The Monday before Super Tuesday this year – the day with all the Republican primaries and caucuses that will decide who will run against Obama, or will leave things as muddled as the days before – wasn’t exactly a slow news day. It was a pre-news day, with everyone talking about the importance of what was about to happen, and what was likely to happen, but not certain to happen. Everything said was hypothetical – but everyone agrees Mitt Romney will eventually get the nomination, one way or another, so it all seemed rather pointless. This was just another Tuesday. But political junkies like this sort of thing, just as die-hard sports fans like the sixteen back-to-back hours of Super Bowl pre-game programming. There is no explaining people’s enthusiasms. They are what they are. The rest of us are content to wait for the game itself, or in this case, the results of all those primaries and caucuses, knowing full well they are likely to decide nothing yet.
But there was something else going on, dropped in the news cycle here and there, between all the talk of Santorum’s chances in Ohio and, of course, the ongoing problem Rush Limbaugh now presents to the Republican Party. If all but three women in America never vote for a Republican again, because of Rush’s bullying rants about weak/evil/stupid/sex-crazed women, and about Sandra Fluke in particular in this case, it may not matter who the Republicans nominate. None of them will say a word against Limbaugh, really. He has fifteen million listeners – the core of the party. They’re stuck with him. But enough had been said about that, or so the Republicans hoped, and there was nothing yet to be said, definitively, about Super Tuesday. So, after a time, the questions turned to the real event of the day. Benjamin Netanyahu was in town, for talks with Obama, on the issue of Iran. Would Obama agree to bomb Iran to smithereens, right now, to end their nuclear program, or would Netanyahu call out Obama as a sissy-pants girly-man, who obviously hates Jews and hates Israel, and assure that whoever the Republicans nominate will win in a landslide? That was a sufficiently juicy storyline to fill a few spare few minutes in the news cycle.
But Paul Werdel is troubled by the premise of all this talk:
I’m certainly not the first person to note that the public discussion about Iran and its nuclear intentions has taken on a markedly different tone in the United States in recent weeks. The prospect of war over those intentions – unclear though they remain – is increasingly discussed and reported less in matters of “if”, but of “when.”
That certainly doesn’t mean we’re on our way, but those who remember 2003 well, and worry that we’ve perhaps not learned its lessons have been given good cause to wonder.
And he posts a screen-shot from CNN’s Situation Room with this at the bottom – “A Military Strike on Iran’s Nukes?” He notes that whether there really are any actual nukes is not even a question anymore:
Now, having spent the better part of my career in television news I know this is much less a matter of intent, than it is of speed, laziness, and quick uncritical thinking. But when it comes to matters of war and peace, laziness is easily as dangerous as intent. And that’s the problem.
Do they have nukes? What should we do about it? The answer to the second question depends on the answer to the first question – or maybe it doesn’t. Werdel may be right to suggest we are a bit of a trigger-happy nation:
Frustrated by a diplomatic logjam and a bloody Syrian offensive, Republican Sen. John McCain on Monday urged the United States to launch airstrikes against President Bashar Assad’s regime to force him out of power – a call for dramatic military intervention that wasn’t supported by the Obama administration or its European or Arab partners.
Yes, the Obama administration and its European and Arab partners worry about direct military intervention, especially unilateral military intervention by the United States. Russia and China firmly back Assad’s regime, and they’d likely jump in to support Assad. An all-out war, or even just a localized proxy war, between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other, seems like a bad idea. But McCain, who might have been president if things had gone differently, doesn’t seem to think so, in spite of all the crosscurrents at play here:
McCain’s statement on the Senate floor came as the U.S. and European governments pleaded for Russia’s Vladimir Putin to rethink his anti-interventionist stance on Syria, in what appeared to be an increasingly desperate effort for consensus among world powers to stop a crackdown that has killed more than 7,500 people. Hundreds fled to neighboring Lebanon on Monday fearing they’d be massacred in their homes.
But the trans-Atlantic calls for Russia to abandon its opposition to strong U.N. action were delivered at a curious time: a day after Putin showed his strength by resoundingly winning re-election as president, a position he held from 2000 to 2008. Even the modest aim of gaining Russian support for a humanitarian strategy in Syria faced renewed resistance Monday – showing just how limited the diplomatic options were despite the ongoing violence.
McCain’s strategy would be far more direct, though it’s unclear how popular it would be. His statement was as much a critique of President Barack Obama as a rallying call for an international military campaign, accusing the president of being too soft on Assad.
Ah, that’s it. Obama is a sissy-pants girly-man. Real men just let it rip, and worry about the fallout – geopolitical or actually radioactive – later, if at all. But in the summer of 2008 it was pretty much the same thing:
Using the Georgian president’s nickname – although mispronouncing his last name – McCain said he spoke with President “Misha” Saakashvili today and reassured him that “the thoughts and the prayers and support of the American people are with that brave little nation as they struggle for their freedom and independence.”
