Monday, March 5, 2012

Post #203 - Unthinking the Unthinkable

Below are excerpts from the portion of President Obama's speech yesterday to AIPAC (American Israeli Political Action Committee), that pertained to Iran:

…Of course, so long as Iran fails to meet its obligations, this problem remains unresolved. The effective implementation of our policy is not enough — we must accomplish our objective. And in that effort, I firmly believe that an opportunity still remains for diplomacy — backed by pressure — to succeed.

The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program. Now, the international community has a responsibility to use the time and space that exists. Sanctions are continuing to increase, and this July — thanks to our diplomatic coordination — a European ban on Iranian oil imports will take hold. Faced with these increasingly dire consequences, Iran's leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision. They can choose a path that brings them back into the community of nations, or they can continue down a dead end.

And given their history, there are, of course, no guarantees that the Iranian regime will make the right choice. But both Israel and the United States have an interest in seeing this challenge resolved diplomatically. After all, the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. That's what history tells us.

Moreover, as president and commander in chief, I have a deeply held preference for peace over war. I have sent men and women into harm's way. I've seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who've come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don't make it home. Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency. And for this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it. And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country.

We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran's leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States — just as they should not doubt Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.

I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran, a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored, an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

Moving forward, I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues, the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world. Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel's security, America's security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built. Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly; carry a big stick. And as we do, rest assured that the Iranian government will know our resolve and that our coordination with Israel will continue.

These are challenging times. But we've been through challenging times before, and the United States and Israel have come through them together. Because of our cooperation, citizens in both our countries have benefited from the bonds that bring us together. I'm proud to be one of those people. In the past, I've shared in this forum just why those bonds are so personal for me: the stories of a great uncle who helped liberate Buchenwald, to my memories of returning there with Elie Wiesel; from sharing books with President Peres to sharing seders with my young staff in a tradition that started on the campaign trail and continues in the White House; from the countless friends I know in this room to the concept of tikkun olam that has enriched and guided my life.

As Harry Truman understood, Israel's story is one of hope. We may not agree on every single issue — no two nations do, and our democracies contain a vibrant diversity of views. But we agree on the big things — the things that matter. And together, we are working to build a better world — one where our people can live free from fear; one where peace is founded upon justice; one where our children can know a future that is more hopeful than the present.

There is no shortage of speeches on the friendship between the United States and Israel. But I'm also mindful of the proverb, "A man is judged by his deeds, not his words." So if you want to know where my heart lies, look no further than what I have done — to stand up for Israel; to secure both of our countries and to see that the rough waters of our time lead to a peaceful and prosperous shore.

The headline on Scott Wilson's analysis of the speech (Washington Post, March 5) was "Obama urges Israel to give diplomacy more time in Iran." Certainly, that is the most important message of his address -- wait, not now, we have more time; think about the consequences. But there were other messages that deserve to be highlighted.

The President affirmed that Israel could not "tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction." While I have no desire to see Israelis endangered from any direction, this statement of Obama's was pandering, pure and simple. Since India tolerates nukes in Pakistani hands (and Pakistan tolerates India's nuclear weapons), since South Korea tolerates the weaponry held by the perennially belligerent North, and since the Arab states have had to tolerate Israel's (unacknowledged) nuclear capability, one must wonder why Israel is uniquely excused when it seeks to dictate policy to a Middle East neighbor it does not like?

And, what about the Holocaust? Some prominent Iranians have certainly questioned the historicity of those events, or cast doubt on the accuracy of the details of various accounts. There has never, to my knowledge, been an official statement by the country of Iran denying that the Shoah took place. The particular phrase "wipe Israel off the map" is clearly a endlessly-repeated mistake [see my posts #79, #95 and #96]. The bottom line is:  even to question the fact of that horrible catastrophe is offensive, but is it cause for war?

The president's denunciation of "terrorist groups" only raises the perennial issue: "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." When we supported the Taliban, they were "good guys;" when we didn't, they were "bad guys." When we nab a suspect, use rendition to have him tortured and keep him for years without judicial process, we are merely "protecting ourselves." When Afghans or Iraqis capture a person and incarcerate them, they are "barbarians." The language of "war of terror" is too simplistic and too fraught with hypocrisy to be very useful.

The president also said, "as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it." This was, we thought, the same standard that President Bush was using when he ordered "shock and awe" for Baghdad and an invasion of Iraq. Subsequently, it turned out that the standard may not have been met. Can we trust that it will be properly applied this time around?

Apparently many who ought to know think not. In today's Post, a full-page ad, though addressed to the President, cautions us all about a strike on Iran. Signed by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Paul Eaton, Brig. Gen. (ret.) John H. Johns, three other generals, a former deputy director of national intelligence and former national intelligence officer for Near East/South Asia, the open letter, sponsored by the National Iranian American Council [full disclosure:  I am a NIAC adviser, AP] reads:

Dear Mr. President,

The U.S. military is the most formidable military force on earth. But not every challenge has a military solution.

Unless we or an ally is attacked, war should be the option of last resort. Our brave servicemen and women expect you to exhaust all diplomatic and peaceful options before you send them into harm's way.

Preventing a nuclear armed Iran is rightfully your priority and your red line. Fortunately, diplomacy has not been exhausted and peaceful solutions are still possible.

Military action at this stage is not only necessary, it is dangerous -- for the United States and for Israel. We urge you to resist the pressure for a war of choice with Iran.

What the signers failed to note is that if Iran does succeed in acquiring a nuclear weapon capability, such an attack will still be just as dangerous, and that it will still make sense to "exhaust all diplomatic and peaceful options before [sending servicemen and women] into harm's way."  More and more experts on international affairs and the Middle East are venturing the thought that perhaps we could live with a nuclear Iran, as we lived with a nuclear USSR  -- with thousands of time the throw-weight that Iran could ever hope to achieve.

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