In Israel and in the United States, it is apparent that there is a growing possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran before the U.S. presidential election. As I and others have written, there is a gap between the timetable for Israel to avoid the “zone of immunity” — that is the point at which Israeli military action would not be able too destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program — and the U.S.president who thinks there is time for ”diplomacy to work.” Without debating the merits of President Obama’s position, he nevertheless has a problem, both political and in policy.
An Israeli strike would be a blatant signal of distrust in Obama by the Jewish state. If the action is less than successful, or if large casualties in Israel result, fingers will point at Obama for having failed to deploy superior U.S. force. And if he believes an Israeli strike will set off a Middle East war, the president, who is in the business of diminishing U.S. military presence, could well be forced into a conflagration.
Two suggestions have emerged. The first comes from Obama supporter Jeffrey Goldberg. He argues that “trip to Israel — a place he hasn’t visited as president — would put Iran on notice that Obama is deadly serious about thwarting their plans. Combined with stops in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, such a visit would also allay the fears of our Arab allies. Most important, such a visit could prevent war. Which, of course, is a very presidential thing to do.”
There are several problems with this. First, it would suggest to some that Obama has been embarrassed into going to Israel by Mitt Romney’s trip. Second, it could very well not work, leaving Obama humiliated when Israel does strike. And finally, I don’t think he could go out in a public setting without facing raucous Israeli critics. The spectacle of a U.S. president being booed and heckled in Israel is not in either country’s interest. And of course, if he didn’t go out, he’d be accused of hiding from the Israeli people, which would be true.
The other suggestion comes from pro-Israel critics of the president such as Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, who argues in favor of Obama requesting an authorization on the use of force from Congress:
At the moment, no one is persuaded that the United States will use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That situation worries Israelis and emboldens Iranians, not the outcome we want. A clear statement now that is backed by the nominees of both parties and elicits widespread support in Congress would demonstrate that, whatever the election results, American policy is set. That is the best (and may be the only) way to avoid an Israeli strike in the near future and the best (and may be the only) way to persuade Iran to negotiate seriously. And if we are unwilling as a nation to state that we will act to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, that conclusion should solidify support for what would then become the inevitable Israeli strike. A refusal by the White House to seek such a joint resolution would itself suggest that, while “all options are on the table,” the likelihood is that that is precisely where they will remain.
As Abrams notes, a request for use of force doesn’t mean Obama has to use it. And it would likely compel Romney to join in supporting such a resolution.
Conversely, if Obama does nothing, I don’t see any reason why Romney shouldn’t go ahead and propose just such a resolution. Is Obama going to turn down the invitation? Romney would have every incentive to demonstrate that Obama is stuck in “lead from behind” mode. In short, not only would it be a productive action for Obama to take, but it would be protection against being outmaneuvered by Romney.
Obama, as he has done so frequently, can wait and hope the Israelis don’t act. That might “work,” insofar as Israeli leaders might want to stretch out the timeline just a little bit longer. But passivity has its price, both geopolitically and electorally. It will be interesting to see whether Obama or Romney seizes the moment. It would certainly be an act of political leadership if one does.