the United States to try to resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear capabilities […]through diplomatic channels.”
Biden spoke of a sovereign nation’s right to protect itself. After all, even the most dovish Israeli administration–and, for that matter, many Arab governments–would inevitably fear a nuclear Iran under the leadership of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Looking through the show’s transcript, what I find most striking is that rather than giving Israel the “green light” to attack Iran, as international and even the Israeli press have been quick to assert, Biden was surprisingly measured given that Stephanopoulos had backed him into an extraordinarily tough corner.
And his answer was straightforward enough, even too straightforward: Nowhere does he actually suggest that Israel would have American support for attacking Iran. Instead, Biden repeatedly emphasizes and reiterates that America does not single-handedly dictate Israel’s interests, regardless of accusations to the contrary. He even refers to the national interests of Israel and the US as “coincidentally” aligned. I’m no linguist, but I do know that an alliance of coincidence implies a less than rock-solid relationship.
Perhaps most strikingly, the vice president tactfully avoids Stephanopoulos’ most loaded question: whether the US would stand in the way of an Israeli military strike by denying Israel the use of Iraqi airspace. Biden responds, “I’m not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.”
Unlike what many have taken away from the interview, this latter statement alongside that of the “coincidental” interests of the US and Israel seems to actually suggest, however vaguely, that the Obama administration does not tacitly approve of Israel acting unilaterally, but understands that Israel may do so–that currently, the two country’s interests are somewhat aligned, but that they could diverge.
Short of evading these questions completely–which, if executed skillfully, would probably have been the best option–Biden had little choice other than to remain as ambiguous as he could. His task was to simultaneously project the president’s “unclenched fist” policy of prospective reconciliation with Iran alongside continuing support for Israel, which is no easy task.
Biden completed this task, but did a messy job. He did make clear that the US does not dictate policy to Israel, but that that does not mean that the US would support an Israeli strike against Iranian targets. This is not the green light, yellow light, or red light that many understand it to be. Rather, it is yet another of many repeated announcements to stay tuned.
— Jon Weinberg