By Boris Volkhonsky
As reported by The New York Times, President Obama on Tuesday forcefully rebuked Republicans on the presidential campaign trail and in Congress for “beating the drums of war” in criticizing his efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.
The statement made at a televised news conference, was preceded by harsh statements made by two Republican contenders for presidential nomination, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who assailed Mr. Obama’s foreign policy as ineffective and weak. And the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, called for Congress to authorize the use of force against Iran.
Also, the President’s comments came in the wake of hard talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, during which the U.S. President tried hard to persuade his counterpart to refrain from direct use of force against Iran. As has been pointed out by most observers, Premier Netanyahu grudgingly agreed to wait some more, but kept some reservation as to exactly what course will be taken by his government.
In fact, the main question remains in the open: what is to be done concerning the notorious Iranian nuclear issue. Despite all kinds of assurances on Iranian part that the program is pursuing purely peaceful ends, despite Iran’s demonstrated readiness to resume talks, the military option remains on the table, and President Obama has made it clear on several occasions that to achieve America’s aims he is ready to resort to any means.
Then why has he recently tried on the “dovish” mantle?
There may be several explanations.
One is the strategy of the election campaign. While voicing belligerent threats against Iran, the GOP contenders are definitely targeting the Israeli lobby in the U.S. and Jewish electorate, trying to attract this traditionally Democratic faction of American voters. But they somehow seem to have overdone it. While such threats might resonate with a small portion of Jewish voters, the nation as a whole is clearly fed up with military exercises in regions quite distant from their homeland.
Recent polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of American public is opposed to any military action in Syria. Needless to say, an action against Iran would be still much more costly and damaging both in terms of casualties among American soldiers and long-term consequences for global and U.S. economy.
It is, therefore, doubtful that such an action on the eve of November elections would encourage the electorate to cast their votes for re-election of the U.S. commander-in-chief. So, most probably, Obama’s strategists have given him a good advice to return to the dovish lingo of 2008 and try to present himself as a true peacemaker.
Still, there is another and much more sophisticated explanation. Definitely, a direct military confrontation with Iran would be ruinous both for the U.S. and – more so – for its present leadership. But today’s wars are seldom waged directly. All parties have learned that a “proxy confrontation” is a more effective and less damaging way of conducting wars.
In this sense, Israel is an ideal proxy. And the fact that Obama has not completely succeeded in persuading Netanyahu to cast away the military option completely may be a simple reflection of the real strategy he is sticking to. If the burden of a direct confrontation is carried by Israel, it paves the way to a much more lucrative option from Washington’s point of view.
The immediate consequences would be felt in the U.S. in an indirect form, but any Israeli – Iranian standoff would eliminate all the doubts whether the U.S. should or should not intervene. And if this happens, it will no longer matter whether Obama is a peacemaker or a warmonger: an overwhelming public support for military action against Iran would be 200 percent guaranteed.
Therefore, while listening to Obama’s dovish statements, one should not forget that all options, including the military one, are still on the table, and only waiting for the right moment to be implemented.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategis Studies.