The Western world’s media are again filled with speculation, leaks, purported leaks and flat-out disinformation about whether and when Israel will use military force against Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. As America’s Nov. 6 elections draw inexorably closer, pundits and commentators are assessing whether Israel can take seriously President Obama’s assurances that he will not permit Iran to become a nuclear-weapons state.
Of course, Mr. Obama has created during his presidency the most antagonistic relationship ever between Israel and the White House. Nonetheless, his administration is now embarked on a systematic publicity campaign to persuade Israelis and Americans he will use military force in the long run, if only Israel will refrain from doing so in the short run.
How much confidence can Israel have in the assertions of Mr. Obama’s advisers that they will, in fact, launch such an attack before Iran crosses the nuclear-weapons finish line? We hear constantly that “all options are on the table.” Unfortunately, this is a statement that the Obama administration itself doesn’t really believe, that Tehran finds laughable and that Jerusalem should ignore.
Israel’s political class is split over what its course should be, and Mr. Obama is doing everything he can to exploit these internal divisions. Last week, Israeli President Shimon Peres took the extraordinary step of saying publicly that Israel should not strike on its own. Sounding surprisingly like an Obama surrogate, Mr. Peres said, “I am convinced [Obama] recognizes the American interest, and he isn’t saying this just to keep us happy.”
In a sense, Israel is united on one key point: Everyone prefers that the United States unilaterally destroy Iran’s nuclear program, or at least take the lead in a joint operation. This universal preference is straightforward and understandable, given the vast superiority of American military capabilities. An Israeli strike against just the known Iranian nuclear targets will strain its capacity to the outer limits, poses substantial risks of heavy losses in the initial attack, and raises grave fears of Iranian retaliation, either directly or more likely through Hezbollah and Hamas. Obviously, the U.S.-led option is superior.
There is, however, a serious problem. Israel’s assessment and its ultimate decision are complicated precisely because of the superiority of American military strength. If Jerusalem defers to Washington and does not strike early enough, Iran’s program could well pass the point where Israel has the necessary capabilities to break Iran’s control over the nuclear fuel cycle. Or, even worse, Iran could fabricate nuclear weapons before being detected by either U.S. or Israeli intelligence, risking that a strike by either country could bring a nuclear response from Iran.
There are three principal reasons not to credit Mr. Obama’s assurances. First, the president’s every ideological inclination is not to use U.S. military force pre-emptively. By contrast, two months before Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt defended American attacks against Nazi submarines in the North Atlantic, saying, “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.” Plainly, Mr. Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.
Moreover, conveniently for Mr. Obama, his ideological proclivities conform to his pre-election political imperatives. He and his campaign are desperately worried that unpredictable international events, such as hostilities in the Middle East, could interfere with his campaign strategy and cost him the election. Of course, it is possible an Israeli strike would help Mr. Obama politically, given America’s tendency to rally round its president in times of crisis. The basic “no-drama Obama” approach is: Why take the risk? Once safely re-elected, he has absolutely no domestic political incentive to act, thus again powerfully aligning his political interests with his ideology.
Second, Mr. Obama really does think Iran can be contained and deterred. Although his advisers vigorously assert that containment is not their policy, too many clearly think that containment is still workable, even if less than optimal. In reality, of course, not only is the Tehran regime not subject to rational deterrence calculus, the problem doesn’t stop with Iran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey would certainly acquire nuclear weapons if confronted with a nuclear Iran, making the entire Middle East far more dangerous and unstable.
Third, time is on Iran’s side. Even if Mitt Romney wins, there is no guarantee U.S. policy could change quickly enough to stop Iran. There is much about Iran’s nuclear program we do not know, and what we don’t know is almost certainly bad news. Moreover, Republicans are divided on the issue of when to strike. Mr. Romney himself has wisely avoided any statements that dishonest Obama surrogates could twist to their own advantage.
The hard reality, therefore, is that Israel must make its own military decision, preferably one based on physics, not politics. Israel most likely still has time if it wishes to act independently, but there is no guarantee how long.
John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).