Here is an interesting (to me, at least) exchange (originally published in The New York Jewish Week) I had with my friend and sparring partner Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, on the subject of President Obama's Iran policy. Yossi is one of those Israelis who is, to my mind, irrationally fearful of Obama, and Yossi wanted to test my sangfroid.
Like many Israelis, I don't trust President Obama's resolve on Iran. When he says that all options are on the table, I remain deeply skeptical about this President's willingness to order a military strike if all other options fail.
More than any journalist I know, you've been at once clear-eyed on the Islamist threat and also a strong advocate of trusting Obama on Iran. So, as someone who takes the Iranian nuclear threat as seriously as we do here, tell me what we Israelis are missing about Obama.
I think Obama takes the threat very seriously. I think he takes it just as seriously as Netanyahu takes it. More, maybe. It seems to me sometimes that Netanyahu, if he truly believed his rhetoric, would have acted already against the Iranian bomb threat. I know there are people in Washington who think he's not actually serious about striking Iran, should all else fail. And these are people who six months ago thought he would do it.
What you and other Israeli skeptics don't get about Obama is this: He is deadly serious about stopping nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. It is a core belief of his. He has enunciated on many occasions compelling reasons why he believes it to be unacceptable for Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. He also knows that the reputation of his presidency is riding on this question. If Iran goes nuclear against his wishes, he looks like Jimmy Carter. He doesn't want to go down in history looking like Jimmy Carter.
He also knows that he has time before having to act, because of America's greater capabilities. He doesn't show Israel much love, it is true. He doesn't show any nation much love. That's not who he is. But if you read the interview I did with him on this subject, you'll see a clear path, a clear set of parameters and a clear intent to keep a bomb away from Iran. The flipside of this, of course, is that I believe Mitt Romney would be less likely to act, especially in 2013, which may be the year of decision. He'd be a new president, one with an inexperienced national security team. And he won't want to begin his presidency by plunging the U.S. into another Middle Eastern war. It is so much harder for a Republican to confront Iran than it would be for a Democrat, for so many reasons. Obama's drone war is a good example; he gets away with things George W. Bush couldn't even imagine doing. Such is the nature of politics in America. Here, by the way, is a compendium of Obama's statements on the subject. Identify for me, please, the wiggle room in these statements. I haven't found any.
You make an important point about the advantage of a Democratic president over a Republican president in waging war. A similar dynamic has been at work in Israel. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fought two wars - against Hezbollah in 2006 and then against Hamas in 2009 - and yet is still widely considered a dove, while Netanyahu, who has never led a military campaign in either of his two terms in office, is widely regarded as belligerent. Only the Likud, the old adage goes, can make peace, because it can deliver the moderate right for an agreement. By the same measure, perhaps only the Israeli left (or a national unity government) can effectively wage war and for the same reason: It can bring consensus.
But the question regarding Obama and Iran, of course, is whether this Democratic president is capable - temperamentally, ideologically - of ordering a military strike against Iran. At issue isn't whether Obama wants to stop Iran but whether he has the determination to match his rhetoric.
Do you believe that the current level of sanctions, however economically painful, are enough to deter Iran? Do you believe the Iranians will agree to a negotiated solution? From reading you carefully over the last few years, I don't think you do. And so, Jeff: If Obama won't bring the sanctions to the point where they can truly stop Iran, then how can we trust him to use military force?
You write that failure to stop Iran will mean that Obama goes down in history as another Jimmy Carter. In fact he already looks like Jimmy Carter. As you recently wrote (don't you hate it when you get quoted against yourself?), Obama has failed to show resolve in Syria. Bringing down Assad - the Arab regime that is Iran's closest ally - should be one of the administration's top foreign policy goals. In hesitating on Syria, Obama is repeating his failure to support the anti-regime demonstrators in Teheran in 2009.
To forfeit two historic opportunities to undermine the Iranian regime hardly instills confidence that Obama can be trusted to act decisively against a nuclearizing Iran.
Obama's mishandling of Egypt likewise reveals poor judgment in dealing with extremist threats. One can argue whether he jettisoned his former ally, Mubarak, too abruptly. One can argue too whether he could have helped slow the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
What seems to me inarguable is that he has failed to effectively set limits to the Brotherhood, failed to challenge its growing domestic repression. Instead, he wants to increase foreign aid to Egypt. If this were not an election year, he would have likely met with Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, during the latter's recent visit to the UN. The result of that policy of accomodationism is that it is Morsi who is setting conditions on America for the relationship between Washington and Cairo (as he recently did in a New York Times interview).
Finally Obama showed misjudgment in repeatedly condemning the ludicrous YouTube anti-Muslim film. By taking out ads on Pakistani TV to condemn the film, the administration encouraged the perception that extremists had a legitimate grievance.
There's a pattern here of weakness against enemies, of appeasing extremists, of missing opportunities
All this is hardly surprising to you: You've written as much in recent weeks. "Obama's record in the Middle East," you wrote, "suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty." True, you also wrote the following: "On the most important and urgent issue, the Iranian nuclear program, Obama is an activist president." But can you really fault Israelis for wondering whether, at the moment of truth, Obama will avoid the ultimate missed opportunity?
It's not only Israelis who don't trust Obama on Iran. Arab leaders, as you well know, are skeptical too. Worst of all, the Iranian regime doesn't believe him. That's why it responds to Obama's sanctions and threats by accelerating its nuclear program.
You may be right, and I am underestimating this President's resolve on an issue to which he has repeatedly committed himself.