Guest Post from Jon Weinberg: Another Biden Faux-Pas?


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


12 comments on “Guest Post from Jon Weinberg: Another Biden Faux-Pas?

  1. David says:

    There ain’t no gd Iranian military threat to anybody, and it does not matter if they develop nuclear power, except in the sense that it matters every time any country develops nuclear power, but that genie is out of the bottle.
    It doesn’t even matter if North Korea has nuclear weapons, although their arsenal and delivery systems pale by comparison with those of Israel. There is already an arms race in the Middle East, and has been for some time: Israel and Pakistan. Pakistan simple sought to extend it in the Muslim world as it raced against India, which at one time was lead by a prime minister opposed to nuclear weapons, but he was assassinated.
    This threat of Iranian nuclear weapons is one of the great sideshows offering very effective distactions from the real threats to justice and peace.
    Something very intelligent had better come out of the Obama-Medvedev restart button initiative. Together we have like 95% of the gd techno-spawns of satan, and together we have the most military clout on the face of the planet by such a wide margin that it is inexcusable that we are leading by example toward a saner, smarter world.
    And China and India had better get on board, or better yet we’d better all get on board. This idea of various coalitions, any coalitions, seeking special economic advantage for coalition members, is also a dead end street. And pursuing national interests, unless they also coincide with the common interests of humanity, are just pigheaded.


  2. PissedOffAmerican says:

    What a blatantly biased commentary Weinberg delivers.
    Throughout, Weinberg hints at an Iranian threat that hasn’t even been established through substantive evidence. Carefully underscoring this horseshit about not treading on the “sovereignity” of a foreign nation, he completely avoids recognizing that is EXACTLY what we are doing by attempting to block Iran’s RIGHT to act within the parameters of the NPT.
    This crap about not wanting to dictate the actions of a “sovereign nation” is so blatantly dishonest that it defies belief. Point of fact, this whole debate is taking place because we, and Israel, are trying to dictate what a sovereign nation can or can’t do. Worse, we are attempting to block actions that are perfectly LEGAL under the terms of a treaty that we signed onto, and Israel refuses to sign.
    Weinberg is seemingly just one more Washington mouthpiece trying to frame an issue inaccurately and with extreme bias in favor of the Israelis.
    And just as dissingenuous, but on a scale of less import, is his attempt to portray the loud mouthed knee jerk natterings of “I am a zionist” Biden as being reasonable or responsible. Someone ought to put a cork in Biden’s unthinking maw before he does some real damage.
    As for Weinberg, I suggest he considers giving Abrams or Perle a call. He might as well intern under someone that will appreciate his loyalties, and put him to work to Israel’s advantage. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, they can land him a job in Tel Aviv. Permanently.


  3. Dan Kervick says:

    This is just more of Biden being Biden. When it comes to political language Biden has never been one of the smoothest skaters on the pond. I don’t think he intended to say anything that was either (a) provocative, (b) interesting or (c) a new departure form existing policy. It just came out that way.


  4. John Waring says:

    The comments of the Vice President of the United States make little sense.
    What is the population of Israel? What is the population of the USA? What is the GNP of Israel? What is the GNP of the USA? What does Israel spend on defense in a year and what does the USA? Is the Israel armaments industry a stand alone entity, or is it an adjunt to American defense industry? Can Israel replenish from its own stores the ammunition it needs during an extended conflict, or must it rely on replenishment from the Pentagon? What is the true extent of Israeli intelligence gathering capabilities and how much do they depend on American capabilities? Who depends on whom providing diplomatic cover at the UN? Which country is a spec on the Mediterranean Sea and which country is a continental power?
    Can the Israelis really go it alone in an attack on Iran? Or on anyone else, except the West Bank and Gaza, when you think clearly about it? No, they can’t. Israel is a classic client state of a great power. The USA, if it chooses to do so, can bring overwhelming pressure to bear against Israel.
    Israel is a sovereign country capable of acting whenever and however it chooses? Stuff and nonsense.
    We may not be able to categorically dictate policy to Israel, but we can make it ruinously expensive for them to continue to flout their opposition to the publicly stated policy of the President of the United States. If only we gain the sense to end this absurd subordination of our interest to theirs


  5. DonS says:

    U.S. policy with regard to Iran, or Israel, should not have to be parsed via the words of Joe Biden, he of the conveniently poor control of verbalization.
    Why is it so difficult to articulate a U. S. policy that conforms to the stated goals of the administration to engage constructively with Iran? Why, when the consideration of Israeli sensibilities are involved, must it suddenly become important to waffle, however nuanced, so as not to offend Israeli interests?
    I know it seems like I am dragging a red herring across the road here. But this is just another example of deferring to Israeli interests which are disproportionately out of sync with US interests.


