Much has already been written about Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece this week in The Atlantic, where two senior Obama administration officials deride Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu as “chickensh*t.” Most pundits have focused on the juvenile name-calling, but the importance of that is dwarfed by a devastating admission that was inadvertently made by one of those officials: Thanks to the Obama administration’s pressure on Israel, it is now too late to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
For the past few years, there has of course been much anticipation that Israel would attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in order to prevent that country from developing atomic weapons. According to Goldberg, an anonymous senior Obama administration official called Netanyahu a “coward” on the Iranian nuclear threat, explaining: “It’s too late for him to do anything. Two, three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger.” The official attributes Netanyahu’s forbearance, in part, to “our pressure.”
So let’s get this straight: Israel was threatening to attack Iran to prevent it from going nuclear. The Obama administration put “pressure” on Netanyahu to hold off on such an attack. Acceding to the request of Israel’s most important ally, Netanyahu held off. As a consequence, it is now too late to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And to top it off, Team Obama thinks that Netanyahu is a “coward” for honoring the wishes of … Team Obama.
All of this is about as coherent as, well, Obama’s foreign policy — and as disastrous as well. A nuclear Iran, after all, is not only an existential threat to America’s best friend in the Middle East — the Iranian regime has famously called for Israel to be “wiped off the map” — but it also poses unacceptable danger to our Sunni Arab allies in the region.
A nuclear Iran would likely create a dangerous and destabilizing arms race, which would empower terrorist proxies on both sides of the Sunni/Shia divide. And if we’ve learned anything from the recent history of the Middle East, it is that the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction — which helped us survive the Cold War nuclear arms race — does not work with apocalyptic Islamist fanatics.
The official quoted above, in attempting to trash talk the Israeli Prime Minister, almost certainly did not intend to admit the appalling failure of U.S. policy towards Iran. But the failure to properly anticipate the consequences of one’s words, even when those consequences are eminently predictable, has become a hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy team — starting, of course, with Obama.
The unnamed official went on to compound the damage with another ill-advised remark: He opined to Goldberg that “Bibi’s bluffing” about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such a statement undermines not only Israel, but the U.S. and its other allies as well: it’s virtually an engraved invitation for Iran to drive an impossibly hard bargain in the ongoing nuclear negotiations. Not having to worry about a military strike takes a great deal of pressure off of Iran. It clears the way for Iran to achieve its negotiating goal: irreparably dismantle the international sanctions regime, in exchange for suspending its nuclear program at a point that leaves it perpetually in striking distance of going nuclear — perpetually, that is, until that inevitable time of Iran’s choosing when it breaks the agreement and bum rushes itself irreversibly into the nuclear club.
If the Obama Administration’s loose talk indeed convinces Iran that “Bibi’s bluffing,” we will likely end up with such a dangerously unsatisfactory deal — or none at all. And if the Obama administration official is correct, and the window for military action has truly closed, then we have really bumbled ourselves into an untenable position.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that administration officials would stoop to name-calling against Netanyahu. The tone, after all is set at the top, and Obama has not been above publicly and personally mocking other world leaders. You don’t have to be a fan of Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, to find Obama’s needling of him (“he’s got that kinda slouch, lookin’ like the bored kid in the back of the classroom”) to be inappropriate and counterproductive.
Once again, the Obama administration’s words are coming back to haunt us all. To be sure, the ad hominem attacks against Netanyahu were reprehensible and harmful. But even more troubling is the evidence that Team Obama’s undisciplined rhetoric reflects undisciplined thinking. Our confused policy is making a mess in the Middle East, with dangerous consequences for our allies — and ourselves.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.