President Barack Obama’s mounting political woes after last week’s “shellacking” in midterm congressional elections may indirectly lead to greater U.S. flexibility on the issue of Israeli military action to stop its nuclear program.
Some analysts say an administration committed to stopping Iran from going nuclear — but whose options may be even more limited after a big Republican victory based heavily on voters’ economic anxieties — may choose to let Israel take care of the problem.
“There are bad solutions to Iran — and worse solutions,” said Jacques Berlinerblau, professor of government at Georgetown University and director of the school’s Program for Jewish Civilization. “What we could see is a kind of outsourcing of the problem: giving Israel greater lenience in terms of strategy because it’s too expensive for us and we have too many problems at home.”
But other analysts point out that the same military problems that make it unlikely U.S. forces could deal a crippling blow to the Iranian nuclear program hold true for the much smaller Israeli Defense Forces.
Convincing Obama to ratchet up his threats against Iran and make it clear the military option is still on the table was a priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his U.S. visit this week and a major theme in his speech to the 4,000 delegates at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in New Orleans.
“The simple paradox is this,” Netanyahu said. “If the international community led by the United States hopes to stop Iran’s nuclear program without resorting to military action, it will have to convince Iran that it is prepared to take such action.”
A JTA report described the Israeli leader as feeling “empowered by the Republican sweep last week of the House of Representatives to trump the Obama administration’s emphasis on peacemaking with the Palestinians with his own priority: confronting Iran.”
But some analysts wonder: are threats of military action credible given the military, economic and political realities this administration faces — especially after last week’s crushing electoral defeat?
Shoshana Bryen, director of strategic policy for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), said all options for dealing with Iran are unattractive and risky, including the military one — and that leaders in Tehran know that.
“If you’re talking about the military option, you’re not talking about a single strike,” she told The Jewish Week. “If you want to go to war against Iran, that’s a choice, but I don’t think there will be a lot of support for that in the U.S. military, which is already involved in two wars. And I don’t see a White House that has its hands full with other problems going in that direction.”
Over the weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the goal of military action “would be not to just neutralize their nuclear program … but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard. In other words, neuter that regime.”
But Bryen, who works closely with U.S. and Israeli military officials, said a long list of factors are stacked up against the kind of all-out military commitment it would take to end the Iranian nuclear danger — and a Tehran regime that has been dealing with U.S. threats for three decades can make the same calculations.
The administration was quick to reject Netanyahu’s call for more sticks and fewer carrots.
“I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the action that it needs to end its nuclear weapons program,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a visit to Australia on Sunday. “We are prepared to do what is necessary, but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact in Iran.”
Last week’s dramatic congressional makeover, which will add new layers of stalemate to the Obama administration’s domestic agenda, will have a much more limited impact on foreign policy — traditionally the responsibility of the president, with only limited input from Congress.
“Foreign policy was not a major focus of the election; this was all about the economy and the various domestic policies of the Obama administration,” said Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg. “Having a Republican House will complicate President Obama’s life, but less so in the realm of foreign policy because a president’s policies in that area are mostly unilateral.”
In the House, Republicans will use platforms such as the Foreign Affairs Committee, expected to be under the gavel of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), an Iran hawk, to criticize the Obama administration’s continuing diplomatic overtures to the Iran regime.
But few experts predict any real effort by the GOP leadership to press for another war, especially not during a time of economic anxiety and record-shattering budget deficits. Republican leaders, hoping to consolidate their 2010 gains and win back the White House, are reading the same tea leaves that suggest the election will be all about the economy and the failure of the Obama administration to deliver on its domestic promises.
The political climate so much in evidence in the stunning GOP victory and the rise of the Tea Party movement may make the military option even less attractive to a president who is gearing up his 2012 re-election campaign in face of soaring public discontent.
“I can’t imagine him starting another war,” said American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman. “The issues today are almost all domestic. And the biggest foreign policy issue now is what happens next summer in Afghanistan, which could be the defining moment for his presidency, in terms of foreign policy.”
Military action that leads to an extended U.S. commitment would pose a huge political risk in the current climate, Lichtman said.
“If he wants to lose his entire base just before his re-election campaign, that’s the way to do it,” he said. “There’s absolutely no political payoff for anything that looks like a choice of going to war. And that’s what an Iran war would be.”
Both parties are watching uneasily as a worried electorate turns inward — reflected in a Tea Party movement that contains strong isolationist elements, said John Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg.
“You have everything from traditional ‘America first’ isolationists to Reaganites who applaud a greater U.S. foreign role,” he said. “To be a member of the Tea Party only means you don’t like President Obama. That will get sorted out in the next few years.”
Even without the Tea Party influence, a frighteningly stagnant economy has sucked the air out of international concerns for most voters, said Georgetown’s Berlinerblau.
“Sure, it’s the economy, stupid,” he said. “But the problem with foreign policy is that it keeps on being relevant, no matter what the domestics are. You can’t ignore it, especially when it has genocidal implications, as it does in Iran.”
On Iran, Berlinerblau is not optimistic that this administration will find a workable balance between diplomatic inducements and military threats — and said it’s unlikely the Iranian regime, accustomed to empty threats from Washington, will be much impressed in any event.
Capitol Hill observers say congressional Republicans will look for places where sanctions can be tightened.
But while there are indications the economic squeeze is having an effect, “it’s clear not enough of an impact to make them change their minds on what they see as a fundamental national interest — acquiring nuclear weapons,” said JINSA’s Bryen. “Look at North Korea; they’re starting, but do you think the government cares?”
The problem with sanctions, she said, is that they have to be truly international to have an impact — and even then, they tend not to affect the decision makers.
“No government official under sanctions ever missed a meal,” she said. “Not in Cuba, not in North Korea and not in Iran. If you’re willing to turn your entire economy upside down and pay for your new weapons with mass starvation, you can do that.”
Bryen argued that it’s not politics but military realities that will make a U.S. military strike unlikely, but she said the climate highlighted in last week’s election adds to the negatives Obama faces as he deals with Israeli and pro-Israel pressure to find a solution to the Iran nuclear nightmare.
And there’s the reality that while Israel is understandably anxious about a neighbor that has vowed to wipe it off the planet, Washington has other critical proliferation fish to fry.
“We still haven’t solved the problem of existing nuclear weapons in an unstable Pakistan,” Bryen said. “If that government changes, we could be facing a much bigger problem.”
Bryen said it is possible an administration tied in knots by economic problems, a deteriorating political situation and the ongoing Afghanistan war might be more inclined to let Israel do the job — but pointed out that Israel would face the same enormous military challenges a far bigger American military establishment would face.
Reports in the Israeli press suggest military officials there are increasingly dubious they can effectively set back the Iranian nuclear program — and worried about the diplomatic and military consequences of an attack.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said he’s “heard speculation” that a weakened president might flash the yellow light to Israel on Iran, but said he doubts it will happen.
“It would be an abdication of U.S. responsibility on an issue for which it assumed responsibility in the past,” he said. “Outsourcing responsibility for Iran would raise serious, profound credibility problems for the United States around the Middle East and raise questions about the strength of American commitments.”