Saturday, September 15, 2012

Israeli Fallout

It should go without saying, but apparently does not, that the tragic crisis unfolding in the Middle East calls for sober statesmanship rather than political posturing. The jihadist murder of the American ambassador to a newly liberated Libya; the carnage unleashed by the Assad regime on the Syrian people; the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt; the conundrum of Iranian nuclear ambitions — the region presents decades worth of complex challenges telescoped into real time.

Responding to these challenges, Mitt Romney mixes crude political theater with neocon bromides. Attacking President Obama for supposedly apologizing to Islamic radicals, he appears unable or unwilling to understand the responsibilities of a president trying to deal with a volatile situation while Americans are in harm’s way.

Romney shows no respect for diplomacy in general. He declares that “God did not create this country to be a nation of followers” and maintains that “in an American century, America leads the free world.” His surrogates repeatedly mock President Obama’s “apology tour” and his unfortunate “leading from behind” formulation on Libya. His principal advisers, John Bolton and Dan Senor, are part of a neocon hard core that opposes any policy that would diminish American sovereignty or freedom of action. Yet faced with the vexing issue of whether the Middle East should be further roiled by an Israeli attack on Iran in an attempt to stop its nuclear program, Romney is willing to outsource that decision to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking earlier this week, Netanyahu said that if the Obama administration was unwilling to set fixed red lines that Iran could not cross, it “has no ‘moral right’ to restrain Israel from taking military action of its own.” The fundamental moral and political issue here, however, is whether it is the sovereign prerogative of the United States to make the decision of whether to start a regional war, a war that will certainly require American resources and may well require American troops to finish.

The threat to international security posed by the Iranian nuclear program should not be underestimated and the Obama administration takes the threat seriously. It continues to keep all options on the table, but believes that there is additional time for sanctions to work. Romney is apparently prepared to delegate to Netanyahu the decision to start a conflict that the United States military believes is, at best, premature, that is unlikely to be fully effective, that will send oil prices skyrocketing, that will further destabilize Lebanon and Syria (and possibly the shaky governments in Libya and Egypt), and that will be likely to consolidate domestic support for a deeply unpopular Iranian regime. But the question in the presidential campaign is not whether attacking Iran now or later is a good idea, but whether a decision with enormous geo-strategic consequences should be made by the American president or by the leader of an ally dependent upon American power.

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Moshne Milner / Handout/Israeli Government, via European Pressphoto AgencyA handout image made available by the Israeli Government Press Office showing the commentary by Mitt Romney during his trip to Israel in July 2012. "Mr. Prime Minister, Thank you for your warm hospitality and lasting friendship. Your service for peace is an inspiration. Best wishes, Mitt Romney July 28, 2012."

Strong, even passionate, supporters of Israel should be troubled by the prospect of an Israeli government not only ignoring the policy choices of its powerful ally but also willing to intrude into American domestic politics in an attempt to influence or override the president’s foreign policy. Imagine, for example, that South Korea decided it was going to invade North Korea to destroy its nuclear facilities, potentially triggering a war on the Korean Peninsula that could bring in China and possibly other countries in the region. Indeed, South Korea could take its policy argument directly from Mitt Romney’s Web site:
A nuclear weapons capability in the hands of an unpredictable dictatorship with unknown leadership and an unclear chain of command poses a direct threat to U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere in East Asia, threatens our close allies South Korea and Japan, destabilizes the entire Pacific region, and could lead to the illicit transfer of a nuclear device to another rogue nation or a terrorist group.
But Mitt Romney is not suggesting an attack on Pyongyang and he certainly is not offering carte blanche to Seoul.

Analogous situations would be equally untenable. If India decided that, once and for all, it refused to live under the threat of an unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan and intended to invade, we would never tell them it was up to them. If Taiwan had feared an attack from China across the Formosa Strait during the early 1970s, would Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger have told them it was their call rather than ours whether to launch a surprise attack? Even to put the question shows the absurdity of a superpower’s acquiescing to allies on critical questions of war and peace in a nuclear age.

