Over the course of his career, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given some stem-winders at the United Nations. But none was as intriguing or as important as the speech he delivered yesterday.
As an aside, let me say that the political “reporters” and pundits who mocked Netanyahu’s visual aids can be written off (permanently, I’d suggest) for the superficial know-nothings that they are. They didn’t get it and unwittingly demonstrated why political reporters (see the Mitt Romney foreign trip) shouldn’t be taken seriously on foreign policy issues. As the Times of Israel explained, what Netanyahu was doing was talking directly to the American public. (“Whether he is actively working to undermine Obama’s Jewish support and bolster Romney’s candidacy is unclear. But there is little doubt he is using the few weeks left till US election day, when a second-term Obama will likely not be as attentive or interested in what he has to say, to drill his point home at every opportunity. Netanyahu is hoping to convince the American voter that Iran is as immediate a threat as he believes it to be. And through the voter, maybe even Obama himself.”)
But back to the speech itself. It did three critical things, all of which are vital for policymakers in the West and the American voting public.
First, he laid out (rather than obfuscated, as President Obama did) the jihadist threat we face (“the medieval forces of radical Islam”). He explained:
They seek supremacy over all Muslims. They are bent on world conquest. They want to destroy Israel, Europe, America. They want to extinguish freedom. They want to end the modern world.
Militant Islam has many branches – from the rulers of Iran with their Revolutionary Guards to Al Qaeda terrorists to the radical cells lurking in every part of the globe.
But despite their differences, they are all rooted in the same bitter soil of intolerance. That intolerance is directed first at their fellow Muslims, and then to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, secular people, anyone who doesn’t submit to their unforgiving creed.
They want to drag humanity back to an age of unquestioning dogma and unrelenting conflict.
I am sure of one thing. Ultimately they will fail. Ultimately, light will penetrate the darkness.
We’ve seen that happen before. . . .
I think the relevant question is this: it’s not whether this fanaticism will be defeated. It’s how many lives will be lost before it’s defeated.
President Obama has never laid this out, and likely never will, either because he doesn’t believe it or because he thinks it will “provoke” terrorists (whose ideology he dare not name). It is a great failing of his presidency, and it accounts for his lack of preparation for and confusion about the attacks on our embassies.
Second, Netanyahu made the case to the American people that while the U.S. has not been at war with Iran, Iran has been at war for years with the U.S.: “They abetted the killing of American soldiers in Iraq and continue to do so in Afghanistan. Before that, Iranian proxies killed hundreds of American troops in Beirut and in Saudi Arabia. They’ve turned Lebanon and Gaza into terror strongholds, embedding nearly 100,000 missiles and rockets in civilian areas.. . . In the last year, they’ve spread their international terror networks to two dozen countries across five continents — from India and Thailand to Kenya and Bulgaria. They’ve even plotted to blow up a restaurant a few blocks from the White House in order to kill a diplomat.” Obama won’t say that either, because he might be questioned about why he ever could have imagined engagement with the mullahs would work. He also might be expected to do something about Iran’s aggression. Netanyahu then made the case why Iran can never get the bomb. It’s the ideology, you see:
Militant Jihadists behave very differently from secular Marxists. There were no Soviet suicide bombers. Yet Iran produces hordes of them.
Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival.
But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get nuclear weapons.
There’s a great scholar of the Middle East, Prof. Bernard Lewis, who put it best. He said that for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.
Iran’s apocalyptic leaders believe that a medieval holy man will reappear in the wake of a devastating Holy War, thereby ensuring that their brand of radical Islam will rule the earth.
That’s not just what they believe. That’s what is actually guiding their policies and their actions.
Third, Netanyahu argued for a red line for Iran, using his bomb chart. It was a simple yet effective exposition of a technological and political reality. To begin with, he said the obvious that the sanctions effort has failed. (“It’s had an effect on the economy, but we must face the truth. Sanctions have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program either.”) He then explained why we need a red line:
Red lines don’t lead to war; red lines prevent war.
Look at NATO’s charter: it made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all. NATO’s red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century.
President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.
In fact, it’s the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression.
If the Western powers had drawn clear red lines during the 1930s, I believe they would have stopped Nazi aggression and World War II might have been avoided.
In 1990, if Saddam Hussein had been clearly told that his conquest of Kuwait would cross a red line, the first Gulf War might have been avoided.
Clear red lines have also worked with Iran.
Earlier this year, Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormouz. The United States drew a clear red line and Iran backed off.
Red lines could be drawn in different parts of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But to be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program: on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.
He would draw the red line before “Iran gets to a point where it’s a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.” He concluded, “The red line must be drawn on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program because these enrichment facilities are the only nuclear installations that we can definitely see and credibly target. I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down.”
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has been involved in drafting sanctions legislation. He thinks Netanyahu is right, e-mailing me: “It’s a red line that can be easily verified by the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. It forces a decision point. Otherwise you have endless rounds of diplomacy and rhetoric about sanctions working, and no one is ever willing to say, enough! Netanyahu made it clear that the nuclear red line is spring or summer of 2013. That’s when Iran will have enough medium-enriched uranium, at 20 percent, which is 90 percent of the way to military grade uranium, to build an atomic weapon.” Has time run out for sanctions? He says, “Given Iran’s large foreign exchange reserves, still sizable oil export earnings, and ability to restrict capital outflows, the economic cripple date will likely occur many months if not years after that nuclear threshold date.”
Others have argued that the U.S. administration should get authorization from Congress use of force legislation to up the credibility of the military threat. These are not mutually exclusive.
Right now Obama holds a losing hand, with ownership of an Iran policy that has failed. At a time when his national security image is eroding, his stance toward Israel is being roundly criticized and he has no plausible alternative policy, why not agree with Netanyahu on a red line? There’s no credible explanation about why that should be a problem — unless he never will be prepared to use force or harbors the fantasy that a negotiated agreement is still possible.