Voice

Want Closure? Go Talk to Dr. Phil.

You won't find it on the Iranian nuclear issue.

If you're looking for clarity, change the channel now -- you're on the wrong station. When it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program, we may be living with great uncertainty for some time to come. Regardless of who's elected president in November, 2013 may be no more determinative in deciding the fate of the mullahs' bomb than 2012 was. And here's why.

For some time now, the Obama administration and the Iranian mullahcracy have shared, indirectly, a common objective: preventing an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear sites.

Even though the mullahs have flaunted the IAEA and much of the international community on the nuclear issue, they've left enough ambiguity about their intentions and demonstrated sufficient interest in negotiations to play for time -- a kind of Tom and Jerry cat-and-mouse game.

And the world's big powers have only been too willing to play along. Nobody wants war when sanctions and the prospects of diplomacy hold out even the slightest hope of changing Iran's course, least of all the United States. In the process of extricating America from two of the longest and most profitless wars in its history, President Barack Obama will go to great lengths to avoid getting America into another one.

Nor, despite some muscular rhetoric on Mitt Romney's part, is there much reason to believe he'd want to quickly green-light an Israeli strike or conduct one of his own. Right now, there's little clarity in the governor's position. Is it Iran's nuclear capacity he seeks to prevent, or the weapon itself?

I suspect that once the Pentagon and CIA go through their horrific ratio-of-risk-to-reward briefings and his political advisors think through the uncertainties that might be triggered in the wake of a U.S. strike, the least of which might be rising oil prices and plunging financial markets, much of Romney's campaign risk readiness will be converted into the more sober risk aversion of governance. Given the domestic challenges that the next American president will face, there's more than a little reason to believe that war with Iran might not be priority No. 1.

Throw in a healthy dose of serious divisions within Israel about the wisdom of an Israeli strike without U.S. approval or the real effectiveness of any military option that doesn't involve America in a major way. Add a pinch of Iranian caginess when it comes to keeping the international community guessing about its nuclear intentions and enrichment levels. And finish it off with a natural American penchant these days for the talking cure instead of a shooting war, and next year may well provide a recipe for diplomacy, not conflict.

The point is: Without an Iran much further along in its quest for nuclear weapons, nobody with the possible exception of Israel -- and again, there's no consensus there, let alone in Washington -- has the inclination, let alone the will, to go to war right now. And while the issue of who's got bigger balls on what to do about Iran has already figured prominently in the campaign and in the debates, caution should be the watchword for now.

If a U.S. president at some point makes a decision that stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon requires military force -- that is to say it is in the highest category of what constitutes America's vital national interest -- he almost certainly will try every conceivable approach before acting, including the possibility of direct secret diplomacy with the mullahs. But I don't think we're there quite yet.

Americans love clarity. But clearly there's not much of it when it comes to so many dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. Does Iran want an actual weapon? (I think so, but who really knows?) How much highly enriched uranium do the Iranians really possess? How far along is their weapons research? How long would it take Iran to get a few bombs? One to three years? Take your pick. How does military action -- "mowing the grass," as the Israelis put it -- prevent Iran from reconstituting its program?

We've been conditioned to think in terms of binary choices: bomb or accept the bomb. And without a negotiated deal on the enrichment issue or some unilateral capitulation, it may well come down to that, in large part because though there are clearly risks to using military force, there are also risks to inaction. Given the fact that both Obama and Romney have repeatedly committed themselves to preventing Iran from acquiring a weapon, failure to do so would be a huge blow to America's credibility. Keep in mind this is the third administration that has vowed to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

If a military strike on Iran by Israel or the United States is the option that is ultimately contemplated, then there are two issues in the uncertainty department that need to be carefully considered. Both involve the end-state objective; that is, what we're ultimately trying to achieve. First, if in fact Iran's quest for a weapon is a matter of identity driven by profound insecurity and grandiosity, what is to prevent the regime from reconstituting its weapons program -- this time with more legitimacy, more determination, and more resolve? And second, once knowledge is acquired and technical and scientific processes mastered, how do you "bomb" that information and knowledge from a society's collective consciousness and memory? It seems logical that unless you can change the acquisitive character of the mullahs when it comes to nuclear enrichment, an attack, certainly by Israel, would indeed be akin to mowing the grass. The Iranians will simply plant the seeds again and the grass will grow back.

Nothing about this logic chain should rule out consideration of using force. A negotiated settlement is preferable, but even that may not be able to provide the kinds of iron-clad guarantees that will reassure the United States, let alone the Israelis, that Iran has abandoned its nuclear-weapons aspirations. We have to get used to the fact that without a fundamental change in the Iranian regime, it's unlikely that we will ever reach this level of certainty and assurance.

And no one -- not Benjamin Netanyahu, not Barack Obama, not Mitt Romney -- has the capacity and power to produce that. Iran fashions itself a great power profoundly insecure and entitled. Had Ayatollah Khomeini not overthrown the shah in 1979, Iran would have already been a nuclear weapons state. And even if you somehow resolve the nuclear-weapons issue, there are a variety of other matters, from Iran's meddling in its neighbors to its support for terrorism, that divide Iran and the West.

Nukes or no nukes, this situation is likely to guarantee a continuation of a cold war between Iran and the West and the ever-present risk of a hot one. If I had to bet the mortgage, however, I'd say we'll still be in a twilight zone on the Iranian nuclear issue this time next year -- suspended somewhere between a war nobody wants and can afford and negotiations and sanctions that have not been able to stop the mullahs' search for a nuclear weapons capacity. Yet?

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Reality Check

Enough Already

When it comes to Israel, neither Obama nor Romney is as good or bad as American Jews think.

It must be something in the water.

Once every four years, rational, right-thinking Americans get crazy. Election ads clearly hype up an already polarized electorate. And right about now, on the hot-button issues of the day -- debt, deficit, who's leading from behind in foreign policy and who's not -- many Americans seem to lose the capacity to think for themselves.

Instead of weighing issues deliberately, coolly and logically, they (we?) freak out. Indeed, to borrow a phrase from poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (though this is really not what he actually meant), Americans tend to willingly suspend their disbelief and accept uncritically the wackiest notions on domestic and foreign policy.

And the more Americans seem to care about an issue, the greater that wackiness becomes.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the Israel issue, where very smart and politically engaged members of the American Jewish community persist in turning the election into a dramatic battle over which candidate is better for the Jews. Indeed, lost somewhere in this very foggy and politicized Bermuda Triangle, Jewish Republicans and Democrats trade dueling cosmic oy veys about what may happen to Israel if their guy isn't elected or the other guy wins.

There's nothing terribly remarkable or new about any of this. American Jews care deeply about Israel and are always worried about its security and concerned about the level of American support. And they're constantly creating litmus tests to judge the candidates' fealty to Israel. Whether there's more hysteria this time around is hard to say. The dynamic in 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and again in 1992 between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton got pretty intense.

But sure enough, here we go again.

Too many Democrats want to pretend that Barack Obama is the most pro-Israel president in American history (see Joe Biden's paean to Obama). And too many Republicans want to believe that Mitt Romney is Israel's salvation and will rescue the Jews from the clutches of a sitting president they somehow think is a cross between Carter and Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

None of these morality plays, of course, bear the slightest resemblance to reality. There are indeed significant differences in the way Obama and Romney relate to the Israel issue. Regardless of who wins, however, it's just not going to make much of a difference in the U.S.-Israel relationship. Here's why.

Let's start with the president. I've written before that Obama really isn't Clinton (or George W. Bush either) when it comes to emotionally bonding with or intuiting Israeli fears and hopes. And his supporters -- both Jewish and non-Jewish -- should stop pretending that he is, or that he's a member of their synagogue's men's club. This fantasy reached a truly ridiculous level when New York magazine ran a cover story portraying Obama as "the first Jewish president."

As perhaps America's best emoter-in-chief, Clinton, broke the mold in relating to Israelis (and Palestinians too) on a gut level. After all, it was Clinton who wrote in his memoirs that he loved Yitzhak Rabin as he'd loved no man -- a remarkable statement by any standard. I remember a high-ranking Israeli walking out of a meeting with Clinton wondering why he couldn't be their prime minister. And after Clinton's historic 1998 address to the meeting of the Palestine National Council in Gaza, a very frustrated Palestinian blurted out the very same sentiment.

Nor is Obama Harry Truman, as Biden keeps implying. Truman was frustrated and angry about Zionist pressure for statehood. But he was genuinely and spontaneously moved emotionally and morally by the tragedy of the Holocaust, the condition of refugees and the displaced, and the hopes for a Jewish state. And it showed.

Times were different then. And Obama is different now too. Part of it's generational. He was born after the Israeli occupation and spent most of his time not in the political world, where being good on Israel is as natural as breathing, but in a university environment where Israel is viewed as only one side of a coin, with the Palestinians on the other.

The president wasn't raised on the Paul Newman Exodus movie trope in which the Israelis were the brave cowboys and the Arabs were the hostile Indians. Indeed, his penchant for nuance, complexity, and detachment drives him to avoid seeing matters in black and white. These skills might serve him well if he ever got a chance to get to real negotiations. But that's the point: His inability to connect emotionally as Clinton and Bush did may make it harder for him to get there in the first place.

No matter how hard his advocates keep trying to hype Obama's pro-Israel accomplishments (security assistance, defending Israel at the United Nations), it just doesn't seem to resonate. I had a similar experience during the Bush 41 administration, when I was trying to persuade a Jewish audience in Detroit of all the good the president had done for Israel -- taking care of Saddam Hussein, absorbing Russian Jews, and so on. After laying out my list, an elderly guy in the back raised his hand and asked, "If things are so great, why do I feel so bad?"

That same lack of a connection is mirrored at the very top today, where Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have struggled without finding much common ground. Despite differences on settlements and the peace process, Clinton managed to actually reach two agreements with Bibi. Likewise, Bush 43 managed a relationship with an even tougher Ariel Sharon, partly because he was just as prepared almost instinctively to give the Israelis the benefit of the doubt more times than not.

Obama isn't. Neither the Iranian nuclear issue nor the peace process seems to have yet created any real foundation for personal trust or chemistry. And it has led -- even four years in -- to perhaps the most troubled ties between an Israeli prime minister and an American president. Netanyahu bears his fair share of the responsibility. Obama doesn't believe Bibi is prepared to accommodate American interests, and Bibi thinks Obama is bloodless when it comes to understanding Israel's own needs.

Obama clearly doesn't like Netanyahu's bravado or what he believes is his callous disregard for American interests. In this regard, Obama probably fits somewhere between Carter and Bush 41 when it comes to how frustrated they were with the Israelis.

But get a grip, people: Obama is not an enemy of the state of Israel. Biden is right to claim that security cooperation and the institutionalized components of the U.S.-Israel relationship are thriving. And while this piece of the relationship has a certain automaticity to it and has improved under every American president since Richard Nixon, Obama is not going to "throw Israel under the bus" and pursue an approach that jeopardizes Israel's security. No American president ever would or could.

It's equally unreal and fantastical for Jewish Republicans to see Romney as the savior of Israel or somehow as the guy who has the will and skill to solve Israel's tough challenges or to somehow make them easier to manage. Right now, a Romney presidency is only a counterfactual exercise. But there's very little on the face of it that would suggest that a President Romney would have any more luck than his predecessors in fixing these critical issues.

There's no doubt that the personal relationship between these two leaders will improve. And that's important. But there's no sense at all that Romney has any better ideas on Iran or certainly the peace process than Obama. Greenlighting an Israeli attack on Iran and ignoring the peace process may not be the best course for Israel or America. Indeed, my own view is that on the nuclear issue, there will be little difference between the actual policies both would adopt and that in the end there will be more cooperation with the Israelis on Iran not less -- largely because Washington and Jerusalem will need one another to see this through without a disaster.

On the Palestinian issue, based on their track records, I have just as little confidence in Obama's activist approach as I do in Romney's professed policy of under-engagement. In any event, the road to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is littered with challenges that will be tough to overcome regardless of who's elected. On the security side, both will continue to support maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge.

As for American Jews, I know they worry for a living. The history of the Jewish people impels them to do so. But when it comes to the health of the U.S.-Israel relationship, they ought to take a deep breath and relax.

The key indicator in choosing the next president shouldn't be the U.S.-Israel relationship. That's too big to fail -- shared values, a strong pro-Israel community, and the behavior of the Arabs and Iran will all sustain it. Indeed, there's little chance of a divorce here. And like a committed marriage, it will endure across moments of happiness and tension, as well as its fair share of ups and downs. In fact, should Romney become president and Netanyahu remain in power, I'd bet that within a year they'll be annoying each other too.

Instead, the key question American Jews need to ask themselves isn't whether Romney or Obama is good for the Jews, but who's better for America. Indeed, particularly when it comes to domestic policy, where there are huge differences, American Jews ought to be far more focused on which of these guys would be better for their own country and less concerned about their policies toward somebody else's.

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