Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Thanks a lot, Mr. Vice President

Biden's signal


There's little doubt that US Vice President Joe Biden was signaling, in his Sunday television interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, that the Obama administration would not stand in the way if Israel chose military force to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.

GS: Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he's prepared to take matters into his own hands. Is that the right approach?

Biden: Look, Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

GS: Whether we agree or not?

Biden: Whether we agree or not. They're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is... But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed. What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues. If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right... That is not our choice.

GS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat [and] they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?
Biden: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do... if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

GS: You say we can't dictate - but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.

Biden: I'm not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what's in its interests; and we have a right and we will determine what's in our interests.

BIDEN HAS been known to commit the occasional faux pas. But the Israeli consensus is that he was sending a message from President Barack Obama. Is live television the best way for two allies to communicate on a matter of such import? Yes - if the goal was to instantly "reward" Binyamin Netanyahu for uttering the magic words "two states for two peoples" at Sunday's cabinet meeting.

Or could Biden have been signaling the Iranians that Washington would unleash the Israeli military if the mullahs continue to drag their heels on engagement? Unlikely.

After Biden's remarks, however, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, implied he doesn't think an Israeli bombing is preferable to an Iranian bomb.

ISRAELIS FEEL little appreciation for Biden's signal. Not to sound churlish, but we don't really need his confirmation that we are a sovereign country. Moreover, president George W. Bush's April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon - the one Obama studiously ignores - already supported Israel's right "to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat."

So rather than subcontracting the safeguarding of American, Western and Arab interests in keeping the bomb out of Iran's clutches - and being left to eventually face down Iran on our own - what Israelis would prefer is concerted US leadership now.

The administration remains committed to reaching out to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Fearing it would upset the mullahs, however, Obama's has been reluctant to adequately prepare for the likely possibility that the Iranians will not even discuss their nuclear program, or will use any talks to stall for time.

The Europeans - even as they conduct billions of dollars' worth of trade with Iran - are belatedly turning to Washington for leadership on genuinely meaningful sanctions, the kind that would get Khamenei's undivided attention, should engagement fail.

Though even its most hardcore Western apologists have stopped making excuses for the Iranian regime, the Obama administration appears hesitant to see it for what it is.

Obama will have an opportunity to prove our assessment wrong later this week, at the G-8.

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