Islam has always been a part of America’s story … the truth is that America and Islam are not exclusive… Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.
Barack Obama, Cairo, 2009
I have largely refrained from writing on the Iranian issue for various reasons—but mainly because, without being privy to updated intelligence or to Israel’s true operational capabilities, it is virtually impossible to give informed and reasoned assessments of the real policy options available to the Israeli leadership.
I therefore felt I had nothing really of substance to add to the plethora of speculative analysis that has flooded the public domain.
However, as economic sanctions drag on it is becoming increasingly clear that although they may be capable of inflicting considerable economic pain on the Iranian economy, they seem unable to compel the regime in Tehran to cease its nuclear program. So with the sand rapidly diminishing in the hour-glass in the run-up to the US presidential election, the political (as opposed to the operational) context is becoming increasing crucial for Israel.
The Cairo Caveat
So how is Israel, as the country most tangibly threatened by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to react to what is increasingly perceived as US-led international lethargy in dealing with the problem? How much credence should it put in the both the US administration’s assurances that it will act to prevent the Iranians achieving weaponized nuclear capabilities, and in its judgment to do so before it is too late.
Over the first three years, political exigencies (both domestic and foreign) have forced Barack Obama to try to reinvent himself with regard to his attitude towards Israel.
The initial hallmark of his administration’s foreign policy was his outreach to the Muslim world and blatant—some might say brutal—belligerence towards Israel. It is important to remember this in assessing just how much store Israel—and pro-Israeli Americans—should put on the president’s recent charm-offensive at the AIPAC convention. (none, I say!)
For while it is true that much water has flown in the Potomac (and the Nile) since Obama’s initial outreach address to the Muslim world in Cairo (June 2009) shortly after his election, the significance of the sentiments conveyed in that speech should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is precisely because it was delivered when he was still unencumbered by domestic constraints and foreign frustrations that it perhaps reflected most accurately the unfiltered essence of the political instincts Obama brought to the Oval Office.
True, he did chide the Muslim world for the lack of political freedom, gender equality and religious freedom. However, the overall tenor of the address was one of glowing accolades for Islamic achievement and imaginative apologetics for its failures – based on questionable, indeed at times fanciful, interpretations of history, as the introductory excerpt illustrates.
“I have known Islam on three continents…”
Indeed, Obama’s attempt to establish any sort of equivalence between the approach of American ethos on the one hand and of Islamic ethos on the other to “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings”, should be a matter of deep concern to Americans … and Israelis. After all, it is difficult to conceive of anything more antithetical on these issues than a society living under the precepts enshrined in the US constitution and those embraced by Islamic Sharia .
Indeed, with the recent demise of secular Kemalist Turkey, one would be hard pressed to find any Muslim-majority country that displays anything remotely reminiscent of an “overlap” with the American value system. On the other hand, many countries that epitomize the yawning chasm between the two systems spring readily to mind. To name but a few: Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan… and — oh yes — Iran.
One is thus left to wonder what the newly-elected president had in mind when he drew such a breathtakingly inaccurate and inappropriate parallel. Of course, Obama cannot plead ignorance when it comes to the nature of Islam or of Muslim society. He himself has vaunted his close familiarity with them: “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed”. Few—if any—of his predecessors had his first-hand experience with Islam, and whatever one might believe of his current religious affiliation, it is undeniable that it constituted a major input in his formative years.
This is a matter of consequence for it impinges on one of Obama’s key AIPAC pronouncements, namely that: “I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.”
Reassuring or alarming?
Whether this declaration is a cause for reassurance or alarm depends entirely on how one believes Obama interprets US interests.
As Barry Rubin recently diagnosed, this statement of intent is “the key line”, and cautioned that “there’s a catch: Obama is the one determining what U.S. interests are and what defending them means.”
In this regard, there is much cause for concern, for the Obama administration has done much to earn Israeli distrust and suspicion.
Indeed, a highly plausible case can be made for the claim that the manner in which Obama perceives US national interests is a radical departure from the manner in which previous administrations—for all their differences—have perceived it—with the possible partial exception of the Carter administration.
For if the president really believes that there is a large “overlap of shared principles” between Islam and America, would he view the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood quasi-caliphate across North Africa and the Middle East as essentially inimical to US interests? And if so, why so? Likewise, despite his AIPAC-compliant commitment, would Obama really see a nuclear Iran as an unacceptable violation of US interests? And if so, at what stage? Or would he—especially in a post-election context—prefer the counsel of those such as Mearsheimer and Walt who “do not believe a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel.” But more on that later.
Amicable or inimical?
Of course, to be sure, Obama’s record has not been one of unadulterated anti-Israeli enmity.
Thus although admitting that “mistakes” were made in Obama’s Israel policy, which at times was “wrong-headed”, Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman has pointed out that the current administration has acted frequently and forcefully to preserve and promote Israeli interests on a number of critical issues.
Such measures have included enhancing military aid for Israel, exercising US veto power to block a one-sided resolution condemning Israel on settlements, strongly supporting Israel at the UN to block the Palestinian unilateral bid for statehood, among others.
These, and other decisions beneficial to Israel undertaken by the Obama administration, are far from trivial. They cannot – and should not be denied – or disregarded.
However, the more circumspect – or cynical – might suggest that this pro-Israel largesse (and the assurances conveyed at the AIPAC convention) should not be ascribed to any favorable change in sentiment towards Israel. Rather, it should be seen as a result of growing concern over the consequences of a Jewish voter backlash, fuelled by what many considered a grossly biased approach towards Israel.