To be sure, Israel is a special ally, but that does not entitle it to make the decision on matters where United States interest and power are inextricably and centrally engaged. It is inconceivable that the United States would permit another ally dependent on American funds and American defense systems to take such a decision unilaterally. It is also inconceivable that we would permit another foreign government to intervene directly and forcefully in our political process to garner popular support for its policies over the objections of the administration.

Yet senior Israeli officials take the view that the Israeli government believes it can defy American wishes and bypass the president. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, “Ehud Barak says that if Israel were to act now against U.S. wishes, the U.S. Congress would still favor Israel over Iran.”Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, who was appointed by Netanyahu, says “the American people and Congress would support Israel right now if it were engaged in a war with Iran.” Netanyahu and Obama appear to recognize that airing their toxic relationship publicly is to neither one’s advantage and both have been walking back stories that Obama refused to meet before the approaching United Nations meetings in New York. They have both called attention to the hourlong telephone conversation they had this week. Attitudes in Israel are fluid, and Defense Minister Barak appears to have moved against an imminent attack (or maybe he hasn’t — as I said, the situation is fluid), but it is remarkable that senior officials of a foreign government would suggest that the president’s judgments could be bypassed and foreign policy should be subject to Congressional or popular choice.

The Romney campaign seems to think that all of this is just fine. “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision,” says Dan Senor, Romney’s senior national security adviser and someone widely tapped as a future national security adviser in a Romney administration. Romney expresses a similar view, stating blandly, “Prime Minister Netanyahu always has to do what he feels is in the best interests of his own nation.” In his convention address, he accused President Obama of threatening to throw Israel “under the bus.” Apparently, Romney thinks Israel should drive the regional bus, leaving the United States to deal with any crashes.

It is American policy to support Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, and the United States has supported its ally with billions of dollars and sophisticated weaponry. That support should earn reciprocal cooperation and respect for American policy from its ally, not to mention non-interference in its domestic politics. 

Despite all his talk about American power and sovereignty, Mitt Romney seems willing to let someone else decide whether to start what may be the first potential regional war of the new “American century.” That is not real leadership; it is dangerous pandering and a strong indication of a prospective president without a genuine foreign policy compass. Once again, we are left with the question of whether Romney means what he is saying and whether he would govern sensibly. But as we have learned to our great detriment over the last decade, the Middle East is no place for loose talk or lazy thinking.

Eric Lewis is a partner at Lewis Baach PLLC in Washington.

    • AAC
    • NY
    • Verified
    "Mitt Romney seems willing to let someone else decide whether to start what may be the first potential regional war of the new “American century."

    Seems willing? To whom? Certainly not to everyone. This is really coming primarily from one side of the aisle.

    Some of us see this as an absurd accusation.
      • Mira
      • NYC
      This author is out of touch with reality. How is it "outsourcing" or "delegating" to allow *Israel* to decide whether *Israel* should protect its own sovereign interests and the security of its own population? This is some really warped logic.
        • CMR
        • Florida
        If Israel chooses to go to war, Israel should carry the burden alone. The U.S. should stay out of it. As countries around the globe keep reminding Americans, the U.S. is not the world's policeman, period.
          • Miles
          • Santa Monica
          I think that is quite clear at this point that Romney is simply a coward. Time after time he has taken the negative approach, the fear based approach. Jon McCain for example would take the hard but high road. For instance going against his constituency at rallies to correct people of Mr. Obama's character (and Christianity.) Mr. Romney has yet to stand up to any body. In the face of Israels pretense to war and a very complicated Middle East situation with American's lives on the line, he has once more suggested nothing more than a cheap and dirty critique in place of a courageous and possibly difficult vision for America. I wonder why he wants to be president when the job's most important attribute is courage. Only a coward would risk other people's lives for his own political gain.
            • Nothman
            • Tel Aviv
            It may "appear that way to you" from Michigan, but it is pretty clear to me, from Tel Aviv, that far from a majority of Israelis support his policies. And what the majority of Israelis "want us to do" should and must not determine what OUR President believes is in the best interest of OUR country.
              • Martin Chiaravalloti
              • Orlando, FL
              Netanyahu should be working on removing settlers from the West Bank as a good faith showing of his intention to give the West Bank and Gaza back to the Palestintians, not getting invloved with trying to strongarm their most staunch ally into preemptive attacks on Iran! We went through that in Iraq, and we won't do it again anytime soon! 4,500 dead in the sand is 4,500 too many!
                • Christina
                • Italy
                Its time to reassess our aid to israel. Why do we give more us taxpayer $ to israel than any other nation? This disturbs me because there are so many very very needy places we could be helping. Israel is a very competant well off nation and population. We could cut our aid way back and still support them. More olive branches and tolerant gestures toward their neighbors especially the Palestinians would go along way as opposed to sending arms that threaten to kill and bomb.
                  • SZ
                  • Minneapolis
                  It baffled me that the author started off by lumping "the emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt" with "The jihadist murder of the American ambassador to a newly liberated Libya" and "the carnage unleashed by the Assad regime on the Syrian people". Why would he mention the challenges of dealing with a democratically elected government in the same breadth with terrorism and the barbaric acts of a cruel despot?

