I gave this as a talk this morning at University Christian Church in Seattle with Dick Blakney:
We’re now several days from Barack Obama’s re-election victory. What does it all mean?
First, we dodged a bullet. We came perilously close to finding a man in the White House who would have taken us to war with Iran along with our Israeli ally. All I can say is thank God that didn’t happen.
But does Obama’s victory mean that we’re out of the woods regarding Iran? Hardly. If our relationship with Iran followed a rational arc, there’d be no chance of war. After all, the American people clearly want little to do with Middle Eastern wars. They’re fed up with the thousands of deaths of our boys in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our last major entanglement there is coming to an end. The administration has, so far, refused to intervene in the Syrian civil war. Military intervention is not a popular policy (except when it involves drones).
Do we really think Pres. Obama would join Israel in a war on Iran? If there was a way to guarantee that such an attack wouldn’t drag us into a prolonged engagement—perhaps. But it appears that any attack on Iran would drag Israel, the U.S., and much of the Middle East into a long-term, low-intensity conflict. There can be no way the U.S. could limit its exposure. While Iran is no match for us or Israel in conventional terms, the Islamic Republic could draw blood through asymmetrical warfare and its proxies over a very long period. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Revolutionary Guards, all of them might dedicate themselves to avenging any attack on Iran.
I am not naïve enough to believe that Obama will avoid war with Iran because of any set of principles or values. His considerations are solely pragmatic and based on notions of political advantage and survival. That’s why the primary approach of his administration to the Muslim world and the Islamist threat is based on drones and targeted killings. It’s a substitute for a substantive engagement based on a diplomatic policy.
In an article in Foreign Policy, the director of the Brookings Doha Center said the slogan regarding the Middle East for the next four years will be:
Engage where we must, disengage when we can.
Given that, is there any hope for a constructive resolution to the nuclear impasse with Iran? Yes, there is. Iran has proposed that in return for ending enrichment of uranium beyond 20%, the west would ease or end sanctions. This is an offer it put on the negotiating table some time ago. So far, the western response hasn’t been overwhelming.
But this seems the most realistic possibility for compromise. It gives both sides something they want: the U.S. wants to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Iran wants relief from strangling sanctions. Such an agreement would give both sides breathing room to resolve more intractable issues.
Shortly before the election, administration sources told the NY Times that both sides had agreed to bilateral talks on outstanding issues. Though different sources denied the original report, the Times never retracted it and Iran did not summarily reject it. This gives some hope that at least the two sides might talk to each other, if not achieve a breakthrough.
Where would that leave Israel? Frankly, given Bibi Netanyahu’s explicit support for Romney’s presidential bid, Obama isn’t likely to give much consideration to the concerns of Israel’s prime minister. Israel’s position is–until Iran’s uranium enrichment ends, it is on the road to a nuclear weapon. As far as Israel is concerned, allowing any enrichment permits an ongoing threat to Israel’s existence.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu told a TV interviewer that he was willing to “push the button” to start a war with Iran. In answer to the question, would Iran have a nuclear program at the end of his next term, he answered point-blank: No.
All this leaves great danger that Netanyahu might go it alone in attacking Iran. If he did, Israel would not have nearly enough capability to wipe out Iran’s nuclear program. It doesn’t have bunker buster bombs of sufficient power to penetrate mountain redoubts like Fordo, where Iran’s most sophisticated nuclear facility is housed. At best, Israel could set back Iran by a year. At the end of that period, Iran would be where it is now. But such an attack might cause Iran to withdraw from the Non Proliferation Treaty. This would deny the west whatever rights of inspection it now has, and drive Iran’s nuclear ambitions even farther underground.
Can Obama rein in Bibi? Can he stop an Israeli attack? I don’t know. I do know that the president isn’t the only one who doesn’t want such a war. All of Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs including the air force chief are opposed. That leaves the prime minister and defense minister. They’re the only ones rattling sabers. It seems almost inconceivable that an entire nation goes to war solely on the command of one powerful leader. I’m sad to say, it is possible. I can’t say whether it’s likely, but it is possible. And that possibility scares me.
Israel, I’m sorry to say, is a nation that is marching toward authoritarianism. The next election, scheduled for January, will likely ratify a third term as prime minister for Bibi Netanyahu. It would make him the longest serving leader in the country’s history. In all this time, he has radically remade the country and its institutions. He has inaugurated what I call the permanent right wing majority. Gone are any serious challenges from left or centrist parties. Though you can’t call Israel a one-party state, you can call it a state in which anti-democratic, ultranationalist forces are not just in the ascendancy, but in control of all the levers of state power.
We have seen throughout history that when power is unchecked in this fashion, that such nations not only drag themselves into destructive spirals of mayhem and violence, but draw their neighbors and entire regions after them. Frankly, I don’t have faith that Barack Obama can check Israel’s most dangerous impulses. I wish I could say that the Congress might exercise some restraint. But it is even more beholden to the Israel lobby than the president. Dick sent me a letter Sen. Maria Cantwell sent to him in which she erroneously claimed Iran had a nuclear weapons program. For that reason, I couldn’t bring myself to vote for her earlier this week.
There’s another slightly alarming development related to the resignation of Gen. David Petraeus as CIA chief. Pres. Obama will be seeking a long-term replacement for him. One of the candidates suggested by CNN (and I’m glad to say that she’s just one among many) is former Rep. Jane Harman. She was once under consideration to be chair of the House Intelligence Committee. She bargained with wealthy Aipac donor Haim Saban, promising she would lobby against prosecution of Aipac’s Steve Rosen for spying if Saban would lobby House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Harman to be committee chair. This interchange was a clear violation of federal law and the FBI investigated, but didn’t pursue the matter. Imagine how happy the lobby and Israel would be if Obama appointed her to head the CIA. For that reason, I doubt it will happen. But you never know.
What about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace? I’m afraid it’s not in the cards. Not only does Obama detest Netanyahu (the feeling is surely mutual), our president simply doesn’t have the stomach or guts to go up against the Israel lobby. I don’t see the U.S. supporting any major peace initiatives. In fact, I see us continuing to play a negative role regarding questions like Palestinian statehood and a bid for recognition via the UN. The next four years promise stasis, benign neglect.
All this doesn’t mean things stay the same. That’s rarely the case in the Middle East. When there is a vacuum, it is filled by those who have the most to gain by tipping over the apple cart. It might be Hezbollah. It might be Assad. It might be Hamas. It might be Israel. There are so many unresolved issues in the Middle East, so many grudges nursed and injustices ignored, that someone will come forward and torpedo the status quo. A terror attack, kidnapping an Israeli soldier, anything could do it. When that happens, there will be no glue holding things together. No balance of power or force of deterrence holding anyone back. Then violence will rage once more.
I regret to say that there is almost a 100% chance there will be a major conflict in the next four years. It will either be in Iran, Lebanon, Syria or Gaza. It will stem from American refusal to buck the power of the Israel lobby and from Israel’s impulse to address all its problems with military force rather than compromise or diplomacy.
I’m not a seer and can’t tell you exactly what will happen. All I can do is write my blog and put my body and spirit on the line for peace. We can both make our voices heard through whatever avenues we have. Create momentum for peace. If war is one of those Caterpillar armored bulldozers Israel uses to raze Palestinian homes, then let’s stand in its path and stop it in its tracks if we can.