“And he wanted me to say thank you to you, to give you his heartfelt thanks for the support of the American people for this tiny little democracy far away from the United States of America,” McCain said of his conversation with Saakashvili. “And I told him that I know I speak for every American when I say to him, ‘Today we are all Georgians.’”
Russia had invaded and briefly occupied a small segment of Georgia in a border dispute. McCain, three months before the election, called for America to haul ass over there with everything we had to free Georgia. We would go to war with Russia over this – and it was about time after all. But not only did this not cause all Americans to decide that this assertion made John McCain the man who should next lead America, even the neoconservative hawks in the Bush administration, and even Dick Cheney, thought this was nuts. Sarah Palin liked the idea of course. And the calculation was clear – idealist calls for all-out war are always overwhelmingly popular. Or they are until they’re not.
And as regards Israel and Iran and the United States, here we go again:
With Israel warning of a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, President Obama urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Monday to give diplomacy and economic sanctions a chance to work before resorting to military action.
The meeting, held in a charged atmosphere of election-year politics and a deepening confrontation with Tehran, was nevertheless “friendly, straightforward, and serious,” a White House official said. But it did not resolve basic differences between the two leaders over how to deal with the Iranian threat.
Mr. Netanyahu, the official said, reiterated that Israel had not made a decision on striking Iran, but he expressed deep skepticism that international pressure would persuade Iran’s leaders to forsake the development of nuclear weapons.
And the details were tricky. Netanyahu is reported to have argued that we should not reopen talks with Iran – unless Iran agreed to a verifiable suspension of its uranium enrichment activities. And the White House said that would end the talks before they even began – that was something to talk about with Iran in the first place. And it seems Obama was saying that the European Union’s oil sanctions and the blacklisting of Iran’s central bank were just starting. Those might force Iran back to the bargaining table. Yeah, that doesn’t eliminate the nuclear threat but it’s not exactly chopped liver either:
“We do believe there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue,” the president said as Mr. Netanyahu sat next to him in the Oval Office before the start of their three hours of talks.
They don’t agree, but both decided not to have a food-fight or anything. And Obama pointed out that all this talk of war – America should do something now or have to face the wrath of an angry Israel – was driving up oil prices and undermining the effect of any sanctions on Iran. Yeah, higher oil prices mean they get lots more money. But Netanyahu kept saying that if you don’t talk of war, and have a war, you send a message of weakness. It seems he was doing his Dick Cheney impersonation. Maybe he does James Cagney too.
And of course all this was going on during the annual conference of that pro-Israeli lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – this time all about calls for tougher action on Iran. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, spoke to them and said he would soon introduce a bill in the Senate authorizing the use of military force against Iran, right now. If President Sissy-Pants Girly-Man won’t go to war for Israel the Senate will get it done. An AIPAC official quickly noted that this idea originated with McConnell and not with AIPAC – they just give him money and tell him they can deliver the Jewish-American vote for him, under certain conditions. They’re just lobbyists. They don’t write legislation for anyone, really.
But Obama was being careful when he spoke to them over the weekend:
“My policy here is not going to be one of containment,” Mr. Obama said before the meeting on Monday. “My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.” He added, “When I say all options are on the table, I mean it.”
Mr. Netanyahu, noting that Iran’s leaders vilify the United States as the “Great Satan” and Israel as the “Little Satan,” said there was no difference between the two countries. “We are you, and you are us,” he said. “We are together.”
The prime minister thanked Mr. Obama for affirming, in his speech on Sunday, that “when it comes to security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right to make its own decisions.”
But much of that was bullshit:
Israeli officials said they were gratified by the president’s explicit reference to military force as an option, his rejection of a containment policy and his reaffirmation of Israel’s right to make decisions on its national security. Still, beneath the tableau of shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity, the differences in their views were on display in their statements before the meeting. Mr. Netanyahu said nothing about diplomacy and the sanctions that Mr. Obama has advocated. And while the president repeated his vow that “all options are on the table” to halt Iran’s pursuit of a weapon, he did not explicitly mention military force, as he did on Sunday.
Nor has the president embraced another crucial Israeli demand: that military action come before Iran acquires the capability to manufacture a bomb, as opposed to before it actually builds one. The two men did not close the gap on this issue, an official said, though he added that Mr. Netanyahu did not press Mr. Obama on it.
Well, that is a tricky issue, as America has been here before, regarding Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. We went to war to eliminate those. But there weren’t any. Oops. Then we said we had actually gone to war to eliminate his capacity to make weapons of mass destruction. But there were no factories or labs with centrifuges or anything like that. Oops. Then we said we had actually gone to war because of Saddam Hussein’s intention to maybe produce weapons of destruction one day. It was what we thought he might be thinking about that was the real problem. Luckily no one could disprove what we said we thought he was probably thinking. That’s where we settled. Still, you can see Obama’s problem here. Obama seems the kind of fellow who likes to deal with reality, with what’s actually going on. Netanyahu had to give up trying to get Obama to lay down sharp “red lines” – specific conditions that would mean American action, as in bomb the bastards now. We’ve drawn red lines before. It didn’t work out well.
