The president got a joyful and sustained ovation before and after his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a bipartisan recognition of his contribution to the safety and security of Israel. Oh, that would Israeli President Shimon Peres. Befitting his ceremonial role (and lack of policy role in Israel), Peres spoke in platitudes about the hope for peace and assured us that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wants peace, too. He also issued some tough words about Israel’s ability to defend itself.
The U.S. president’s welcome and send-off were not as warm, although a large number of attendees were willing to cheer his sometimes partisan remarks. President Obama’s speech was as platitudinous as Peres’s remarks in many respects. Unfortunately, Obama is in charge of U.S. policy, and we learned from him much about his defensive message for the campaign (he insists that he has always had Israel’s back) but less about his understanding as to whether sanctions are working, what progress he believes Iran is making on its nuclear program and when he would employ military force.
In Obama’s telling, we’ve masterfully assembled a sanctions policy and have Iran totally “isolated.” Now, he contends, we have the chance to see if diplomacy can work. No, really, he says, it’s not too late for Iran to choose to comply with our demands. He went so far as to say that only diplomacy can permanently solve the Iranian nuclear problem. But of course, regime change or robust military action would be far longer-lasting and more decisive than disingenuous promises from the Iranians. Most disturbingly, he did not indicate there would be any conditions to negotiations (e.g., letting inspectors in), so the potential for delay and deception is great.
Obama indeed did parrot the line that all options would be on the table. And he chest-thumped by saying Iran should not doubt his resolve. (They might do just that considering we bugged out of Iraq and are on an election-calendar troop drawdown in Afghanistan.) He’s serious about using the military option. But wait. All the war talk (otherwise known as making the military option credible) he insisted has only pushed up oil prices and enriched Iran. No suggestion was offered as to how we would then make the military option more credible, you know, in case the mullahs figure he has no interest in a military action that would make his massive defense cuts look preposterous. This argument was especially noteworthy since Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is expected to argue for more public and credible threats of military force. From Obama’s perspective all this “bluster” is unhelpful.
It is also noteworthy that Obama repeatedly talked about not letting Iran get its hands on a nuclear weapon. This is not how Israel sees things. The Jewish state is determined not to permit Iran to get a nuclear weapons capability. Israel can’t wait for Iran to actually get a bomb.
Obama was largely defensive in tone throughout the speech, declaring at one point that he had been with Israel at every critical junction so anyone who says differently doesn’t have the facts. He is hoping to get by with analysis of the problem (a nuclear-armed Iran would be very bad, he said), specifically rejecting containment as a strategy and leaving out large chunks of history (e.g., his failure to aid the Green Movement, his disastrous fetish with Israeli settlements that doomed the peace process).
But of course the real issues remain: 1) There is no evidence the Iran nuclear program has slowed because of sanctions (the reverse is true); 2) He actually seems to believe diplomacy is the only way to solve the Iranian threat; and 3) The timetable for sanctions and diplomacy to “work” will soon stretch beyond the time by which Israel must act in its own defense, leaving it dependent on U.S. action.
Obama will, as has been the case for Democratic presidential candidates for decades, get the majority of the American Jewish vote. It may not be as high as in 2008, and he may not have the assistance of a good number of Jewish bundlers. His visit to AIPAC was not surprisingly focused on minimizing the Jewish defections.
But meanwhile there is a national-security reality that is much less amenable to his sweet-talking. Iran’s economy may be suffering, but it appears to be unmoved by sanctions to curb its nuclear ambitions. Israel is unwilling to bide its time indefinitely while an existential threat emerges. So Obama’s words are less important and decisive than they have ever been. What matters is what the Iranians are doing (or not), how Israel assesses that risk and whether Israel will be compelled to act independently. And then we will find out to what degree Obama really does stand with Israel and whether he will support the Jewish state if it acts in self-defense to disarm a genocidal regime.