Commentary Magazine


Lieberman: It’s About American Interests

Sen. Joe Lieberman gave a speech today at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was everything the Obama Middle East policy is not — realistic, attuned to America’s national interests, and bold.

He smartly began describing the nervousness that has greeted the administration’s “smart diplomacy”: “I have been struck as I have traveled in the region in recent months by what seems to me to be a heightened uneasiness about the future of American power there. Behind closed doors, one hears an unmistakable uncertainty about our resolve and staying power.” He enumerates several reasons, but it is clear what the primary problem is:

I believe, the major geopolitical driver for the heightened anxiety about America’s staying power in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran — more specifically, its determined push to become the dominant power in the region and tilt the balance of governance there towards Islamist extremism — and whether the United States has the will to stop that push. The Iranian regime’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability cannot be separated from its long-term campaign of unconventional warfare, stretching back decades, to destabilize the region and remake it in its own Islamist extremist image.

Or, to put it bluntly, the problem is the administration’s seeming unwillingness or inability to thwart the rise of a nuclear-armed revolutionary Islamic state. It’s not about Israel; rather, it is about the U.S.:

If Iran succeeds in acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, it would severely destabilize the Middle East, a region whose stability has been an important long-term American national and economic security goal.

It would also damage America’s ability to sustain the commitments we have made in the Middle East: our commitment, dating back to the Carter and Reagan administrations, to prevent the domination of the Persian Gulf by a revisionist or extremist power; our commitment to secure lasting peace and security between Israel and its neighbors; and our commitment to deter, disrupt, and defeat state-sponsored Islamist extremist groups, who would suddenly be able to wage attacks from under the protection of Iran’s nuclear umbrella. …

That is why the single most important test of American power in the Middle East today is whether we succeed or fail in stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. How we do on that test will significantly affect our standing in the rest of the world.

It is particularly telling that as Lieberman identifies the principle concern in the region (arguably anywhere), the Obami are flitting about trying to get Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table, where nothing much has or will be accomplished.

Lieberman praises the “cascade” of sanctions, but cautions: “Iran’s nuclear efforts are continuing forward. Despite some apparent technical difficulties, Iran’s centrifuges keep spinning, and its stockpile of fissile material continues to grow.” In other words, the sanctions have failed, and we now need to consider other measures.

Sensing that the Obami are excited by the prospect of new talks with the mullahs, he warns: “The test is not whether the Iranian regime is talking, but what the regime is doing.” So what do we do?

Our sanctions effort should therefore increasingly aim not just to add pressure on the existing regime, but to target the fissures that already exist both within the Iranian regime itself and between the regime and Iranian society.

This should include much more robust engagement and support for opposition forces inside Iran, both by the United States and like-minded democratic nations around the world. The Obama administration missed an important opportunity in the wake of last year’s election in Iran. But it is certainly not too late to give strong support to the people in Iran who are courageously standing up against their repressive government.

In addition to regime change, we — not tiny Israel —  must make clear we will use force if need be:

It is time for us to take steps that make clear that if diplomatic and economic strategies continue to fail to change Iran’s nuclear policies, a military strike is not just a remote possibility in the abstract, but a real and credible alternative policy that we and our allies are ready to exercise.

It is time to retire our ambiguous mantra about all options remaining on the table. It is time for our message to our friends and enemies in the region to become clearer: namely, that we will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability — by peaceful means if we possibly can, but with military force if we absolutely must. A military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities entails risks and costs, but I am convinced that the risks and costs of allowing Iran to obtain a nuclear weapons capability are much greater.

There should be no effort to “outsource” this task, Lieberman explains. “We can and should coordinate with our many allies who share our interest in stopping a nuclear Iran, but we cannot delegate our global responsibilities to them.”

This is a powerful, mature speech that, I would suggest, should and can be the basis of a bipartisan policy. The new Congress as well as private citizens and groups concerned about the rise of a nuclear-armed Iran should make every effort to persuade the administration of the wisdom of Lieberman’s approach. There is no substitute for a determined commander in chief, but the president should know that resigning ourselves to a nuclear-armed Iran or another round of fruitless talks are non-options and will garner no public or congressional support. Moreover, Obama should know that the blame for a nuclear-armed Iran will fall on him.

A final note: Lieberman never uttered the word “Israel.” Israel certainly has a greater stake than any nation in disarming Tehran, but what the country and Obama must understand is that America’s national security is the primary issue.

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