Byline for September 16, 2012
Another fuse in a firestorm
There is just one more fuse waiting to be lit to turn the fires from Khyber to Maghreb into an unprecedented conflagration. A unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before United States votes to elect its next President on 6 November.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already done the unacceptable if not the unimaginable, by directly intervening in the American electoral debate with harsh criticism of Obama in an attempt to persuade American Jewish voters to support the Republican Mitt Romney. He has implied that Obama is compromising on Iran; implicit is the threat that Israel will be forced to go ahead during “the window of opportunity”, this election season, when Obama will not be able to stop Israel for fear of losing a core section of the Democratic vote. At one level, this is evidence of nervous thinking in Tel Aviv. It presumes Obama will win, for Romney’s victory would turn that slim window into a wide door, open for four years. Obama has remained cool: he has declined [at least so far] to meet Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly later this month. Hillary Clinton said it bluntly: Washington is “not setting deadlines” for Iran.
The war over the war has turned intense, and it is by no means one-sided. Romney might want to rain brimstone right away, but Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose job it would be to conduct the battle, said, “I don’t want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.” Bill Keller, former editor of New York Times, a newspaper that is supportive of Israel without losing its judgement or independence, argued in a meticulous column that there “is no reason to strike now. There are inspectors and monitoring devices at Iran’s enrichment facilities to alert us if Iran decides to start enriching weapons-grade fuel.” As Keller had pointed out in an earlier piece, the American-Israeli retaliation against a single Iranian nuclear missile would be incineration, and while Tehran’s mullahs might encourage suicide missions elsewhere, there is no evidence that they themselves are suicidal.
The most remarkable comment on this gathering crisis came from the floor of the Knesset, when Shaul Mofaz, Leader of the Opposition, asked Netanyahu: “Prime Minister, who do you think is Israel’s greatest enemy? The United States or Iran? Who do you fear more, Mr Netanyahu — Ahmadinejad or President Obama? Which administration is more important for you to replace — the administration in Washington or that in Tehran?” These questions made an answer irrelevant.
Many Israeli leaders are deeply worried that Netanyahu’s belligerence could dilute Israel’s most important asset, the tremendous goodwill of the American people. A survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found this week that 70% of Americans are against any unilateral Israeli strike; 59% would not want Washington to aid Israel in such a situation. Tehran is cool as it watches the biggest international coalition since the first Gulf War under strain at its sturdiest points. In any game of strategic nerves, the cost of miscalculation is prohibitive. So much of the outcome depends on who makes the decisive mistake. This game is being played close to the edge; anyone can fall off into a pretty deep abyss.
Those leaders capable of converting a crisis into an opportunity do not actually try very hard to extract political mileage; they stick to what they believe is the correct thing to do, and eliminate the fuss. The right thing is almost inevitably also the popular thing, although this may not be immediately evident. Obama reacted to the assassination of an American envoy in Benghazi in a manner he has honed over four years: he aims for effective retribution, even if it is a little delayed, not immediate rhetoric.
Libya, symptomatic of many parts of the Arab world, has become a mix of badlands, wasteland and the occasional oasis of hope. Obama will, it seems at the moment of writing, wait for intelligence to identify those who organised this attack on the American consulate, and use his forces to hit back when they are ready. Romney’s instant, virulent reaction indicated that he had made politics personal. His intemperate outburst will cost him votes that could have come his way in November. It is entirely logical that Romney and Netanyahu should be allies; they are pretty good at slapping down their own support.
The old jibe that war is too important to be left to generals might need updating; sometimes it is too dangerous to be left to politicians. The region between Libya and Pakistan is seething with intricate layers of anger and insurrection born of causes and fantasies that have suppurated over the last century. We are heading towards a very dangerous decade in which shadow armies will spread havoc among their own people as well as the rest of the world. We need, among the world’s leaders, the courage and clarity of fire-fighters, not adult children with a matchbox.