In his column at the Daily Beast today on the prospect of hostilities with Iran, Peter Beinart assumes his usual role: defender of Barack Obama against Israel and its supporters. In this case, it’s the chutzpah of Israel’s government to demand that the administration issue some clear red lines about how long it will wait before taking action against the Iranian nuclear threat that bothers him. Israel’s warning that it may have to act on its own is seen on the left as an attempt to force him to launch an unnecessary war. But Beinart’s complaint that we haven’t had a full-scale debate on stopping Iran is more than a bit disingenuous. Far from no one making a case for the use of force on Iran — which he compares unfavorably to the Bush administration’s efforts to justify the invasion of Iraq — the president has been doing that ever since he started running for president.
If there hasn’t been much contention about pressuring Iran it’s because it’s been one of those issues on which there’s been a clear consensus. Stopping an Islamist regime that hates the West and America and which routinely calls for Israel’s elimination while promoting anti-Semitism and subsidizing terrorism is not a controversial goal. Obama and the Democrats and Romney and the Republicans both agree on this. The only question is which of them is serious about it. Beinart’s call for debate before any promises are made to Israel is part of an effort to back the president’s desire to keep kicking the can down the road until after the November election. Rather than really wanting a debate about a feckless administration policy that has wasted four years on dead-end diplomacy and engagement with Iran and only belatedly enacted sanctions that it are being loosely enforced, what Obama cheerleaders like Beinart really want is to find a way to put on brake on the use of force. But his assertion that no one has made a case for stopping Iran being an “American interest” is simply untrue.
Indeed, the comparison to Iraq, where intelligence about weapons of mass destruction turned out to be incorrect, is apt but not in the way that opponents of force think. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Iranians haven’t been coy about their nuclear goals even if they claim they don’t want a bomb. There isn’t much of a dispute about whether they are refining uranium or that they are building underground bunkers for this material. Opponents of action don’t dispute that the Iranians have worked on military applications of their nuclear material. Nor is this belief limited to Americans. There happens to be an international consensus that there is solid proof that an Iranian bomb is a threat to world peace as well as the global economy. Why would diplomats like the European Union’s Catherine Ashton be involved in negotiations to halt the Iranian project if it were solely about Israel’s interests?
Nor is there any doubt about how dangerous Iran already has become. Via its allies Hezbollah and Hamas and the vicious Assad regime in Syria, Iran is a destabilizing force in the region and the main bulwark of terrorism. It’s recent Al Quds day festivities also serve as a reminder of the entrenched anti-Semitism that runs deep in the regime’s ideology. Even Tehran’s apologists have trouble justifying indifference toward a country that denies the Holocaust while constantly threatening a new one.
It is true that after Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are war weary. But no one is suggesting an invasion. The U.S. and Israel have the capability to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities without injecting land forces. That would mean casualties as well as possible retaliation but comparison with either of Bush’s wars is completely misleading. Beinart is right that neither candidate is talking much about Iran on the campaign trail. But both agree that Iran must be stopped. Any debate about the advisability of making good on the country’s pledge to halt Iran would take place with only the far left and extremist libertarians speaking up in favor of letting the ayatollahs get their finger on the button. Were the president to make clear his red lines, few in either major party would disagree just as his pledge not to contain Iran went virtually unopposed.
The real debate is not about whether we should stop Iran but whether President Obama meant it when he pledged to do so. Ever since President Obama began running for the White House, he has used the sternest rhetoric about the nature of the Iranian threat and how unacceptable it would be for them to go nuclear. Until now, he has tried diplomacy and failed. What Israel wants is some idea of how long he will wait before acknowledging that failure. Unfortunately, the more his supporters call for delay, and the more administration spokespersons make statements about still believing that diplomacy can work, the less credible the president’s pledges on Iran sound. And that is what makes Israelis nervous and Iranians confident.