For example, it is in no way implausible to attribute – at least partially – Obama’s robust rebuttal of the Palestinians’ UN statehood bid to the shock of defeat of the Democrats by a Republican – for the first time in almost a century – in recent elections in New York’s 9th congressional district. With its large Jewish population, the issue of the administration’s treatment of Israel had been a central issue in the elections, and the results were widely interpreted as a wake-up call on this matter.
Likewise, as numerous pundits have pointed out, the generous military aid is merely the continuation of levels agreed upon by the previous administration—and which in some cases has actually been reduced.
Thus despite being able to point to significant pro-Israeli components in its overall policy, much doubt still remains as to how the Obama regime would behave “once the chips were down”—or even if it would concede that they were in fact “down”.
The trust deficit?
This is matter of crucial import. For in Jerusalem and in Washington the Iranian drums beat to a different rhythm. As General Amos Yadlin recently pointed out in the NYT opinion piece, the “windows of opportunity” available to the two sides have very different time-frames. If Israel defers to the US request for restraint, it may lose its ability to inflict significant damage on Tehran’s nuclear installations, in which case it would be entirely dependent on a US decision to act to neutralize an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Obamaphiles have done little to enhance confidence that the president would indeed act in a timely and resolute manner in this regard. Indeed if not for the potential for tragedy, some recent assessments of advocates of Obama’s policy of restraint would be almost comical. Thus in a Financial Times article entitled “Mr Obama must take a stand against Israel over Iran”, our trusty Meirscheimer and Walt inform us that “US intelligence is also confident Tehran has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons.”
Indeed one might well be excused for wondering whether anything short of a mushroom cloud over Tel Aviv would really satisfy the Obama-administration as proof of Iranian intentions?
In the face of such dramatic demonstration of partisan denial, who can blame Binyamin Netanyahu for his evident exasperation in Washington when he declared with bitter sarcasm:
Now, amazingly, some people refuse to acknowledge that Iran’s goal is to develop nuclear weapons. You see, Iran claims … that it’s enriching uranium to develop medical isotopes. Yeah, that’s right, a country that builds underground nuclear facilities, that develops Intercontinental ballistic missiles, that manufactures thousands of centrifuges, and that absorbs crippling sanctions is doing all that in order to advance medical science. So … when that Iranian ICBM is flying through the air to a location near you, you’ve got nothing to worry about—it’s only carrying medical isotopes …
When one sees that France is adopting positions that are more robust and more skeptical than America’s regarding Iranian intentions, something must be seriously out of kilter.
Gauging probable responses.
How then are we to gauge the probability of American resolve under an Obama-led administration to protect Israel in a timely, effective manner, under post-election conditions?
Well, perhaps a good way would be to separate out between actions/decisions of the current administration that could be ascribed to dictates of political survival and reelection calculations from those that were clearly the result of its free unhindered volition.
Under the first category, we could clearly include nearly all the pro-Israel measures undertaken in the last year or so, including the thwarting of Palestinian endeavors at the UN.
Under the latter category we could perhaps include the behavior patterns that characterized the beginning of the president’s incumbency, which were undertaken prior to any re-election constraints. These would, therefore, seem to reflect most accurately his true political sentiments and inclinations—and hence may well be expected to reassert themselves in his second term, when reelection considerations are no longer relevant.
In this regard:
Obama did not have to bow to the King of Saudi Arabia and to belittle the prime minister of Israel. He chose to do so.
He did not have to humiliate Netanyahu at the White House in early 2010, he chose to.
He did not have to demand an unprecedented building freeze in Judea and Samaria, he chose to do
He did not have to orchestrate a contrived crisis over the approval of a minor bureaucratic measure relating to construction of a Jerusalem suburb not included in the building freeze agreement. He chose to do so.
The accumulated effect of these and other actions prompted the usually impeccably reserved Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, to characterize the bilateral relations in the following manner: “Israel’s ties with the US are in the most serious crisis since 1975…the crisis [is] very serious and we are facing a very difficult period in relations.”
So while political constraints might have induced Obama to undertake important pro-Israel measures, he has also freely chosen an array of anti-Israeli postures almost unprecedented in any previous administration in recent decades.
The efficacy of sanctions
But it is not only the brusqueness that Obama has manifested towards Israel that is a cause for concern. It is also the lack of vigor he has manifested towards the Iranian regime.
Obama has had three years to implement the kind of sanctions he is now asking Israel to give a chance to—but has insisted on dragging his heels in instituting them. The question is why?
One hardly knows what is more disturbing.
Is it because –despite all his knowledge of the Muslim world—he misjudged the true nature of the regime in Tehran? Or is it because he did not?
Does he really believe—despite the fact that crippling sanctions of over a decade did not bring Saddam Hussein to his knees—that enhanced sanctions against Iran can work before Israel’s window of opportunity closes? Or is he confident that they will not?
These are the troubling issues facing American Jewry in the upcoming elections. It is not a question of Democrats vs. Republicans as some, such as Tom Friedman, have tried to frame it. It is a question only of Barack Obama and how he will behave as a second term president.
For there is a distinct possibility that Israel could face a second-term president, who is fundamentally unmoored to America’s traditional heritage, a heritage, which despite occasional periods of tensions, was for decades the elemental underpinning of the relationship between the two countries.
The prospect of a White House incumbent with an inherent affinity for Israel’s adversaries and unshackled by considerations of re-election is one that must be considered with the utmost seriousness. US Jewry must decide whether or not that is an acceptable risk.