About one matter Israel and the United States surely agree: Neither want to see Iran with nuclear weapons. In his speech to AIPAC last week, President Obama explicitly rejected a strategy of containment versus a nuclear Iran because of the "near certain [nuclear] proliferation" it would trigger in the region and because of the profound risk of "an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations."
Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East would put the world's most powerful weapons in the hands of some of the least stable regimes (as the last year has demonstrated). Saudi oil billions could no doubt purchase a nuclear weapon, but they cannot ensure that the House of Saud sits comfortably on the throne. Fears of Libya's arsenals and Syria's stores of chemical and biological weapons falling into the hands of terrorists pale in comparison to the fear of Islamic fanatics getting their hands on nuclear weapons.
And Israelis policymakers readily agree that an American attack would be far superior to an Israeli attack. First, the United States could fly far more sorties from far shorter distances. Second, American munitions are capable of destroying the Fordow site currently in the process of being buried deep inside a mountain near the Shiite holy city of Qom.
Most important, the United States could render a severe blow to the Revolutionary Guard, with the far greater fire power it would be able to bring to bear. Former CIA Director James Woolsey told me recently that an attack on Iran that left the Revolutionary Guard intact would be largely wasted. The crucial goal is "to cut off the neck of the snake" and to thereby pave the way for possible regime change. Israel could not possibly fly enough sorties at long distance to achieve that goal. The United States could from nearby aircraft carriers.
SO ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL, an American attack, even at a much later date, would be far preferable. Unfortunately, things are never equal. For Israel, the goal is preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capability, i.e., the ability to assemble a bomb at a time and place of its choosing. But in his AIPAC speech, the President committed only to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The difference is not merely semantic. The time frame for constructing a bomb once all the components and knowledge are in place is not that long, and there is no reason to believe that our intelligence would know when a decision to assemble a bomb had been taken. As The New York Times pointed out last week, U.S. intelligence missed the timing of the first Soviet nuclear test in the 1949, China in the '60s, India in the '70s, and Pakistan in the '80s. And even today, no one knows whether North Korea has the capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon.
Moreover, the mere capability of assembling nuclear weapons would provide Iran with nearly all the advantages it seeks to gain from nuclear weapons. That capability would provide an umbrella for its terrorist proxies – Hezbullah, Hamas, and Shiite militias in Iraq. And it would greatly increase Iran's ability to hold world oil prices (and with them the world economy) hostage. The Iranian threat to block the Straits of Hormuz, backed by a nuclear capability, would be an entirely different threat from today's bluster.
THE CENTRAL QUESTION that Israeli leaders must ask, however, is whether they can trust the United States to take military action. The answer to that question is crucial. Once Iran moves the crucial components of its program into the Fordow facility, it will have largely immunized its nuclear program from the threat of an Israeli attack. At that point, Israel would become completely dependent on the United States to take action.
Can Israel afford to take that risk? Ultimately, it is impossible to know what the United States would do, if President Obama is re-elected. But some of the historical precedents do not augur well for an American strike. Prior to the 1967 War, President Lyndon Johnson, who was viscerally supportive of Israel, nevertheless refused to honor a long-standing American commitment to remove any blockade of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. That refusal triggered Israel's decision to strike preemptively.
And Obama is considerably less favorably disposed to Israel than President Johnson was. His speech last week to AIPAC was the first time since he spoke as a candidate in 2008 that he did not go out of his way to pick a quarrel with the Israeli government. Recently, he has drawn close to Turkey's Erdogan, and called him one of the five world leaders he trusts most, despite the latter's hostility to Israel.
Perhaps most important, the President waited almost three years before imposing any meaningful sanctions on Iran, despite the Iranians early and frequent rejection of all his diplomatic overtures. And he famously failed to actively support the Iranian Green revolution, after Ahmadinejad and the mullahs stole the last presidential elections. The toughest Iranian sanctions were enacted by Congress against the administration's wishes. At every point, Obama insisted on a specific waiver provision allowing him to forego sanctions if he determined that their enforcement will cause oil prices to rise too much.
Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, answered the question of whether Israel should trust President Obama with a resounding no. In doing so, he relied heavily on the Peter Beinart's forthcoming The Crisis of Zionism, which describes admiringly the efforts of a group of far-left Chicago Jews, who "bred in Obama a specific, and subversive, vision of American Jewish identity and of the Jewish state."
Pride of place, in Beinart's account, goes to a Reform clergyman named Arnold Jacob Wolf. The latter, like Obama himself, was a close friend of Rashid Khalidi, a former PLO spokesman and then University of Chicago professor. Khalidi is today the fitting occupant of the Edward Said chair at Columbia University. Obama himself honed his interest in colonialism as a student of Said's at Columbia.
Stephens' brief does not prove that Obama will not use the American military to prevent Iran from going nuclear – only that if he does, it will not be out of any great love or concern for Israel.
David Weinberg of Bar Ilan University's BESA Center published an analysis of the President's AIPAC speech, based on his familiar patterns of syntax and emphasis. When Obama is speaking on a subject close to his ideological heart, writes Weinberg, "his speaking style becomes clipped and insistent, and his facial expressions grow cold and defiant." He frequently emphasizes his point by prefacing it with, "let me say this" or "make no mistake."
All those patterns were evident in his 2008 AIPAC speech when he spoke of his commitment to pressing forward on the peace process. They were all absent, however, when he spoke last week of his commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. His key sentence was phrased in the passive voice, and his tone was more one of sadness than firmness. He spoke, according to Weinberg, "like he was sleepwalking or under duress."
Nor did the President's words and actions in the days immediately after the AIPAC speech do much to bolster Israeli confidence. Two days after the speech, he said at a press conference that his reference to "hav[ing] Israel's back" was "not a military doctrine that we are laying out for any particular military action . . .," but only a general reference to his personal concern for Israel's security. The quick turnaround reminded many of candidate Obama's 2008 AIPAC speech where he called for a united Jerusalem, only to retract the next day.
More important, the administration agreed to restart negotiations with Iran, without any fixed deadline and without any requirement that Iran freeze its nuclear program, including adding centrifuges to the Fordow site, while negotiations are ongoing. Iran has already used six years of on-again off-again negotiations with Western countries to advance its nuclear program.
The forthcoming negotiations, Charles Krauthamer rightly noted, make it far more difficult for Israel to attack, lest it be accused of dragging the world into war, despite a diplomatic solution on the horizon. An administration official candidly told the Washington Post, "We're trying to make the decision to attack as hard as possible for Israel." So much for the President's affirmation at AIPAC of "Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions . . . to meet its security needs."
And for me, there remains President Obama's decision to return to the British a bust of Winston Churchill, at the outset of his presidency. It was Churchill who famously said at the end of World War II, "There was never a war easier to prevent by timely action than the one which has just desolated great areas of the globe." Had the British or the French threatened military action in 1936, when Hitler moved into the Rhineland, in contravention of two international treaties, he would have had little chance but to withdraw, given the overwhelming French military superiority at that time.
Unfortunately, Obama seems oblivious to the wisdom of Churchill, and much more in tune with the kick the can down road attitude of Britain and France that resulted in World War II.