It is four days before the general election and an Obama victory appears all but certain. One issue that has arisen over the past few days derives from comments by running mate Joe Biden that were taped at a private event. Biden said that Obama would be “tested” by some sort of foreign crisis within the first 6 months of his administration and suggested that his way of dealing with it might not be understood or popular initially. He called on followers to stick with Obama when that happened. Because Biden is wont to deliver all manner of non sequiturs when speaking, perhaps his statement isn’t worth serious consideration. However, since Biden was so pointed as to the time frame and even the public reaction, inquiring as to what he might have in mind is appropriate. The McCain-Palin campaign certainly thinks so, judging from an ad that has appeared using audio clips of Biden’s statements.
Commentators who have speculated on what the crisis might be have included the Mideast and Iran as possibilities but none has considered this as anything other than some sort of challenge from Iran. I think there is an obvious possibility that everyone is missing. Before I get to that, let me offer some background.
I’ve written extensively about the Iranian nuclear program and possible actions the U.S. or Israel might take to deal with it. Readers are encouraged to search this blog, which delves into possibilities few have discussed or that weren’t being discussed at the time I posted the article. One early article in the latter category argued that the U.S. would strongly resist any attempt by the Israelis to launch their own preemptive attack.
In Throwing out the steering wheel I said:
There is no way that an Israeli attack can take place without the U.S. condoning it. Israeli aircraft would have to pass through airspace controlled by the U.S. Thus, the universal view in the Islamic world will be that the Israelis are acting as henchmen for the U.S. – doing America’s dirty work. Since this would be a political disaster of epic proportions, I have always assumed that the U.S. would never permit it to take place – that, in fact, the U.S. will attack.
[Emphasis added.] (Note also that I later analyzed Israeli attack scenarios – see Scenario 1 and Scenario 2. In the latter I concluded that an Israeli attack that didn’t overfly airspace under U.S. control was feasible.)
The quoted article was neither the first nor the only one where I asserted that the U.S. would not allow Israel to preempt against Iran. Yet, in none of those articles did I ever explicitly state what the U.S. would do to prevent the Israelis from attacking or what the U.S. would do if Israel attacked despite our disapproval. I’ll do that now.
I have always assumed that when U.S. and Israeli officials discuss an Israeli preemption, the U.S. representative states in the strongest possible language that such at attack would gravely affect U.S.-Israeli relations. The “grave” effects would include various forms of political and economic sanctions, such as cutting off sales of weapons and spare parts or cancellation of joint U.S.-Israeli weapons programs among others. So, “prevention” is achieved by the threat of sanctions and a cooling of relations. I expect the frequency of such discussions has increased over the past year or so as Iran approaches the “threshold” of nuclear capability (see, for example, Is there a “threshold”?). There is little doubt the Israelis have made clear to the U.S. they view Iran as an “existential threat” and that, irrespective of the consequences for future U.S.-Israeli relations, they will attack at some point if the U.S. doesn’t. The U.S. understands and appreciates this, and there the matter rests.
We’ve reached the point where, despite his statements that he wouldn’t leave Iran as a problem for the next President, it is very unlikely that Bush will act. Although we can’t completely rule out an aerial campaign starting in late November, Bush has probably decided that Iran is far enough from weapons capability that the next President can handle the problem. Bush is expecting history to vindicate him on Iraq and he’s not going to risk his legacy by giving his successor a new war to worry about on Inauguration Day.
In the extremely unlikely event that McCain is the guy taking the Oath of Office on 20 January, we can be confident that he will launch air strikes against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure at some point if diplomatic means fail. Obama’s statements that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable or that use of force can’t be ruled out are not, however, credible.
