“We’ve got Israel’s back” – that is the message President Obama sent out ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the US for a crucial summit at the White House, and he did it in an interview granted to one of the leading pro-Israel voices in the media, Jeffrey Goldberg, former Israeli prison guard and IDF soldier, now a columnist for The Atlantic. In that interview, Obama basically telegraphed his capitulation to the Israelis, who are demanding the establishment of “red lines” Iran may not cross without provoking an attack:
“[O]ur assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.”
Here is the “red line” the Israelis have been demanding: not the act of building a nuclear weapon but evidence “they are making that attempt.” That is, evidence of their intent to do so, without any corroborating evidence they’ve actually succeeded. The catch is that such an “assessment” based on fresh intelligence would be just as impossible to check as it was in the run-up to the Iraq war, when US officials assured us Saddam was making the Bomb – and citing all sorts of completely invented “intelligence” to back it up. In short, we won’t find out if we were lied into war until well after the war has started – devastating the region, the world economy, and all hopes for peace.
The Goldberg interview, and the President’s speech to AIPAC, have both underscored the intensely political nature of the debate over Iran, which is not about objectively discernible facts, but about our perception of those facts. Obama spent thousands of words reassuring Goldberg he means business, that the threat to attack Iran isn’t a bluff – even as he acknowledged Iran does not now possess and lacks the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
When he was running for President, Obama pledged to sit down with Iran’s leaders, unconditionally, and negotiate an end to this crisis. He lied. In spite of purely symbolic efforts to make it look like he was indeed fulfilling his promise, in reality the prospect of direct talks with Tehran was dropped soon after he took office. His administration has rudely rejected all attempts by the Iranians to come to the conference table and reach what Obama referred to during the last presidential campaign as a “comprehensive” agreement on the “outstanding issues” between the two countries. Instead, he has imposed a series of escalating sanctionsthat are punishing the Iranian people and solidifying the control of hardliners in the regime, even as he escalates the belligerent rhetoric directed at Tehran.
Obama, as is his wont, has taken the path of least resistance – which is, indeed, the path to war. It is an easier path because to take up diplomacy would entail the sort of political risks the President seems incapable of taking, at least in the international policy arena. All his cards are on his domestic agenda – thehealthcare battle, a stimulus-driven “recovery,” and the various appeals to identity politics that have displaced the issue of war and peace from the “liberal” agenda.
The President dropped his purely rhetorical efforts to “engage” the Iranians because his constituency stopped caring about it: there was no longer any political necessity to act, and so inaction followed. Indeed, what followed was a rapid escalation of curiously Bush-like threats, growing in vehemence as the Israel lobby’s war drive got underway. How many times has this President groveled at AIPAC’s feet, bowing and scraping as he reassures them of his undivided fealty? Why is that?
The reason is the pervasive influence of the Israel lobby: its power and reach, extending deep into the leadership of both parties. On top of that, it is the sheer ferocity of the Lobby’s wrath that inspires fear and a consequent reluctance to tangle with such a ruthless opponent. All a blogger at a Democrat-friendly think tank has to do is use the phrase “Israel-firster” when describing someone like, say, Norman Podhoretz, or the Rev. John Hagee, and the fist of the Lobby comes down hard – in the form of a full page ad in the New York Times! A whole cadre of self-appointed policemen of the discourse regularly patrol the internet, and the nation’s print media, hunting down heretics, i.e. critics of Israel and our Israel-centric foreign policy, openly seeking to silence them.
What the War Party fears above all is an open and vigorous discussion of a key question: on whose behalf we will be fighting if war with Iran breaks out? Because the answer to that question is clearly Israel, as that nation’s government has loudly proclaimed from the beginning. The Israelis claim they face an “existential” threat from Iran, in effect accusing war opponents of turning away as the Second Holocaust commences. The message is clear: save us, or be damned.
Yet there is nothing to justify this apocalyptic hysteria. Iran has no nukes [.pdf], and lacks the technical means – and the intent – to build them. This has been confirmed for the second time by the most recent National Intelligence Estimate. It is a fact our President acknowledges – even as he moves the goalposts back and draws a new “red line” in the sand.
