Jennifer, I suspect a lot of the commentary on Biden’s comments suffers from not reading the exchange closely enough. After all, there is always a third possibility — neither big news nor gaffe: Biden is offering a carefully articulated version of an unchanged policy, sending messages to both Israel and Iran. Let’s look, for example, at part of the exchange that in my mind set off some alarm bells in the other direction (thanks to Shmuel Rosner for providing the transcript):
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.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You say we can’t dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.
BIDEN: I’m not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.
The focus of Stephanopoulos’s questions is on the forcible, “military” prevention by the U.S. of an Israeli strike. Technically, the question is whether the U.S. would allow Israeli planes to fly over Iraq — a path which, it should be stressed, is not the only way Israel can get to Iran. (Turkey is the most obvious way; another is Saudi Arabia.) To this, Biden is deliberately keeping the American cards close to the chest: The administration never ruled out an American or Israeli strike on Iran, and Biden is explicitly keeping open the possibility that the U.S. might, some day, give Israel such permission — or not. This is a clear signal to Iran, as everyone has already pointed out.
At the same time, we need to listen to Biden’s repeated use of the word “sovereign.” By speaking of sovereign rights, Biden is not emphasizing Israel’s right to attack, but limiting it. Like any sovereign state, Israel has a “right” to defend itself. That’s the definition of sovereignty. But this does not mean that the U.S. will see the move as right, or in American interests; nor will Washington necessarily let Israel off the hook if it attacks. There are many ways to pressure Israel on Iran; limiting access to Iraqi airspace is one of the least important of them. (By the way, the opposite is true as well: Washington can give Israel a green light on Iran without allowing access to Iraqi air space.)
It is always easy to assume that the vice president has little control over his mouth. In this case, however, it seems he has presented a carefully crafted warning to both Israel and Iran, without committing the administration to anything. Not bad for a loose cannon.