IIt is always “better to jaw-jaw than to war-war,” said Winston Churchill. In all the turbulent years since Churchill, has there ever been more jawing, and for a longer period of time, than over the possible war between Iran and Israel? And yes, it is better that way, provided that Iran’s nuclear capability and genocidal threats remain just that — capability and threats, not actuality nor military action.
Nevertheless, the stakes are enormous for the United States, and even existential for Israel. Surely, men in uniform have war plans at the ready. And in Newsweek’s latest issue, the magazine conducts war games with seven former U.S. military, intelligence and political officials, a panel that roughly mirrors the group that a president would consult before undertaking a major operation.
The question posed: What would happen if the Israelis strike before the U.S. election in November? This is the time frame that was once considered most advantageous for Israel, as it was presumed that President Barack Obama would be more inclined to support Israel then, for electoral reasons, rather than after a possible re-election, when he would be less beholden to Jerusalem politically.
Writes Newsweek, “An Israeli attack on Iran would present the United States with one of the most complicated and vexing situations the country has faced in decades.”
Said John Podesta, playing the role of White House chief of staff, a job he held in the Clinton administration: “The president will want everyone to be absolutely clear there are no politics in this situation.” But what of the situation in the four years after that, when the administration, already short-tempered with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, may not appreciate being pushed into a war unilaterally by Israel?
Thomas Pickering, former ambassador to Israel, Russia and the United Nations, playing secretary of state in these war games, warns, “You don’t say, ‘Israel can do anything it wants and we’ll continue to support them and there is no red line.’”
Beware, Bibi, when asking for red lines, the red lines may be drawn for you.
The scenarios grow colder as the men discuss backing Israel, even if reluctantly. John McLaughlin, former CIA deputy director, playing the part of the director of national intelligence, estimates that there is a 10 percent chance that Iran would respond with chemical weapons against the Jewish state. How many Israelis will die? How many Americans? Would Israel respond to that potentially genocidal scenario by launching nuclear weapons against Iran?
“I think the Israelis would then have to say, ‘Do we stay conventional?’ And that’s almost unthinkable, says McLaughlin. “But they would have to ask that question.”
Of course, these are war games, not the war. But these are stark reminders that once any war starts, there is no certainty where it goes, or how it will get there.