But Obama does have a secondary concern:
The president said Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would ignite an arms race in the Middle East, raise the specter of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, and allow Iran to behave with impunity in the region.
That’s not about Israel of course, but it matters, and what Obama did say is pretty clear:
Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon… Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built. Now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, but carry a big stick.
And there’s Spenser Ackerman:
Israel wanted Obama to give Iran a red line not to cross. I would argue he did. “I made a commitment to the American people, and said that we would use all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” That isn’t what Netanyahu wants to hear. As Noah Pollak incisively tweeted - yes, yes, snicker to yourselves, but he’s right – the Israelis want Iran not to be able to produce a nuclear weapon. Obama did not liquidate the disagreement.
And there’s Andrew Sullivan:
Basically, Obama has refused to have the Greater Israel Lobby move the red lines to rendering Iran incapable of producing a nuclear weapon, rather than deciding to make one or actually making one. And this will be where the Greater Israel lobby shifts its support to the Christianist GOP, already committed to the Netanyahu-Lieberman position on Iran and the settlements, and now financed by Greater Israel fanatics, like Sheldon Adelson. …
And he finds it no surprise that Liz Cheney was on a panel at AIPAC:
Among the speakers was Liz Cheney, a former State Department official and daughter of George W. Bush’s vice president. There was widespread applause for her attacks on Barack Obama including when she said the president is more interested in “containing Israel” by discouraging it from attacking Iran than blocking Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb. There was also applause when she said there was no president who had done more to “undermine and delegitimize” Israel. There were loud cheers when she predicted that the next AIPAC conference will be held under a new US president.
So Sullivan concludes this:
For the worldview of Cheney and Netanyahu to prevail, Obama must be defeated. That is clearly the agenda of the current Israeli government…
My worry is that once the Likudniks begin to realize Obama may not be defeated by the GOP at home, the current Israeli government would launch a war without warning to create a crisis to humiliate the president, rally end-times evangelicals to vote, send oil prices soaring, and force the US president to co-opt a war he does not want and does not yet believe is necessary. If that helps the GOP nominee that’s so much the better. Every GOP candidate is now committed to the most extreme positions of the Likudnik Israeli right – and is to the bellicose right of most Israelis.
And Sullivan is depressed:
I hope that the Israeli government is not that reckless or extreme. But ask yourself when thinking about Netanyahu: what would Cheney do? These individuals are radicals. They turned the US into a torturing nation and regarded that decision as a “no-brainer.” A “wag-the-dog” scenario in which Netanyahu creates a war to wound and weaken a US president before an election is, sadly, not unthinkable. And he will have the GOP as his critical back-up.
And James Fallows just finds the whole thing odd:
The ritual of the AIPAC speech really is something. I am trying to think of a parallel for the first part of this address, in which Obama explained that he was really, truly Israel’s friend … It’s the expectation of the apologia that is remarkable. I can’t think of another situation where an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil, would find it necessary or dignified to plead his bona fides in a similar way. (About England? Italy? Canada? Mexico?)
I recognize the uniqueness of Israel’s history and the importance of “trust” in a president’s word and intent. But the oddity of the AIPAC ritual is worth noting, and not in a good way.
But it’s not so odd if you think of it this way – the Republicans and the current Israeli government, and the evangelical Christian folks, want to defeat Obama and have their own pro-Israel guy in office. Obama won’t do, even though Obama said this the previous week:
In the conversations I’ve had over the course of three years, and over the course of the last three months and three weeks, what I’ve emphasized is that preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon isn’t just in the interest of Israel, it is profoundly in the security interests of the United States, and that when I say we’re not taking any option off the table, we mean it…
I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff. I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.
Or no one believes him at all. After all, he was not on the floor of the Senate, like John McCain in 2008 and now, calling for war with the big boys. And he’s not with Netanyahu and the Cheney family calling for bombing Iran now, for what they might do in the future. He took Teddy Roosevelt, who spoke of speaking quietly, seriously. No one does that. That shows weakness, no matter how big your stick. You have to use that stick.
But there’s another way to look at this. Paul Pillar argues that we could live with a nuclear Iran – “An Iran with a bomb would not be anywhere near as dangerous as most people assume, and a war to try to stop it from acquiring one would be less successful, and far more costly, than most people imagine.”
Bomb Iran for a few weeks and the small rockets would pour into Tel Aviv and put our troops and all Western civilians at direct risk of terrorist attacks, and would tip Pakistan into overt hostility to any cooperation with us, and rally the Iranian opposition to come around and support their absurd government – and destroy the global coalition against Iran, and increase its global isolation, and only set back Iranian nuclear development for a few years – and make a Third World War, based on religion, inevitable – and of course global recruitment for Jihad would skyrocket – and so on and so forth – while Pillar argues that countries want nukes to deter aggression, not to use them, and always have. But of course there is only history and experience – the long Cold War – to show that.
But the world is on edge about this – not about Rush Limbaugh or Super Tuesday. And the world should be. This stuff could kill us all.