Obama is the candidate of the extreme left, which comprises a substantial group who are extremely anti-Israel. The virulence of anti-Israel rhetoric from this group rises to a level I call “proto-anti-Semitic”. Here are some examples: Israel has committed “genocide” against the Palestinians; pro-Israeli Jews are guilty of divided loyalties; American foreign policy is controlled by a Jewish cabal made up of ex-Democrats (that is, “neocons); and so on. “Proto-anti-Semitism” means the speaker is not anti-Semitic but has a grossly exaggerated view of the power, influence, and tribalism of American Jews that reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes. Proto-anti-Semitism creates a favorable environment and cover for crypto-anti-Semitism, where the speaker is anti-Semitic but hides behind what is claimed is legitimate political discourse.
Though Obama has recently articulated the mainstream American view of Israel as a firm and trusted ally, there is pretty good evidence that Obama said what he really thinks about Israel when he was at a private gathering for Rashid Khalidi in 2003. The L.A. Times obtained a video of this event and used some quotes from speakers on the video for an article written several months back. An inside source says that the video includes comments from Obama, one of which is the statement that Israel is guilty of “genocide” against the Palestinians. This, it is claimed, is the reason that the L.A. Times doesn’t quote Obama and refuses to release a transcript.
That Obama might have said this in an unguarded moment is quite believable. He has had long associations – friendships, in fact – with proto- or crypto-anti-Semites. Moreover, some of his closest foreign policy and military advisors have expressed views that put them in one or the other category (in fairness to Obama, some of these advisers were asked to resign). Even advisors who are more circumspect in their statements have a long history of being very pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli.
Ultimately, whether or not Obama actually said that Israel is guilty of genocide (or secretly believes it), given the foreign policy team he has assembled, Obama can be expected to head the most anti-Israel administration in U.S. history. Obama expects to be successful in negotiations with Iran precisely because he will “understand” their position and acknowledge many of their grievances against Israel. For Obama, there will be no acceptance of the Israeli view that Iran is an existential threat and therefore no justification for an Israeli preemptive strike. After all, the Mullahs are reasonable and Obama can negotiate with them. Obama’s peace offensive would be derailed by any Israeli strike – even one that avoids U.S.-controlled airspace – because Iran will treat the U.S. as complicit. Unlike the Bush administration, which would, at worst, only apply some sort of political and/or economic sanctions after the fact, the Obama administration can’t permit any attack to take place under any circumstance. The only way to accomplish this is to threaten to actively defend Iran against an Israeli attack – to threaten to shoot down Israeli jets whether they overfly Iraq or not.
Such an unprecedented act by a U.S. administration would be very unpopular and the Obama administration would not make the threat against Israel public. That won’t make any difference – Israeli officials are guaranteed to leak it.
The six month time frame fits in very well with this scenario. Obama and his crew will be sticking with the flawed NIE assessment on Iran. Israel won’t. Israel has indicated publically that it is close to attacking and privately may have given something close to a drop dead date - late Spring or early Summer 2009 would be a good bet. It can be assumed that either candidate intelligence briefings or briefings Biden may have received by virtue of his chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will have provided this information. Israel will have a nuclear capability threshold in mind, even if the U.S. doesn’t.
Once the U.S. threat is leaked, what then? Obama will have a political crisis on his hands. How will it play out? Obama cannot afford to back down. He’ll have to publically acknowledge that he has given shoot down orders in the event of an Israeli attack and he’ll have to stick by it. Would Israel test him? I’d guess the answer is no.
How would Congressional Democrats react to Obama’s approach? Would they require a reciprocal U.S. guarantee to Israel in the event Iran were to launch a nuclear attack? It’s hard to say. However, if Obama does prevent an Israeli attack and does enter into negotiations, Iran will get its nukes. Expect a rapid “breakout” and Iran fitting a half-dozen or so nukes on ballistic missiles. At that point we move into the sorts of nuclear scenarios I’ve discussed previously on this blog.
Given that Iran should probably have a dozen or more thermonuke-tipped ICBM’s sometime during a 2nd Obama term (should he be reelected) and that Obama and the Democrats have stated they want to eliminate ballistic missile defense, we might even get to witness the Iranian “chicken” scenario”.