My Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg just scored an extensive interview with President Obama in which Obama says to Iran and Israel, “As President of the United States, I don’t bluff.”
Goldberg’s preamble is important and must-read, but the interview itself is vital and gives one a good sense of both Obama’s strategic strengths and weaknesses.
The decision of the White House to talk to Goldberg reflects their desire to speak to what Obama defined in the interview as “the Israeli people, and. . .the pro-Israel community in this country” less than a week before the annual Washington meeting of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
This was not an interview designed to warn Iran of the consequences of proceeding down a nuclear weapons acquisition track. This read more like a combination of assurances to the American Jewish community that Obama was a serious national security hawk on Iran during an election year. It felt like pandering — not too dissimilar to presidential candidate Obama’s speech to AIPAC in 2008 when he made the remarkable, provocative, Arab-offending statement, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”
During the interview, Obama expressed dismay that despite standing with Israel on challenge after challenge — every key issue facing the country — that many doubted the sincerity of his support for Israel. The President sounded emotionally ‘needy’, wanting validation that the American Jewish community and Israelis really, really liked him and understand that he’s on their side.
This is not presidential; this is not the way the President of the United States should be positioning himself — and it’s clear that the emotional and political leverage that Netanyahu has engineered over Obama has had a real impact.
Israel is a client state of the United States — and while it has its own interests, Israel’s security is deeply entwined with the strategic choices the United States makes, which is what this Iran debate is about.
Israel, under Netanyahu’s leadership, seems to want to drive a dynamic in which it demonstrates its power by compelling the President to attack Iran on its behalf, to set up triggers and red-lines, and railroad track that lead to a binary choice of bombing Iran or acquiescing to and appeasing a new nuclear weapons power. This is neither in Israel’s real interests — nor America’s.
Obama tries to convey this stating that Iran is “self-interested”, i.e. rational. He says that over the last three decades, Iran’s leadership has demonstrated that it does care about the regime’s survival and is sensitive to the opinions of their citizens and disturbed by Iran’s general global isolation.
They know, for example, that when
these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them.
They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes
from their perspective. So if they’re presented with options that lead
to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better
path, then there’s no guarantee that they can’t make a better decision.
But what Obama seems not to understand in the well-meaning description of his attempted Iran strategy is that he is actually creating a railroad track to disaster. He conveys in the interview a disinterest in containment, suggesting that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon changes the world and triggers a rampant and dangerous proliferation in an unstable part of the global neighborhood.
Not all nuclear bombs are the same. Israel’s 200 plus thermonuclear warheads are not simple fission devices and have a destructive capacity that could seriously end Iran as a functioning state. Iran, even if it were to produce a nuclear warhead tomorrow, would have none of the destructive capacity that Israel could rain down on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Anthony Cordesman, David Albright and others have done extremely important and useful, admittedly Stangelovian analyses of what a back-and-forth firing exchange of nuclear weapons would mean for both states. As Cordesman told me recently, Israel would survive fine — Iran would be devastated.
Many analysts believe that Iran’s appetite for either a nuclear weapons capacity or a Japan-like “near nuke” capacity (meaning it has the potential but does not actually build the systems) would help provide Iran with a shield behind which it could protect itself while then continuing to operate global, transnational terror networks with impunity. Perhaps this is true — or perhaps three decades of paranoia about American calls for regime change in Iran have hard-wired the place to want anything that solves its security dilemma. I see both tracks as having merit.
That said, what Obama is doing in this interview and in his needy solicitation of American Jewish community and Israeli citizen support is the opposite of where he started his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg: :”I…don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are.”
But he did. Obama essentially is saying in this interview that Iran is one of the top five foreign policy concerns of his since moving into the White House, that he is attempting to organize a pressure-based effort to cause pain for Iran’s leaders and move it to a different course, and that he won’t accept failure — that he will squeeze and surround and bomb (if needed) Iran to compel it never to acquire nuclear weapons. That’s not strategy. Obama is overplaying the endgame and creating expectations that if sanctions don’t work — which they often and usually don’t — that he will bomb the country. This is irresponsible and harmful to American and Israeli and broad Middle Eastern interests.
Obama needs to call former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and have a long chat. President Obama, Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough and other members of the NSC team often reference Scowcroft as one of their north stars on strategic policy — but word is that the President has rarely connected with the sage strategist. And then the President should check in with Zbigniew Brzezinski who could help the President understand the chess board in front of him a bit better.
Both would tell him that it is a mistake for a US President to constrain himself to two choices — and he should keep his powder entirely dry. He should not be telegraphing key red lines to Netanyahu who has been one of his global adversaries and antagonists — who has been the key reason why so many Israelis and members of the American Jewish community have doubts about Obama’s seriousness and resolve about Israel’s core security.
Netanyahu has done more to create global doubts about Obama’s toughness as the result of the Obama-Netanyahu skirmish over the further expansion of Israeli settlements during the fragile, early efforts to move Israel-Palestine peace talks forward. Netanyahu became the Krushchev to Obama’s Kennedy — and Obama, to this day, is struggling to look strong when he’s in the same room or engaged with Israel’s pugnacious prime minister.
Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Obama was serious and reasoned — but the one area that I think he missed, or didn’t give Obama a chance to unload on Israel’s strategic mistake in not doing more on the Palestine peace effort.
What didn’t come out in this interview is what happens the day after the US might bomb Iran; or better yet, if Israel bombs Iran. Given what we have seen in the Arab spring, which Arab governments will crumble and which will survive after they see an American or Israel strike against Iran?
My sense is that the Arab street will churn, that the depth and breadth of Islamic political movements will grow. I’ve often said that US security commitments to Israel are like a New Orleans levy — working fine for the time being — but beware a massive storm.
Israel’s failure to do more to resolve a serious and sustained peace with Palestinians has demonstrated how it has undermined its own long term security interests with short-sighted, impulsively narrow obsession with territorial expansion. This pugnacious disinterest in doing anything to change the Palestinian status quo undermines even luke-warm support for Israel in the region among Arab citizens and limits the ability of realpolitik-driven Arab governments from doing too much to embrace Israel’s concerns, even if the many Sunni governments in the region largely fear Iran’s rise as well.
President Obama should have used this interview to counsel Israelis about the strategic myopia of their government.
Obama told Goldberg that “we’ve got Israel’s back.” What Obama failed to ask is whether “Israel has America’s back.”
If Israel worked harder at achieving regional peace, if it did less to undermine the perception of American power and the capabilities of President Obama, if it put options on the table other than a desperate need to know when the US would ‘bomb’ Iran, then Israel might have America’s back.
But there is little indication that Israel is shifting its behavior despite the uncertainties brought by the Arab spring and the rise of political Islamic movements around it. A kinetic, direct military confrontation with Iran could actually produce the nightmare Israel and the US want to avoide — a completely alienated, isolated Iran whose nuclear program is delayed but eventually achieved and scores to settle.
— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons