The tagline was:
Those ads came to mind recently when President
Obama commented forcefully on war, American-style, in ways that were
remarkably radical. Although he was trying to ward off a threatened Israeli
preemptive air strike against Iran, his comments should have shocked
Americans - but just about nobody noticed.
Quite the contrary:
Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich attacked them.
Fox News highlighted their restraint. (“Obama calls for containing Iran, says ‘too much loose talk of war.’”)
The Huffington Post highlighted the support for
Israel they represented. (“Obama Defends Policies Toward Israel, Fends Off
Partisan Critiques.”) Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed back against
them in a potentially deadly U.S.-Israeli dance that might bring new chaos
to the Middle East. But somehow, amid all the headlines, commentary, and
analysis, few seemed to notice just what had really changed in our world.
He would, he insisted, take the U.S. to war not
to stop another nation from attacking us or even threatening to do so, but
simply to stop it from building a nuclear weapon - and he would act even if
that country were incapable of targeting the United States. That should have
In it, based on interviews with "roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike," he had given an Israeli air attack on Iran a 50% chance of happening by this July.
From the recent interview, here are Obama’s key lines:
Later, he added this chilling note:
The next day, in a speech meant to stop “loose talk about war” in front of a powerful pro-Israeli lobbying outfit, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the president offered an even stronger formula, worth quoting at length.
Speaking of seeing the consequences of his decisions to use force “in the eyes of those I meet who’ve come back gravely wounded,” he said:
An American president couldn’t come closer to saying that, should American intelligence conclude the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, we would attack.
The next day, again addressing an AIPAC audience, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta set the president’s commitment in stone:
After all, precedent is a powerful thing and these statements do have a single precedent in the atomic age (though not one the president would profess to admire):
After all, one clearly stated reason for the
invasion was Saddam Hussein’s supposed nuclear program as well as one to
produce biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
His vice president hit the news and public affairs talk show circuit with a set of similar accusations, and his secretary of state spoke of the danger of mushroom clouds rising over American cities.
At the same time, the Bush administration made an effort - now long forgotten - to convince Congress that the United States was in actual danger of an Iraqi WMD attack, possibly from anthrax, in the immediate future.
President Bush suggested publicly that, with
unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), Saddam might have the ability to spray
East Coast cities with chemical or biological weapons. And Congress was
given fear-inducing classified private briefings on this.
Driving the need to produce evidence, however fantastic or fabricated, of a possible threat to the U.S. was a radical new twist on war-making 101.
In the days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed that even a 1% chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with as if it were a certainty.
Journalist Ron Suskind dubbed it “the one percent
doctrine.” It may have been the rashest formula for
"preventive" or "aggressive" war offered in the modern era.
Missed was what was truly new in the invasion:
Until then, such a concept hadn’t been in the strategic vocabulary.
Quite the opposite:
Those weapons, that is, were considered
guarantors, however counter intuitively, against an outbreak of war. Their
possession was a kind of grisly assurance that your opponent wouldn’t attack
you, lest you both be destroyed.
... all went nuclear without anybody suggesting that they be attacked simply for possessing such weapons.
An eighth country - white-ruled South Africa - actually assembled six nuclear weapons, and later became the only country to de-nuclearize itself.
...all had incipient nuclear programs, though none produced weapons.
Japan is today considered to be at a point the Iranians have not yet reached:
In 2006, North Korea set off its first nuclear
test and, within years, had become the ninth active nuclear power.
And when it became clear that Saddam had no
nuclear program, no weapons of mass destruction at all, that explanation for
American war-making, for what Jonathan Schell once dubbed “disarmament wars”
- so visibly fraudulent - seemed to disappear into the dustbin of history.
In holding off an Israeli strike that may itself
be nothing but a bluff, he has defined a future Iranian decision to build a
nuclear weapon as a new form of aggression against the United States. We
would, as the president explained to Jeffrey Goldberg, be committing our
military power against Iran not to prevent an attack on the U.S. itself, but
a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The Bush administration promoted a cult of presidential power, of (as they called it at the time) a “unitary executive.”
No one in the White House uses such a term these
days, any more than they use the term “Global
War on Terror,” but if both terms have disappeared, the phenomena
they named have only intensified.
In addition, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote recently, when it comes to drone assassinations (or “targeted killings” as they are now more politely known), Attorney General Eric Holder has just claimed for the president the,
In doing so, added Turley,
With terror in its crosshairs, war, in other
words, is increasingly becoming the president’s private preserve and strikes
on the enemy, however defined, a matter of his own private judgment.
War, in other words, is increasingly lodged in the Oval Office and a commander-in-chief executive.
the Libyan intervention suggested, like the
American people, Congress is, at best, an afterthought - even though this
Congress would rubber-stamp a presidential act of war against Iran without a
If, however - and it’s a giant if - Iran
actually got the bomb, if a 10th country joined the nuclear club
(with others to follow), it would be bad news, and the world would be a
worse place for it, but not necessarily that greatly changed.