Iran Drumbeat Watch: AIPAC Edition

1) 'Too much loose talk.' Good for President Obama for saying this during his speech yesterday at AIPAC:

Already, there is too much loose talk of war.  Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program.  For the sake of Israel's security, America's security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.  Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built.  Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt:  Speak softly; carry a big stick.*

It is embarrassing to have to point this out, but: the truly strong figures in American history have not resorted to bluster like the bomb-Iran talk of recent weeks. Think of Eisenhower. Think of Lincoln. You don't need to equate Barack Obama with either of them, and I am not doing so, to recognize the strength it requires to distance yourself from tough talk rather than using it to puff yourself up. Let's see which of this week's subsequent speakers can demonstrate strength in the same way.

2) 'Every single time.' The ritual of the AIPAC speech really is something. I am trying to think of a parallel for the first part of this address, in which Obama explained that he was really, truly Israel's friend:

As you examine my commitment, you don't just have to count on my words.  You can look at my deeds.  Because over the last three years, as President of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel.  At every crucial juncture -- at every fork in the road -- we have been there for Israel.  Every single time.

On the merits, Obama is of course right. And, as Andrew Sullivan has argued, Obama made the case that the U.S. has an anti-proliferation interest in preventing Iran from getting the bomb, which aligns with but is apart from Israel's own security concerns. It's the expectation of the apologia that is remarkable. I can't think of another situation where an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil, would find it necessary or dignified to plead his bona fides in a similar way.  (About England? Italy? Canada? Mexico?)

I recognize the uniqueness of Israel's history and the importance of "trust" in a president's word and intent. But the oddity of the AIPAC ritual is worth noting, and not in a good way.

3) 'Naive questions.' William Whitworth was the Atlantic's editor through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1970, as a young writer for the New Yorker, he published a famous article called "Some Questions About the War." "The war" at that time was the war in Vietnam, and Whitworth sat down with one of the era's most prominent hawks, Eugene Rostow, to ask a series of seemingly innocent questions about what the U.S. had at stake in Southeast Asia.

Each time Rostow would say that national prestige or the international balance of power was involved, Whitworth would ask, "Why, exactly?" The result, eventually published as the book Naive Questions About War and Peace, illustrated the power of slogan and shibboleth. For instance, when Whitworth pushed him for specifics, Rostow -- a sophisticated and erudite person -- said, "I should be willing to bet that in the event of a pullout in South Vietnam one of the first things you'd see would be a big blowup in Korea." (For the record: of course that didn't happen.)

The Washington Monthly has just published an essay in similar spirit, addressing one assumption behind the pressure for an attack on Iran.  The assumption is that once Iran has the theoretical capacity to build a nuclear weapon, Israel would instantly shift to a situation of "existential risk." Because that would be intolerable, Israel is (by this logic) justified in doing anything to prevent it.

In this essay, Paul Pillar** asks "Why, exactly?" If we are going to launch or condone an unprovoked strike, it had better be for fully thought-through reasons. South Korea did not propose preemptive bombing of North Korea to derail its nuclear plans, nor India of Pakistan nor the United States of China. Why, exactly, is this case so urgently unique? Pillar argues that the assumption of "existential risk" is a slogan rather than a thought-through argument -- and emphasizes how many military experts within Israel view a proposed strike as dangerous folly. For instance:

If Iran acquired the bomb, Israel would retain overwhelming military superiority, with its own nuclear weapons--which international think tanks estimate to number at least 100 and possibly 200--conventional forces, and delivery systems that would continue to outclass by far anything Iran will have. That is part of the reason why an Iranian nuclear weapon would not be an existential threat to Israel and would not give Iran a license to become more of a regional troublemaker. But a war with Iran, begun by either Israel or the United States, would push Israel farther into the hole of perpetual conflict and regional isolation. Self-declared American friends of Israel are doing it no favor by talking up such a war.

*This echoes what he told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg two days before:

[I]f people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they're lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me -- I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn't mindful of the costs of war shouldn't be here, because it's serious business. These aren't video games that we're playing here.

**If you you recognize Paul Pillar's name, here's why. He was a CIA official who complained about the cherry-picking of Iraq war intelligence, and he has been the object of attacks by the right wing because of that. He says more about Iran war-talk here.