Commentary Magazine


Topic: media pundits

The Israeli Punditry’s Own Goal

Though Barack Obama bears primary responsibility for fumbling the ball on Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli punditry has played a non-negligible supporting role.

Even before Hillary Clinton openly disavowed the possibility last week, U.S. military action against Iran was never a very credible threat, given Obama’s visible distaste for the idea. That left Israel as the only credible military threat. And without such a threat, no nonmilitary solution is possible — something even the Obama administration now tacitly acknowledges. As the New York Times reported this month, the administration’s main argument in trying to persuade China to back tough sanctions is that otherwise Israel is likely to bomb Iran, and the resultant instability in a major oil-producing region would be far worse for Chinese business than sanctions would. Thus, everyone who favors a nonmilitary solution to the Iranian problem has a vested interest in keeping the Israeli threat as credible as possible.

Incredibly, Obama has been doing the exact opposite. It’s hard for administration officials to persuade either Tehran or Beijing to take the Israeli threat seriously while simultaneously proclaiming Obama’s determination to stop Israel from carrying it out. But that makes it all the more important for Israel to project willingness and ability to strike Iran whether Washington likes it or not — which Israel has tried to do.

Unfortunately, Israel’s efforts have been undercut by a string of academic and media pundits proclaiming that Israel cannot possibly strike Iran without U.S. permission. A typical example is the editorial Haaretz published last Tuesday, reprinted by the International Herald Tribune two days later. Explaining why Israel has “no better option” than to sit quietly and hope Obama’s efforts succeed, it declared: “Israel will need full American support for any actions it may decide to take against the Iranian threat. If Israel goes to war, it will need intelligence help, prior warning, military equipment and diplomatic support from the United States.” The obvious corollary is that Israel cannot go to war without American support.

Such assessments are almost certainly wrong: Israeli governments have rarely heeded American vetoes when they felt a vital Israeli security interest was at stake, and it’s hard to imagine a more vital Israeli interest than keeping Iran from getting the bomb. But that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that Haaretz is widely viewed by overseas journalists and diplomats as a credible interpreter of the Israeli scene. And therefore, such assertions lead Iran and China to believe that as long as Obama remains unalterably opposed to an Israeli strike, they need not fear one. Hence, Iran can safely continue its nuclear program, and China can safely continue stymieing international sanctions.

Those who make such statements generally believe an Israeli strike would be disastrous and seek to prevent it. But by making the Iranians and Chinese feel they have nothing to fear, these pundits actually make it more likely that nonmilitary efforts will fail, leaving Israel with no choice but military action. Thus their ill-considered words may end up bringing about the very scenario they dread most.

Though Barack Obama bears primary responsibility for fumbling the ball on Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli punditry has played a non-negligible supporting role.

Even before Hillary Clinton openly disavowed the possibility last week, U.S. military action against Iran was never a very credible threat, given Obama’s visible distaste for the idea. That left Israel as the only credible military threat. And without such a threat, no nonmilitary solution is possible — something even the Obama administration now tacitly acknowledges. As the New York Times reported this month, the administration’s main argument in trying to persuade China to back tough sanctions is that otherwise Israel is likely to bomb Iran, and the resultant instability in a major oil-producing region would be far worse for Chinese business than sanctions would. Thus, everyone who favors a nonmilitary solution to the Iranian problem has a vested interest in keeping the Israeli threat as credible as possible.

Incredibly, Obama has been doing the exact opposite. It’s hard for administration officials to persuade either Tehran or Beijing to take the Israeli threat seriously while simultaneously proclaiming Obama’s determination to stop Israel from carrying it out. But that makes it all the more important for Israel to project willingness and ability to strike Iran whether Washington likes it or not — which Israel has tried to do.

Unfortunately, Israel’s efforts have been undercut by a string of academic and media pundits proclaiming that Israel cannot possibly strike Iran without U.S. permission. A typical example is the editorial Haaretz published last Tuesday, reprinted by the International Herald Tribune two days later. Explaining why Israel has “no better option” than to sit quietly and hope Obama’s efforts succeed, it declared: “Israel will need full American support for any actions it may decide to take against the Iranian threat. If Israel goes to war, it will need intelligence help, prior warning, military equipment and diplomatic support from the United States.” The obvious corollary is that Israel cannot go to war without American support.

