In this week's Point-Counter-Point, iEngage Fellow Yossi Klein Halevi talks with prizewinning journalist Jeffrey Goldberg about whether President Obama would act militarily against Iran if all other efforts to end its nuclear ambitions failed.
Like many Israelis, I don't trust President Obama's resolve on Iran. When he says that all options are on the table, I remain deeply skeptical about this President's willingness to order a military strike if all other options fail.
More than any journalist I know, you've been at once clear-eyed on the Islamist threat and also a strong advocate of trusting Obama on Iran. So, as someone who takes the Iranian nuclear threat as seriously as we do here, tell me what we Israelis are missing about Obama.
I think Obama takes the threat very seriously. I think he takes it just as seriously as Netanyahu takes it. More, maybe. It seems to me sometimes that Netanyahu, if he truly believed his rhetoric, would have acted already against the Iranian bomb threat. I know there are people in Washington who think he's not actually serious about striking Iran, should all else fail. And these are people who six months ago thought he would do it.
What you and other Israeli skeptics don't get about Obama is this: He is deadly serious about stopping nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. It is a core belief of his. He has enunciated on many occasions compelling reasons why he believes it to be unacceptable for Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. He also knows that the reputation of his presidency is riding on this question. If Iran goes nuclear against his wishes, he looks like Jimmy Carter. He doesn't want to go down in history looking like Jimmy Carter.
He also knows that he has time before having to act, because of America's greater capabilities. He doesn't show Israel much love, it is true. He doesn't show any nation much love. That's not who he is. But if you read the interview I did with him on this subject, you'll see a clear path, a clear set of parameters and a clear intent to keep a bomb away from Iran. The flipside of this, of course, is that I believe Mitt Romney would be less likely to act, especially in 2013, which may be the year of decision. He'd be a new president, one with an inexperienced national security team. And he won't want to begin his presidency by plunging the U.S. into another Middle Eastern war. It is so much harder for a Republican to confront Iran than it would be for a Democrat, for so many reasons. Obama's drone war is a good example; he gets away with things George W. Bush couldn't even imagine doing. Such is the nature of politics in America. Here, by the way, is a compendium of Obama's statements on the subject. Identify for me, please, the wiggle room in these statements. I haven't found any.
You make an important point about the advantage of a Democratic president over a Republican president in waging war. A similar dynamic has been at work in Israel. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fought two wars - against Hezbollah in 2006 and then against Hamas in 2009 - and yet is still widely considered a dove, while Netanyahu, who has never led a military campaign in either of his two terms in office, is widely regarded as belligerent. Only the Likud, the old adage goes, can make peace, because it can deliver the moderate right for an agreement. By the same measure, perhaps only the Israeli left (or a national unity government) can effectively wage war and for the same reason: It can bring consensus.
But the question regarding Obama and Iran, of course, is whether this Democratic president is capable - temperamentally, ideologically - of ordering a military strike against Iran. At issue isn’t whether Obama wants to stop Iran but whether he has the determination to match his rhetoric.
Do you believe that the current level of sanctions, however economically painful, are enough to deter Iran? Do you believe the Iranians will agree to a negotiated solution? From reading you carefully over the last few years, I don’t think you do. And so, Jeff: If Obama won’t bring the sanctions to the point where they can truly stop Iran, then how can we trust him to use military force?
You write that failure to stop Iran will mean that Obama goes down in history as another Jimmy Carter. In fact he already looks like Jimmy Carter. As you recently wrote (don’t you hate it when you get quoted against yourself?), Obama has failed to show resolve in Syria. Bringing down Assad - the Arab regime that is Iran’s closest ally - should be one of the administration’s top foreign policy goals. In hesitating on Syria, Obama is repeating his failure to support the anti-regime demonstrators in Teheran in 2009.
To forfeit two historic opportunities to undermine the Iranian regime hardly instills confidence that Obama can be trusted to act decisively against a nuclearizing Iran.
Obama’s mishandling of Egypt likewise reveals poor judgment in dealing with extremist threats. One can argue whether he jettisoned his former ally, Mubarak, too abruptly. One can argue too whether he could have helped slow the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
What seems to me inarguable is that he has failed to effectively set limits to the Brotherhood, failed to challenge its growing domestic repression. Instead, he wants to increase foreign aid to Egypt. If this were not an election year, he would have likely met with Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, during the latter’s recent visit to the UN. The result of that policy of accomodationism is that it is Morsi who is setting conditions on America for the relationship between Washington and Cairo (as he recently did in a New York Times interview).
Finally Obama showed misjudgment in repeatedly condemning the ludicrous YouTube anti-Muslim film. By taking out ads on Pakistani TV to condemn the film, the administration encouraged the perception that extremists had a legitimate grievance.
There’s a pattern here of weakness against enemies, of appeasing extremists, of missing opportunities.
All this is hardly surprising to you: You’ve written as much in recent weeks. “Obama’s record in the Middle East,” you wrote, “suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty.” True, you also wrote the following: “On the most important and urgent issue, the Iranian nuclear program, Obama is an activist president.” But can you really fault Israelis for wondering whether, at the moment of truth, Obama will avoid the ultimate missed opportunity?
It’s not only Israelis who don’t trust Obama on Iran. Arab leaders, as you well know, are skeptical too. Worst of all, the Iranian regime doesn’t believe him. That’s why it responds to Obama’s sanctions and threats by accelerating its nuclear program.
You may be right, and I am underestimating this President’s resolve on an issue to which he has repeatedly committed himself.
If so, there’s a deeper question here for Israelis: Can we trust anyone, even the most well-intentioned friend, with an issue of existential importance to us? As someone who knows us as well as any American Jew, this Israeli anxiety will come as no surprise to you.
