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How Obama Can Stop Netanyahu’s Iran War

Bibi has Boehner's support—but the president has the American people's, if he speaks out.
obama bibi oval office
President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the Oval Office Monday, May 18, 2009. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza. This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Some interesting polls form a background to the collision of major historical forces unleashed by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to solicit an invitation to address the U.S. Congress in March.

First, released several days ago, is a Bloomberg global poll of investors, traders, and financial analysts. One can make one’s own assumptions about how representative this group is, or of what: I would take it to be part of the international capitalist business class, but not necessarily its top echelon. The group ranks geopolitical threats to world markets as follows: Global terrorism 26 percent; Russia-Ukraine 26 percent, Cybercrime 13 percent, Not Sure 10 percent, Islamic State 9 percent, South China Sea 6 percent, Major Weather Changes-climate change induced 6 percent, Iran 2 percent … equaled by Israel-Palestine 2 percent and exceeding Ebola at 1 percent. In other words, Iran is barely on the radar as a threat to peace and economic stability.

Several months ago, the Brookings Institution released a major poll of American attitudes towards Israel supervised by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami. One question asked of respondents was what outcome they wished for the Israel-Palestine conflict. A plurality of Americans supported the Obama administration’s efforts to push Israel and the Palestinians towards a two-state solution. A nearly equal number favored a one-state solution in which everybody, Israeli and Palestinian, had equal rights and could vote in all of historic Palestine. Only 22 percent of the sample supported the options favored by Netanyahu’s present ruling coaliton, either annexation of the West Bank without giving citizenship the Palestinians or the continued status quo of Israeli occupation.

The poll showed that the 16 percent of the sample who rated Israel/Palestine as one of their three top issues of concern were somewhat more “pro-Israel” than the overall group but not overwhelmingly so. Of this group, 55 percent wanted the U.S. to favor Israel, 39 percent wanted the U.S. to be evenhanded towards both sides, and 6 percent favored the Palestinians.

No one could look at these poll numbers and fail to conclude that the current stance of Congress, which skews towards unconditional backing of the Israeli right, does not come close to representing the sentiments of the American people. Indeed it is one of those situations that call for a market correction: everything seems like it never is going to change, until one day, to everyone’s surprise, something happens and it suddenly does. Then everyone can go back and point out how obvious it was that the previous status quo was unsustainable and correction inevitable.

John Boehner and the Republican leadership in Congress, in close consultation with the Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer (formerly a Republican operative from Miami Beach), arranged an invitation to Netanyahu to address the body. The subject of the Israeli’s speech will not of course be Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, which Netanyahu dearly wishes that the world ignore. It is the so-called Iranian threat, and indirectly America’s and the P5 + 1 countries negotiation with Iran, which he hopes to derail.

The invitation, solicited and accepted without consultation with the White House, has had the interesting effect of causing discord all around, outside the Israel lobby and within it as well. The Obama administration was predictably livid, seeing the speech as a blatant move by Israel’s government to subvert the administration’s diplomacy by giving a boost to various bills in Congress designed to thwart the negotiations. The administration announced that neither Kerry nor Obama would meet Netanyahu while he was here. Quotes from an unnamed American “senior official” who spoke to Haaretz revealed a degree of anger at the Israeli leader’s maneuver: “We thought we’d seen everything. But Bibi managed to surprise even us. There are things you simply don’t do. He spat in our face publicly and that’s no way to behave.”

Even a number of Netanyahu’s most reliable backers wonder whether the Israeli has overreached. Michael Oren, a right-winger who served four years as Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, said the invitation smelled of a “cynical political move” which could actually “hurt our attempts to act against Iran.” Commentary worried that Israel’s blatant disregard of normal protocol could give some Democrats cover for supporting the negotiations and that the whole episode seemed to muddle as much as buttress Israel’s case against the Iran negotiations. Ron Radosh—not before accusing Obama of “verging on” anti-Semitism for using that well known code word “donors” when asking his fellow Democrats to refrain from backing diplomacy-busting bills—came down on Oren’s side. On the other side, Norman Podhoretz’s son-in-law Elliott Abrams backed Netanyahu, quoting in his favor this four-year-old passage from historian Walter Russell Mead:

Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.

Stirring words, surely, if you are a right-wing Zionist. But I don’t think anyone can look at the recent polls, such as Telhami’s cited above, or others which correspond to it, and think they describe contemporary American reality. There are surely some Americans who love Israel in this sense, but the far larger sentiment, nourished out of long frustration with Israel’s stonewalling of the peace process and the brutality of its military campaigns against Palestinian civilians, is a good deal more complicated. What remains is the power of the Israel lobby, exercised in great part through Congress by the leverage exerted by major donors.