Such assessments are almost certainly wrong: Israeli governments have rarely heeded American vetoes when they felt a vital Israeli security interest was at stake, and it’s hard to imagine a more vital Israeli interest than keeping Iran from getting the bomb. But that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that Haaretz is widely viewed by overseas journalists and diplomats as a credible interpreter of the Israeli scene. And therefore, such assertions lead Iran and China to believe that as long as Obama remains unalterably opposed to an Israeli strike, they need not fear one. Hence, Iran can safely continue its nuclear program, and China can safely continue stymieing international sanctions.

Those who make such statements generally believe an Israeli strike would be disastrous and seek to prevent it. But by making the Iranians and Chinese feel they have nothing to fear, these pundits actually make it more likely that nonmilitary efforts will fail, leaving Israel with no choice but military action. Thus their ill-considered words may end up bringing about the very scenario they dread most.

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Bush Is Back

In addition to the plummeting support for ObamaCare, that Public Policy Polling survey had this nugget:

Perhaps the greatest measure of Obama’s declining support is that just 50% of voters now say they prefer having him as President to George W. Bush, with 44% saying they’d rather have his predecessor. Given the horrendous approval ratings Bush showed during his final term that’s somewhat of a surprise and an indication that voters are increasingly placing the blame on Obama for the country’s difficulties instead of giving him space because of the tough situation he inherited. The closeness in the Obama/Bush numbers also has implications for the 2010 elections. Using the Bush card may not be particularly effective for Democrats anymore, which is good news generally for Republicans and especially ones like Rob Portman who are running for office and have close ties to the former President.

Everything in politics is relative, we see once again. It’s only when presented with an “un-Bush” — the elite, Ivy Leagued cool guy who made media pundits swoon like schoolgirls — that the public, it seems, has come to appreciate George W. Bush: the decider, the man who teared up in the wake of 9/11, the president who frankly couldn’t stand the Israel and America bashers at the UN, and the conservative who may have frustrated conservatives with insufficient frugality but who understood and appreciated the limits of the federal government. Bush’s stalwart position on the war on terror (pro–enhanced interrogations, anti–Guantanamo closing) is shared by a majority of voters. And Obama? The public doesn’t agree with him on KSM, enhanced interrogations, or his signature domestic initiative.

The pollsters’ observation about 2010 is a telling one. Obama and the Democrats have been running on and speechifying about being “not George Bush” for some time. It’s old, and Bush is no longer so unpopular. They’ll have to get a new line and run on their own records. No wonder they’re nervous.

In addition to the plummeting support for ObamaCare, that Public Policy Polling survey had this nugget:

Perhaps the greatest measure of Obama’s declining support is that just 50% of voters now say they prefer having him as President to George W. Bush, with 44% saying they’d rather have his predecessor. Given the horrendous approval ratings Bush showed during his final term that’s somewhat of a surprise and an indication that voters are increasingly placing the blame on Obama for the country’s difficulties instead of giving him space because of the tough situation he inherited. The closeness in the Obama/Bush numbers also has implications for the 2010 elections. Using the Bush card may not be particularly effective for Democrats anymore, which is good news generally for Republicans and especially ones like Rob Portman who are running for office and have close ties to the former President.

Everything in politics is relative, we see once again. It’s only when presented with an “un-Bush” — the elite, Ivy Leagued cool guy who made media pundits swoon like schoolgirls — that the public, it seems, has come to appreciate George W. Bush: the decider, the man who teared up in the wake of 9/11, the president who frankly couldn’t stand the Israel and America bashers at the UN, and the conservative who may have frustrated conservatives with insufficient frugality but who understood and appreciated the limits of the federal government. Bush’s stalwart position on the war on terror (pro–enhanced interrogations, anti–Guantanamo closing) is shared by a majority of voters. And Obama? The public doesn’t agree with him on KSM, enhanced interrogations, or his signature domestic initiative.

The pollsters’ observation about 2010 is a telling one. Obama and the Democrats have been running on and speechifying about being “not George Bush” for some time. It’s old, and Bush is no longer so unpopular. They’ll have to get a new line and run on their own records. No wonder they’re nervous.

Read Less




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