President Obama’s speech this morning to the AIPAC Policy Conference put the best spin possible on his record, and he had a good story to tell. Military and intelligence cooperation is excellent, and American diplomatic support for an isolated Israel was repeatedly (though not always, as he suggested) forthcoming. Still, any effort to paper over the differences between his administration and the Netanyahu government—or worse yet, to make believe there really are no important differences—was bound to fail. What many in the audience noticed, like many in the press, was the defensiveness of the speech. Bill Clinton in 1996 and George Bush in 2004 did not have to spend long paragraphs explaining to AIPAC that things were not as they seem and that relations were really dandy. Nor did they have to warn the audience not to believe the “distortions” they were soon to hear from speakers representing the other political party.
First the president said this: “[Y]ou can expect that over the next several days, you will hear many fine words from elected officials describing their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. But 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.” Five paragraphs acclaiming his own record followed, culminating in this: “Which is why, if during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts. And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics. America’s national security is too important. Israel’s security is too important.” And then he went back to singing his own praises again. Whether this will persuade any listeners not already inclined to vote for Obama is doubtful. His reference to “my friend Shimon Peres” was the kind of Washington nonsense that can make a sophisticated audience grimace. Similarly, his announcement at AIPAC that he will this spring award Peres the Medal of Freedom was pandering of the highest order.
But the part of speech that most listeners were focused on was, of course, the section on Iran. Here the president attempted to sound very tough.
“No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map. … A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States. … And that is why, four years ago, I made a commitment to the American people, and said that we would use all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon … the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. … I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: A political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency. Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
The problem is that Israel is focused on Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability, not just the final activities that produce a weapon—and that would probably come far too late for Israel to have a viable military option. To the Israelis, Iran cannot be permitted to get that close to having a useable weapon. So the red line the president drew is not the same as the one Netanyahu usually draws.
There are other problems with the AIPAC remarks. In his State of the Union speech less than two months ago, Obama said, “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” This time he said, “I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” a weaker formulation. And neither time did he say flatly “America will prevent Iran”—not “determined,” not “have a policy,” but a flat statement: Iran will never get a nuclear weapon because America will prevent it. Moreover, Obama’s red line only works if we can all be sure our knowledge of Iran’s program is reliable and that there is no possibility they could weaponize without our knowing it. That may well be true, but would you bet your country on it?
Obama twice contradicted his own request that Israel simply rely on him and thereby let the date pass when it can act militarily itself. In this speech he delivered the now customary line (one that precedes Obama): “Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” But to this he added something new: “Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.” It is true that he soon followed that with, “Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built,” so he is clearly pressing the Israelis to wait. But the preceding sentence about “Israel’s sovereign right” is either meant to scare Iran into negotiating, or is letting the world know now that if Israel acts we will come in behind her. Obama told the AIPAC audience that “there should not be a shred of doubt by now—when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” If Israel decides to exercise that “sovereign right” to “defend itself, by itself,” this promise will be tested in the coming months.