The doctrine of America’s “right” to preemptively attack any nation on earth, on the basis of a possible future threat, was the hallmark “contribution” of the second Bush administration to the history of American foreign
folly policy, and has never been repudiated by the Obama-ites. Indeed, they are upholding and even extending it far beyond its original parameters. For the Bush gang was targeting al-Qaeda, and, while in theory, the preemptive principle could be applied to any potential threat, in practice they were narrowly focused on al-Qaeda, e.g. they constructed an elaborate justification for the Iraq war by positing an operational connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam’s regime.
The Obama administration is taking this preemptive strike doctrine one giant step further, and applying it to include the alleged “threat” emanating from Tehran. This is the concession demanded by the Israelis, and in his interview with Goldberg the President telegraphed his surrender before Netanyahu’s plane touched down.
Remember the fanciful “Prague connection,” and those alleged al-Qaeda “training camps” in Iraq that turned out to be nonexistent? Get ready for a deluge of similarly manufactured “intelligence” indicating the Iranians are at a “breakthrough point,” i.e. they have the materials, the know-how, and the intent to build a nuclear arsenal. We’ll be deluged with “intelligence” churned out by the same lie factory that flooded the airwaves and the internet with war propaganda in the months before we invaded Iraq. This time it’s going to be much worse because the “mainstream” media is in Obama’s pocket. They hated Bush, and were eager to undermine his administration’s credibility, and so when evidence of intelligence-tampering surfaced they were more than willing to give it publicity: dissident CIA and others in the government who opposed the rush to war were given a voice. Next time around it won’t be so easy, and especially during an election year.
Netanyahu is traveling to Washington not just to persuade an American President to take the US to war, but to persuade his own people that war with Iran is not only a necessity but a credible option, i.e. a war they have some chance of winning. Polls show Israelis would support attacking Iran only if the US joined the fight. If he is to have his war, Netanyahu must get Obama to do most of the fighting for him.
In short, Netanyahu needs Obama more than Obama needs him. His challenge, therefore, is to reverse that by calling on Israel’s amen corner in the US and exerting maximum political pressure on the President during what promises to be a difficult reelection campaign. That effort appears to be succeeding, if preliminary indications such as the Goldberg interview and the AIPAC speech are to be taken at face value.
Obama says he has Israel’s back – but who has America’s back? For how long will we have to live with the “blowback” from Netanyahu’s war – not only the threat of a renewed spate of terrorism but also the economic blowback, which promises to be fearsome?
What this episode dramatizes, in vivid fashion, is the central premise of what I call “libertarian realism,” a theory of foreign relations that attributes the actions of states in the international arena to the internal political dynamics of the actors rather than any objective assessment of the justification and costs of the conflict. In a phrase: it’s all politics.
Here is how and why America goes to war in the modern era: Some special interest group, or alliance of self-interested factions with friends in Washington, has something to gain from provoking a war to overthrow this or that Hitler-of-the-moment, whether it be Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, or Iran’s Supreme Leader. They organize a coordinated campaign: a public relations firm or two is hired. The political consultants come out in droves, and their allies in the punditariat are mobilized for battle. A few billionaires are rounded up to pay the bills, and the grassroots groups are set in motion. As if by magic, the phones of members of Congress suddenly light up with calls about the latest Threat from whomever is the Enemy-of-the-moment. Editorials are written, speeches are made, “intelligence” is leaked, and the nation works itself up into a frenzy. At which point the Commander-in-chief solemnly discharges his grave responsibility and gets on with the moment of shock-and-awe we’ve all been waiting for.
A multinational empire such as the United States of America is particularly prone to this kind of pressure. With a multitude of ethnic and religious groups making up the Great American Mosaic, there is hardly a trouble spot on earth without its special pleaders and partisans in the US, organized and eager to make its case – which is usually the case for US intervention, in some form or other, to “solve” some age-old conflict halfway around the world.