For many of us the frame of reference is May 1967. At that time, Lyndon Johnson, as good a friend as Israel ever had in the White House, refused to honor President Eisenhower’s commitment in 1957 to challenge an Egyptian blockade of Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran. Johnson, preoccupied with Vietnam, had good reason for wanting to avoid American involvement in another war. But the fact remains that, at the crucial moment, America violated its commitment to Israel.
Aside perhaps from May 1967, I can’t think of a more excruciating time for Israel than now. Obama has repeatedly assured us that he understands our angst, that he supports our right to defend ourselves. And still we stubborn Israelis persist in our skepticism.
Maybe what I’m asking from you is unfair, Jeff. Because in the end, no amount of reassurance of Obama’s resolve can convince us that the Johnson precedent won’t return, and that we won’t find ourselves alone again against existential threat.
There are two questions here (well, actually there are about 30) but let me grapple with the two most important ones: The first is this: Is President Obama actually prepared to use military force to stop Iran? The second question is, Is Romney prepared to use military force to stop Iran?
When I argue for the idea that Obama may eventually resort to force to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, I'm not judging him against some sort of impossible standard of interventionist muscularity. I'm judging him against the only other man who could be elected president next month. You're familiar with my argument that Romney is less likely (particularly early in his term) than Obama to use force, so I won't rehearse it here.
I would add this, however, and I haven't mentioned this before: If Romney wins, the anti-war movement will become extraordinarily energized in the U.S. Democrats who might have felt compelled to back Obama, or at least acquiesce to military action against Iran, will be on the barricades protesting the possibility of such a strike if it is Romney's doing. Fierce opposition certainly won't strengthen Romney's hand to act, and the consequences of the opposition that is sure to materialize could have profoundly negative effects on Israel's reputation in America. Israel is already in danger of becoming a partisan issue; the long-term consequences of this could be devastating. If Romney wins, and if Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power in Israel, I can almost guarantee you that you will see a melting away of whatever Democratic support there is for tough action against Iran, and a melting away of whatever liberal support there still remains for a strong America-Israel relationship. American support is a pillar of Israeli national security policy. Israel cannot thrive - and maybe it can't survive - in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran. But it will also have difficulty surviving without American support, and I'm telling you, medium- to long-term, Israel could be in trouble in the U.S.
To answer some of your other questions, do I believe sanctions will work to bring Iran to a compromise? No, probably not. Do I believe that sanctions could work to destabilize, and possible bring an end to, the regime? Possibly yes. I'm not sure why you believe Obama is weak on sanctions; he's certainly stronger than his Republican predecessor was. And I think Netanyahu's people are being sincere when they say that there is at least the small possibility that sanctions will work.
On a related subject, I'm not sure why you conflate Obama's passivity on Syria with his tough actions, and tough words, on Iran. He was never going to go into the regime-change business. He didn't get elected to go into the regime business. He ran for office in order to get America out of the regime-change business. He is, in this sense, a foreign policy realist. But he did run for office on the promise of stopping nuclear proliferation. He is deeply and sincerely committed, I believe, to a rather too grand vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But the unreality of the ultimate goal serves the needs of those who want Iran permanently denuclearized. He knows, I assume, that he can't achieve global Nuclear Zero. But he also knows that stopping a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is within his power. I always try to explain to Israelis that Obama isn't committed to this issue merely because he promised Jewish voters that he would not allow Israel to be endangered. Non-proliferation is a cornerstone of his worldview, and Iran represents the single-biggest challenge to that worldview.
But maybe you're right - maybe this is going to be Johnson redux. But you have to consider something else: By extracting himself from Iraq, by drawing down in Afghanistan, by staying out of the Syrian civil war, maybe what Obama is doing is preparing for the day when he has to go to the American people and say that he is taking military action against Iran. He's clearing the decks, in other words. From the Israeli standpoint, maybe you should be glad that he's taking a pause in the Middle East intervention business. This way, when the Iran issue reaches a boiling point, he won't be in Johnson's position - overextended, and unpopular, and therefore not willing to, among other things, come to Israel's aid.
That’s a crucial insight you raise about the anti-war movement and a President Romney. A reenergized anti-war movement could dangerously erode the already-shaky nature of bipartisan support for Israel, which is the only long-term guarantee for maintaining the special relationship. Missiles on Tel Aviv, a multi-front war with Hezbollah, Hamas, what’s left of Syria and of course Iran, the unleashing of global terror against Jewish communities, rising oil prices and eonomic dislocation - Israelis take a deep breath and prepare themselves for those disasters. Risking our relationship with blue-state America is almost one blow too many.
And yet if Israeli skepticism about Obama is right, then I’m ready to take that risk, too. I see a nuclear Iran as a literal apocalyptic threat, and I sense that you do too. The difference between us remains: Can we trust this guy at the moment of truth?
You sat with the President, looked him in the eye and was convinced of his determination. In your place I may well have reached the same conclusion.
But from where I’m sitting, it seems to me unthinkable that Obama, for all his commitment to non-proliferation, will order the bombing of Iran. This is after all the man who thought he was atoning for the abuse of American power by abandoning anti-regime demonstrators in Tehran in 2009.
As for Obama and sanctions: Yes, he’s imposed far stronger measures than his predecessor, but that is, unfortunately, a meaningless comparison. Four years ago, Obama’s sanctions would have been significant. Now, the only question that matters is whether those sanctions are enough to stop Tehran. I don’t believe they are.
I fear that Obama still believes he’s dealing with essentially rational people in the Iranian regime. And now there are reports of secret negotiations between Tehran and Washington. In the end my deepest fear is that Obama will be outmaneuvered by the Iranians, that his longing for a diplomatic solution will be played by the Iranian regime to reach the point of breakout.
But Jeff: If Obama is reelected, all I can do is pray for that moment when you will say to me, I told you so.