                  It baffled me more because the article, otherwise, is a thoughtful critical analysis of the Israel-Iran conundrum.
                    • Michael.M. Eisman
                    • Philadelphia
                    Not being privildged to see all of the intellegence material I cannot make a rational assesment of the situation, but, understand that it will take only one or two atomic bombs to wipe out Israel. Netenyahu is working with a gun pointed at his head (literally). Bland assurances, no matter who they come from, are of little help in this situation. There are raving maniacs in Iran loudly threatening Israel's destruction and building the bombs to accomplish this. Under these circumstances, if you were Bibi, what would you do, and how much would you care about the niceties of diplomacy? If, God forbid, Israel was destroyed, wouldn't our leaders simply shake their heads and say "too bad, but we tried diplomacy"?

                    Finally remember Golda Meir's words that there will be peace between Israelis and Arabs when they want their children to live more then they want ours to die.
                      • Dave
                      • North Strabane, PA
                      For all his talk about American exceptionalism, it seems that Romney is so mesmerized by Israeli exceptionalism that he would defer to it.
                        • Dave Coyne
                        • Goshen IN
                        There is no point in looking for sanity in Romney's approach to Israel. Like George W. and the zealots who control the Republican party and the current regime in Israel, Romney takes his instructions directly from God. There is no room here for rational discourse.
                          • Anita
                          • Palm Coast, FL
                          Israel already HAS nukes, so what's the big deal? If I were Iranian, I'd be fearful of being attacked by Israel or the US, since Netanyahu is either egging on conservatives to wage war or threatening to do just that himself.
                            • jophoenix
                            • AZ
                            little Lord Fontlaroy must have his way
                              • William Turnier
                              • Chapel Hill, NC
                              A now deceased great Israeli intellectual with whom I was very friendly used to say: "The Third World War will start in the Third World." Let us hope we never live to see his words proven correct.
                                • Bklyn25
                                • Columbus, OH
                                Preemptive bombing of Pyongyang is an excellent idea, though this is a discussion for another time and place.

                                Second, Netanyahu does not prescribe any course of action for the United States, a sovereign nation. He seeks only to rid himself of American meddling in the decision making of Israel, another sovereign nation. His demand is only that America clarify the parameters of its meddling—or to stand aside while Israel alone defends its existence as it sees fit.

                                The easiest way for Obama to silence Netanyahu is to keep silent himself.
                                  • Mike
                                  • New York, NY
                                  Today's America can't protect it's own embassies and personnel from Arab mobs celebrating the 9/11 attacks, let alone it's own citizens. That's the sorry state of our nation under the current administration.
                                    • Rlanni
                                    • Princeton, NJ
                                    I don't know if now if the time to bomb IRAN's nuclear facilities I leave that to our president, secretary of state, secretary of defense and CIA head.

                                    I don't accept Lewis's fear of a regional war. No one is calling for a ground war and I don't think one would happen. Iran has few friends in the area --I can only think of Syria--and many who would like to see it taken down a notch or two--Arabia, Jordan. Plus, Israel's attack on Iraq and Syria's nuclear facilities did not result in a regional war. The real question is whether a limited strike would be effective at this point.

