The essence of the argument would have to be that it isn’t in America’s interest to go to war with Iran while the president is pursuing his regimen of economic sanctions and seeking a negotiated solution through the ongoing talks involving Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany). And he isn’t willing to cede to other nations U.S. decisions that could result in perhaps thousands of combat deaths for young Americans in an already stretched U.S. military.
The president would win that argument, but first he would have to demonstrate the fortitude to take it forcefully and deftly to the American people.
Such a political victory in turn would transform U.S. relations with Israel. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that interest-group politics, and particularly ethnic-group politics, drive events. That’s often true, but not when a national consensus emerges that runs counter to the parochial interests of particular groups. As Woodrow Wilson once wrote, “If [the president] rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible.”
We have seen in recent years an Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who sought to outmaneuver the U.S. president by mustering political sentiment against him through speeches to the U.S. Congress and to the AIPAC lobbying group. But that’s possible only if pro-Israel Americans can make the case that America’s interests and Israel’s are always identical, and thus any president who isn’t in sync with Israel’s national leadership is perforce on the wrong side of domestic politics. Of course the interests of any two nations are never always identical. And if the president successfully can convince the American people that the two nations’ interests not only can diverge but have, then the balance of influence in the relationship will change in America’s favor. And Netanyahu would have to ponder carefully whether he wants another shot at taking on the U.S. president on his own turf. That’s assuming that the diplomatic chastisement represented by the new U.S. diplomacy hasn’t led to the collapse of his government in the meantime.
So let’s assume Obama believes U.S. and Israeli interests have diverged over Iran and strongly believes his job requires him to protect his country from the consequences of an Israeli strike. What can he do about it? One possibility would be actions akin to what was reported by Yedioth Ahronoth—an understanding with Iran that America would not involve itself in any Israeli attack and would remain neutral in any subsequent Israel-Iran war. This would have the virtue of protecting American interests without impinging upon Israel’s own range of options in protecting itself from perceived threats. But it seems unrealistic to think the Iranians would believe America would in fact remain aloof from Israel in such circumstances or that it could not bring to bear sufficient pressure to forestall such an Israeli attack. This seems like a nonstarter.
That leaves what might be called the Brzezinski option, named after former White House national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has argued for a U.S. stance that declares firmly and clearly that America will not accept an Israeli attack on Iran because the consequences would be “disastrous” for America and the world—and for Israel too. As Brzezinski points out, polls in Israel show a large majority there opposes a unilateral Israeli strike, particularly if it would harm Israel’s relations with America, and hence a firm American stance would generate serious political pressures on Netanyahu within his own country.
Of course, it isn’t clear that Obama or any future president actually will see events with sufficient clarity to conclude that the United States and Israel are on divergent paths on the matter of Iran. But they are. And, when it comes to America’s vital national interests—particularly when the expenditure of American blood is on the line—the president’s job is to see events with crystal clarity.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians (Simon & Schuster, 2012).