The stakes are greater than a test of one’s affection towards Israel, the Zionist project, or the belief (or lack of it) that the Palestinians should have any rights at all in their native land. They are greater than whether Congress should be meddling in American diplomacy by passing sanctions legislation in the middle of negotiations, or whether those sanctions would actually “throw a grenade” into the talks, as Mossad chief Tamir Pardo described it. They are really over whether the United States should go to war against Iran at Israel’s behest. War is off the table for now—though it was less than eight years ago that leading neoconservatives were pushing loudly and openly for George W. Bush to attack Iran. But there is every possibility that the next president, a non-Rand Paul Republican or Hillary Clinton, would be far more amenable than Obama to Israel’s war entreaties.

The bills now working their way through Congress are an intermediate step, a threshold before war, after which the following steps would likely ensue: a blow up in the negotiations—hawkish Arkansas senator Tom Cotton said this was “very much the intended consequence” of the legislation—the reintroduction of more severe sanctions, which may hurt the Iranian people but will likely convince Iranian leaders that negotiation with the United States is futile; an end to the intrusive inspections mandated by the existing provisional agreements between the P5+1 and Iran, further advances in the Iran’s ambiguous nuclear program, leaving the next president with the option of containing a nuclear capable Iran or going to war. Netanyahu and the neocons believe that under such circumstances, the choice would be war.

If that juncture is reached, we can expect the neoconservatives to claim the war will be a cakewalk. They’ve had practice with their lines. Charles Krauthammer, their best polemicist, has been sounding the tocsins lately about “Emerging Iranian Empire.” Here’s some of what he had to say about invading Iraq in 2003:

Hence Iraq. This is about more than the terrible weapons. It is about reconstituting a terrorized society. A de-Saddamized Iraq with a decent government could revolutionize the region. It would provide friendly basing not just for the outward projection of American power but also for the outward projection of democratic and modernizing ideas, which is why the Administration plans an 18-month occupation for a civil and political reconstruction unlike any since postwar Germany and Japan. If we succeed, the effect on the region would be enormous, encouraging democrats and modernizers — and threatening despots and troglodytes — in neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and beyond. To do this, however, America must give up patrolling from over the horizon. It must come ashore.

Americans don’t like that. They do not hunger for exotic lands. America is perhaps the only hegemonic power in history in constant search of “exit strategies.” But Sept. 11 taught that what the U.S. needs in the Arab world is not an exit strategy but an entry strategy. Iraq is the beckoning door.

The Arabs fully understand this historic shift from containment to construction. They see that pan-Arab reformation is the deepest meaning of an American entry into Iraq. That is why the Arab League so strenuously opposes the intervention. The rulers of the 22 Arab states — not a single one freely elected — understand that Iraq is only the beginning and that reformation ultimately spells their end. Not a happy prospect for them, but a real hope for their long-repressed peoples — and for those threatened by the chaos and fanaticism bred in that cauldron of repression.

Obviously the invasion, which has smashed Iraq, killed hundreds of thousands and created perhaps a million refugees, cleared the stage for ISIS, and left Iraq vulnerable to an al-Qaeda-style takeover, did not work out quite as Krauthammer forecast. Nor was there any prospect that it would.

So now the neoconservatives are laying the ground for their next war. Bombing Iran won’t do the job, say defense analysts like Kenneth Pollack (a somewhat chastened Iraq hawk.) We will need to occupy the country—four times as large as Iraq, with two and a half times the population. If you liked the occupation of Iraq, you’ll love war against Iran.

The weird thing is that such a war is totally unnecessary. Iran is actually our ally against the fundamentalist jihadis of ISIS and actually the only Middle East country using any real muscle to combat ISIS. It’s a country with a fashionableculturally pro-Western middle class which lives in uneasy coexistence with a fundamentalist regime that is about as well-respected as the Brezhnev era communist party was in the Soviet Union. The revolution, the hostage crisis, were more than 35 years ago. Anti-Americanism in Iran is more or less dead as a mobilizing force. Yet this is the country that Netanyahu and the neocons want us to bomb and invade.

I believe Obama can win his showdown with Netanyahu, win it decisively, and in so doing forever transform the relationship between the United States and Israel. But he can’t do it without laying his cards out very clearly, in a major speech, probably a televised speech. The points made would resemble those suggested in a seminal article by Robert Merry in The National Interest two and a half years ago. He would have to explain that the United States’ national interests on Iran have diverged from those of Israel, and why, and iterate that his constitutional duty is the protection of America’s national interest. He could explain that a war against Iran would quadruple the chaos in the Middle East, abort the economic recovery, and sever the United States both from its allies in Europe and its more ambivalent strategic rivals/partners, Russia and China. The only countries that would be pleased would be Israel and the Saudi princes. The American military, exhausted from 15 years of war, would face another 15 years of occupation duty. The jihadist Sunnis, ISIS and all the rest, Iran’s fiercest enemies, would of course be delighted at the destruction of the Shi’ite regime they view as apostate. But who else would be?

Above all, Obama could stress that as president he will no longer stand for American policies being subject to manipulation by a foreign power. In speaking in terms of American national interest, he will find reservoirs of support Democrats haven’t touched in many years. As Merry makes clear, the pushback would be fierce. But a president who explained his decisions in terms of refusing to concede the country’s sovereign command over decisions of war and peace to a minor foreign power would be victorious.

Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.



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