                                    I think Israel should have struke a long time ago. When a strike would have been much more damaging and easier. Before everything was moved to hardened underground facilities. As for Iran making the decision to build a bomb--come on already! Why else would they be doing it in underground facilities and playing hide and seek with inspectors?

                                    Israel is a very small country and extremely vulnerable to a nuclear strike. It would take just one nuke to wipe out Israel. And even the most sophisticated anti missile system can be overwhelmed by a dozen missiles in such a small air space. And there is still the threat of one smuggled in by suicide bomber.

                                    So frankly, I am surprised Israel hasn't struke already. As for US involvement, other than intelligence and weaponry we don't have any. There maybe some anti-American demonstrations, but I don't even recall those when Syria and Iraq were struck.
                                      • Geo
                                      • Vancouver
                                      Critical assumptions in the text:

                                      "The fundamental moral and political issue here, however, is whether it is the sovereign prerogative of the United States to make the decision of whether to start a regional war, a war that will certainly require American resources and may well require American troops to finish."

                                      1) While American resources may be required to finish the war there is no requirement for the American's to get involved at all. Netanyahu seems ready to leap into the abyss, dragging all of Isreal with him but that doesn't mean that America needs to follow.

                                      2) That such a war includes the possiblity of a successful finish.

                                      If Netanyahu does attack Iran America's best aid for Isreali's is to offer citizenship to all who want to leave.
                                        • the doctor
                                        • allentown, pa
                                        Romney appears, like the recent Bush, to have such a truncated and undeveloped view of foreign affairs that he seriously suggests that Israel be given carte blanche to initiate hostilites in a complex and volatile region where the U.S. is engaged in the kind of realpolitik that NIxon/Kissinger employed in China. Obama has openly declared the U.S. will not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran. He has orchestrated effective economic sanctions, enhanced Israeli offensive and defensive weaponary, and deepened intelligence co-operation between Tel Aviv and Washington. It seems typical of Romney's knee-jerk and transparently craven nature that he roll the dice for a short-term bump in the polls at the expense of our national security. Is he clueless about the fall-out of an Israeli "pre-emptive" strike against Iran? To make this a campaign slogan is irresponsible. The last thing we need need is a candidate as naif as Bush whose national security advisors are channeling Dick Cheney.
                                          • banicki
                                          • michigan
                                          Where is it in the Preamble to the Constitution that it says "We the people of the United States, and its ally Israel, in order to form a more perfect Union......?
                                            • Frazier
                                            • orlando
                                            Romney will agree with anyone against Obama. He forgets Americans aren't stupid
                                              • Patrick
                                              • Long Island NY
                                              Our Israeli friends claim to be the Holy land. Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank are the center of hatred, violence, and intolerance among differing people. The entire world watches what happens there and more importantly, the local region is heavily influenced by all that hatred, violence, and intolerance. I cannot believe Israel is a Holy land anymore, but it can be again. It was a long time ago.

                                              In New York City, there is what we call, the melting pot, in which there are numerous cultures and people's that live and thrive together in peace in a small gegraphical area. There are many different ethnic groups but the majority of New Yorkers proudly consider themselves Americans which bonds them as one.

                                              Also in New York City, there is a great Jewish community ranging from ultra orthodox which I love to liberal cosmopolitans. I extend an invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu to spend a week walking the nieghborhoods of New York from Manhattan to the outer burroughs to see first hand how radically different cultures and people have learned they are all one and accept each other, sometimes so well acclimated, that they don't notice their differences through years of cohabitation.

                                              Walk New York Netanyahu, and return to Israel with your opened heart. Show peace to your nieghbors and your distant adversaries will then respect you and you will find peace throughout the region.

                                              Into the melting pot went many metals to create a strong and invincible alloy that shines hope and friendship.
                                                • dubious
                                                • new york
                                                I like Romney but now that I know Bolton is a principal adviser, there is no way I can support him.
                                                  • Jay Casey
                                                  • Arkansas
                                                  Little angers me more than for American politicians to let Israel jerk us around on our foreign policy - often putting us in harms way just because our politicians are afraid of the domestic Israel lobby. And that too many people in the US seem to care more about what is good for Israel than what is good for America. Why do we put up with this?
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