Note to Obama: Puffery and Pandering on Israel and Iran Are Not Strategy

netanyahu obama.jpgMy Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg just scored an extensive interview with President Obama in which Obama says to Iran and Israel, "As President of the United States, I don't bluff."

Goldberg's preamble is important and must-read, but the interview itself is vital and gives one a good sense of both Obama's strategic strengths and weaknesses.

The decision of the White House to talk to Goldberg reflects their desire to speak to what Obama defined in the interview as "the Israeli people, and. . .the pro-Israel community in this country" less than a week before the annual Washington meeting of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 

goldberg cnn thumb.jpgThis was not an interview designed to warn Iran of the consequences of proceeding down a nuclear weapons acquisition track. This read more like a combination of assurances to the American Jewish community that Obama was a serious national security hawk on Iran during an election year.  It felt like pandering -- not too dissimilar to presidential candidate Obama's speech to AIPAC in 2008 when he made the remarkable, provocative, Arab-offending statement, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."

During the interview, Obama expressed dismay that despite standing with Israel on challenge after challenge -- every key issue facing the country -- that many doubted the sincerity of his support for Israel.  The President sounded emotionally 'needy', wanting validation that the American Jewish community and Israelis really, really liked him and understand that he's on their side. 

This is not presidential; this is not the way the President of the United States should be positioning himself -- and it's clear that the emotional and political leverage that Netanyahu has engineered over Obama has had a real impact. 

KHAMENEI1.jpgIsrael is a client state of the United States -- and while it has its own interests, Israel's security is deeply entwined with the strategic choices the United States makes, which is what this Iran debate is about. 

Israel, under Netanyahu's leadership, seems to want to drive a dynamic in which it demonstrates its power by compelling the President to attack Iran on its behalf, to set up triggers and red-lines, and railroad track that lead to a binary choice of bombing Iran or acquiescing to and appeasing a new nuclear weapons power.  This is neither in Israel's real interests -- nor America's. 

Obama tries to convey this stating that Iran is "self-interested", i.e. rational.  He says that over the last three decades, Iran's leadership has demonstrated that it does care about the regime's survival and is sensitive to the opinions of their citizens and disturbed by Iran's general global isolation.

Obama states:

They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them. They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision.

But what Obama seems not to understand in the well-meaning description of his attempted Iran strategy is that he is actually creating a railroad track to disaster.  He conveys in the interview a disinterest in containment, suggesting that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon changes the world and triggers a rampant and dangerous proliferation in an unstable part of the global neighborhood. 

Not all nuclear bombs are the same.  Israel's 200 plus thermonuclear warheads are not simple fission devices and have a destructive capacity that could seriously end Iran as a functioning state.  Iran, even if it were to produce a nuclear warhead tomorrow, would have none of the destructive capacity that Israel could rain down on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Anthony Cordesman, David Albright and others have done extremely important and useful, admittedly Stangelovian analyses of what a back-and-forth firing exchange of nuclear weapons would mean for both states.  As Cordesman told me recently, Israel would survive fine -- Iran would be devastated.

Many analysts believe that Iran's appetite for either a nuclear weapons capacity or a Japan-like "near nuke" capacity (meaning it has the potential but does not actually build the systems) would help provide Iran with a shield behind which it could protect itself while then continuing to operate global, transnational terror networks with impunity.  Perhaps this is true -- or perhaps three decades of paranoia about American calls for regime change in Iran have hard-wired the place to want anything that solves its security dilemma.  I see both tracks as having merit.

That said, what Obama is doing in this interview and in his needy solicitation of American Jewish community and Israeli citizen support is the opposite of where he started his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:  :"I...don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are."

Presented by

Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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