Saturday, March 3, 2012

President Obama on Iran and Israel

I recently wrote about some of my concerns about the way people like Netanyahu and the neo-cons are ramping up rhetoric about Iran. I have to say that it was extremely helpful a couple of days later to read an interview Jeffrey Goldberg had with President Obama on the topic (if you click through to read the article, I'd skip Goldberg's commentary at the beginning and scroll down to the transcript of the interview).

Too many on the left who are commenting on this interview are picking up only one short sentence from the President. When Goldberg asked him what he means when he says "all options are on the table," his response included this statement.

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff.

The takeaway is, of course, that he's not bluffing when he suggests that military options are on the table. Cue poutrage.

A look at the actual interview tells us that statement from the President was preceded by this description of ALL the options that are on the table.

It means a political component that involves isolating Iran; it means an economic component that involves unprecedented and crippling sanctions; it means a diplomatic component in which we have been able to strengthen the coalition that presents Iran with various options through the P-5 plus 1 and ensures that the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] is robust in evaluating Iran's military program; and it includes a military component. And I think people understand that.

But lets back up a minute and hear what the President says about why stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is so important.

In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel, one of our strongest allies in the world; in addition to the outrageous language that has been directed toward Israel by the leaders of the Iranian government -- if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation.

In terms of the administration's strategy for how to avoid that, here is perhaps the most important part of the interview:

...we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions; that our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.

In that context, our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That's what happened in Libya, that's what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel's security.

First of all, notice how he affirms that there is no imminent threat. While this issue needs to be dealt with - there is no "looming mushroom cloud."

And then we see him articulate this ability to identify common goals that serve opponents self-interests. Most of us can also see the skills he learned as a community organizer writ large on a global scale.

What he's laying out here is that it is not only in Iran's interest to end their isolation from the rest of the global community, it is in Israel's interest to have this problem solved permanently - something military intervention is incapable of doing. Brilliant!

The only questions that remain to be answered for this strategy to be successful are whether or not the leaders of Iran and Israel are capable of acting rationally on their own self-interests.

Here's what President Obama said about that when it comes to Iran.

I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think...that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing. 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.

And when it comes to Netanyahu:

I think that in the end, Israel's leaders will make determinations based on what they believe is best for the security of Israel, and that is entirely appropriate.

When we present our views and our strategy approach, we try to put all our cards on the table, to describe how we are thinking about these issues. We try to back those up with facts and evidence. We compare their assessments with ours, and where there are gaps, we try to narrow those gaps. And what I also try to do is to underscore the seriousness with which the United States takes this issue. And I think that Ehud Barak understands it. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu, hopefully when he sees me next week, will understand it.

I hope so too Mr. President.


  1. I know you have a lot of fear about the possibility of war involving Iran and Israel, but though that may happen, with all kinds of destruction, the President is extremely clear-headed about what is going on. I think there are many on the right that imagine that if Israel goes to war it will put Obama in an untenable position for the election, but the right--US and Israeli--has been out of touch with reality, however destructively so, for some time now.

    Obviously, the real issue at stake in Israel is the fact that it's Palestine, and the real issue with Iran is not just nuclear non-proliferation but working in the long-term toward worldwide disarmament. Nukes still represent--and this is a totally-underdiscussed thread in assessing the President--the greatest threat to people generally in the world.

    1. I wouldn't say that I have a lot of fear - but its been a concern. I said before that I have trust in how PBO is handling this - this interview provides the content that affirms that trust and dispel the fear.

      But as the President does his work, I think we all need to be informed about what's happening and what is at stake - if for no other reason than to understand what PBO is doing and why. There are times that I worry about us getting too distracted with the likes of Limbaugh bloviating and miss keeping up on something this important.

  2. I think the article was a brilliant pre-emptive strike on Bibi's madness. Noone can read this article (PBO's words not editorial comments)and not see his studied and steady assessment.

    Thank you SP for such a crystal distillation of PBO's thinking! I certainly understand it better. I am impressed with the clarity of his thinking but I am less impressed with Bibi because he is hateful and dishonest. If he truly wants to see Irael without a single friend in the world all he has to do is preemptively strike Iran.

    PBO has the world's nations behind him because he is so honest and clear. The same is not true of Bibi.

    I have never been prouder of PBO!

  3. looks like the prez is thinking strategically. bet he's studied sunzi and musashi.