  6. easy e says:

    So where does TWN and NAF stand on this?
    * * * * * * * *
    VIENNA (Reuters) – The incoming head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said on Friday he did not see any hard evidence Iran was trying to gain the ability to develop nuclear arms.
    “I don’t see any evidence in IAEA official documents about this,” Yukiya Amano told Reuters in his first direct comment on Iran’s atomic program since his election, when asked whether he believed Tehran was seeking nuclear weapons capability…..
    * * * * * * * * * *
    “…The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meanwhile, which inspects Iran’s nuclear facilities, declares in its most recent report (pdf) that, “As has been reported in previous reports, the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran.” And outside of the credulous Washington Times, no one appears to be suggesting Iran is covertly enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels – neither the IAEA nor U.S. intelligence agencies…”


  7. DICKERSON3870 says:

    RE: “Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign
    nation what they can and cannot do when they make
    a determination, if they make a determination that
    they’re existentially threatened and their
    survival is threatened by another country.” – JOE
    BIDEN, 04/05/09
    MY COMMENT: Does Biden mean to imply that Israel
    is not encumbered by international law including
    the Geneva Conventions ratified by Israel? What
    about the U.S.?
    So whenever one nation decides another nation is
    an “existential threat” (even if as a result of
    its own bad intelligence or paranoia) then it is
    ‘bombs away’?
    I know that Biden is a self-proclaimed “Zionist”,
    but really!
    PS. Is it possible that “Loose Lips” Biden is
    channeling “Bonkers” Bolton? “Enquiring minds want
    to know!”


  8. David says:

    Since Iran is not an existential threat to Israel’s existence, cannot by any stretch of the imagination “wipe Israel off the map,” and isn’t stupid enough to attempt such a suicidal mission, even if it did have nuclear weapons, and it also isn’t stupid enough to provide anyone else with nuclear weapons for actual use, the only logical conclusions are that: 1) Iranians believe they have the right, as a sovereign nation, to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons if they so wish (a stupid national felt need, to be sure); and 2) Israel believes it has the right to be the only nation in the neighborhood which possesses nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them, which Israel also is not stupid enough to do, best I can tell. They are doing just fine with conventional military overkill as they continue to expand the settlements in the Occupied Territories as they tell the US and the rest of the world to go Cheney themselves. The only thing it appears to me the Israelis are stupid enough to do is repeat what they did in Iraq in 1983.


  9. Outraged American says:

    I’m going to be on the air in five minutes. Here’s your chance to
    yell at me. Call in # is 512 646 1984. My guest is Brandon Neely, a
    former guard at Guantanamo and an Iraq vet, who is now very
    active in the antiwar movement.


  10. Nick Calluzzo says:

    I’m a bit troubled by the notion that Israel would have the “right” to attack Iranian nuclear facilities on the basis of a self-defense argument. Furthermore, I’m bit more concerned by your implicit agreement with such an argument, and your use of it as a premise to write this off as “not much of a slip-up”. Can Israel attack Iranian facilities? Certainly (although I haven’t seen a campaign analysis that circumvents Iraq, assuming that this flight path was closed off). Does it have the right to? Well, that’s significantly more debatable. It would be news to me (but perhaps not to people more knowledgeable on the subject) if the US was now saying, as Paul states above, that Israel could “go for it” on the basis of a right to self-protection. Responding to suicide bombings and missile attacks on its borders might fall under the umbrella of self-defense, but a preventive strike on nascent nuclear facilities is another matter. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a smart security move (nor am I saying that it would be), I’m just saying I don’t know if it’s a right.
    Side note: “Instead, Biden repeatedly emphasizes and reiterates that America does not single-handedly dictate Israel’s interests, regardless of accusations to the contrary.”
    Has anyone really been worried that the US is dictating Israel’s interests? Seems like the reverse would be, and has been, the more pressing concern.


  11. Paul Norheim says:

    I have to say that I was a bit confused while reading Biden`s
    statements – and I vaguely asked myself whether he actually
    may have said (or rather wanted to say) something between the
    lines here:
    – “Hey, Israel is a sovereign nation, and if Israel decides to
    strike Iran preemptively and unilaterally, based on what it sees
    as it`s own interest, than go for it – but don`t count on our
    automatic support in that case, because America has it`s own
    interests, that may differ from Israeli interests.”
    If that`s what he thought, it would represent a rather
    sensational change in US/Israeli policy thinking. It would also be
    impossible to express this change clearly in a short interview at
    this moment.
    Whatever Biden wanted to say, he failed, and thus Obama had
    to correct him today on CNN.


  12. ... says:

    “Biden spoke of a sovereign nation’s right to protect itself.” does the same apply to iran? apparently not according to some….
    “He did make clear that the US does not dictate policy to Israel”.. did he make clear that the US does not dictate policy to iran as well??


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *