Say it ain't so, Joe

It's hard to tell exactly what Joe Biden was trying to say this morning on "This Week" with George Stephanopolous. But his remarks are being widely interpreted as a green light for an Israeli strike on Iran. If that isn't the case, Biden needs to issue a strong clarification immediately. If it is, then he has just committed the worst foreign policy blunder of the Obama administration. 

Here's what Biden said:

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he's prepared to make matters into his own hands.

Is that the right approach?

BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself -- it's a sovereign nation -- what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?

BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.

What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.

If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

That sounds an awful lot like a green light -- especially when paired with the poorly sourced Times of London story suggesting that the Saudis had agreed to facilitate an Israeli airstrike (there doesn't seem to be anything to it beyond John Bolton's wishful thinking, but it helps fuel a crisis atmosphere). It's not obvious that it actually is such a green light -- but that's how it is being interpreted  by Israelis across the spectrum and by the Arab media (few differences between the Saudi al-Arabiya and al-Sharq al-Awsat on the one hand, and al-Jazeera and al-Quds al-Arabi on the other side of the great Arab divide). 

If that's the case, and Israel takes up the offer, then the politics of the Middle East are about to take a sudden, potentially disastrous turn for the worse. An Israeli strike on Iran would almost certainly fail to seriously set back its nuclear program, and almost certainly would not lead the Iranian people to rise up against the regime (although one has to pause... has John Bolton ever been wrong about such a thing before?). It would almost certainly terminate the efforts of the reformist camp to challenge the results of the election and rally the Iranian public around the flag -- as attacks by the most hated foreign enemy of any country generally do even during times of turbulent politics (see: Iran, 1980). 

Does it really need to be said that such an attack would radicalize the region, and place a wide range of American interests at risk -- especially since Biden's comment will be cited forever as evidence that the attack had an American imprimatur?  Even if the attack does not happen, Biden's comment will likely further inflame the regional atmosphere, while helping the Iranian hardliners, who will use it as evidence of malign American intentions, throwing away much of the value of Obama's carefully and appropriately nuanced response to the unfolding crisis. 

Look (to use a Bidenism), nobody could really object to Biden's statement that any state has the sovereign right to act when it feels existentially threatened. In fact, he may have just been trying to say the opposite of how this is being read --- that sovereign states have the right to defend themselves, but that the U.S. would also define its own national interests.  But he had to understand how such a statement would be received, with the ink not even dry on John Bolton's ham-handed agitation for just such an American permission slip for such an attack. 

And he might have added to his entirely appropriate understanding of Israeli perceptions and concerns that the United States also has vital national interests at stake. An Israeli strike on Iran would likely throw all the progress in Iraq into grave danger, a reality of which American commanders in Iraq have routinely warned in public and private. That might not matter much to the Israeli government, but it matters a lot to the American government. The same for the negative impact it would have on efforts to achieve a two-state solution... something else which might suit Netanyahu just fine, but not the U.S. 

Why would Biden have made a statement which so radically undermines Obama's policy towards Iran? Maybe it reflects bad new advice coming from a new NSC adviser of vague portfolio. Maybe it's a clumsy attempt to ratchet up some pressure on the Iranian regime without actually doing anything, without regard to the spiral dynamics it could kick into gear. Or maybe it is just a major Biden gaffe, not a dramatic departure in the Obama administration's policy. That would still be bad, but would be salvagable.  Either way, the administration urgently needs to come forward quickly with a restatement of its policy -- and make sure the Israelis and others in the region understand it clearly -- or else it risks paying some extraordinarily serious costs.

UPDATE:  a senior White House source tells me that this is being misreported, and points me to this from White House spokesman Tommy Vietor:

The Vice President refused to engage hypotheticals, and he made clear that our policy has not changed. Our friends and allies, including Israel, know that the President believes that now is the time to explore direct diplomatic options, as with the P5+1." 

Good. This needs aggressive pushback though, because the regional media is overwhelmingly reporting the "green light" headline interpretation of Biden's remark. Time to flex those public diplomacy and strategic communications muscles, folks...

LAST UPDATE (Monday morning): a variety of comments from assorted well-placed worthies have come my way over the last day, some online and others privately. Most suggest that Biden's comments were not meant to change U.S. policy, and that if anything he meant to distance the U.S. from any Israeli strike (though a few speculate that it was actually meant to strengthen the U.S. bargaining position ahead of the Moscow talks). If that's the case, then it is only that much more important to repeat that his comments are being nigh-universally presented in the Middle Eastern media (Israeli and Arab, at least) as a "green light." If that wasn't the intended signal, then the administration needs to recognize that its signaling has gone awry and clear it up before it's too late...

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.