GOING IT ALONE

03.02.15 10:15 AM ET

The Catastrophe Bibi Is Courting

Israel’s prime minister is in Washington to build American support, bolster his re-election campaign, and (clandestinely) push for war on Iran. He should be careful what he wishes for.

So Bibi Netanyahu did not back down, and he’s here now in the United States, and he’s giving the speech Tuesday. In doing so, he has forced a true low point in U.S.-Israel relations. As has been often observed, he’s turning Israel into a partisan issue—up to somewhere around a quarter of congressional Democrats are refusing to attend the speech. That’s a crack, a big one. If he remains prime minister after the March 17 elections, the fissures between Netanyahu’s government and Barack Obama and the Democrats will only widen.

Congressional support for Israel is due for a reconsideration. As Scott McConnell wrote last month in The American Conservative (an anti-neocon magazine), Congress “does not come close to representing the views of the American people” on Israel, either with respect to Iran or the occupation. McConnell cites all the requisite poll numbers that make the case.

Now, Congress can go a long time without representing American public opinion. On certain big-money issues like banking, that’s all Congress does. But on most issues, Congress at least has to act like it’s listening to the American people, and on foreign policy questions in particular, Congress, and for that matter the president, can’t usually go where the American people don’t want to go. Obama probably wanted to drop a smattering of bombs on Syria in 2013, but public opinion was dead set against it. And remember how the Bush administration had to work public opinion in 2002 and 2003 to make sure the lies about Saddam Husssein’s nuclear ambitions got support levels up to 60 percent or so before it launched the war.

So one of these days, in two years or five or six, congressional fealty to Israel will cease being so bipartisan and reflexive—and that will be entirely an outcome of Netanyahu (and John Boehner’s and Ron Dermer’s and AIPAC’s) making.

But all that is just politics. Netanyahu is creating a much bigger problem here. Ultimately, he wants war with Iran. And American neoconservatives want it, too.  Few of them will say so (although some do—see below). But that’s what they want, and we need to be clear about it.

Think about it. What is the alternative to negotiating with Iran? Well, there is only one: not negotiating with Iran. And what are the possible courses of action under that option? At the end of the day, there are two. Number one, let Iran do what it wants. Number two, ultimately, be willing to start a war to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Knowing the neocons’ world view as I’m sure you do, how willing do you think they’d be to let Iran do what it wants? Correct. Not very. That leaves war. There is the step of tougher sanctions as a middle course, but sanctions, even crippling ones, don’t usually change a regime’s behavior. So the clear implication of the anti-negotiation position is war—with a country of 77 million people, a huge army, and formidable wealth. As a point of comparison, Iraq in 2003 had about a third of Iran’s population.

As noted above, not many on the right are going to be honest enough to speak openly of war. The Republican presidential candidates, for example, don’t want the American public to think they’re crazy, so they won’t admit this—although interestingly, Rick Santorum became, I believe, the first Republican candidate to call for up to 10,000 U.S. combat troops on the ground to fight the so-called Islamic State.

With regard to Iran, the candidates hide behind the usual euphemisms. But a few war-makers are coming out of the closet. Matt Welch of Reason noted last week that on a panel at CPAC, both John Bolton and new Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton spoke openly of the desire for regime change in Iran. Bolton said U.S. policy toward Iran should be “overthrow of the ayatollahs.” Cotton added that we need regime change and “replacement with a pro-Western regime.”

Where is Netanyahu on this? Every indication he’s given us is that he’s on the Bolton-Cotton team. I don’t doubt that the prime minister sincerely believes that a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic would be catastrophic for Israel, and we should not dismiss that concern. No opponent of the neoconservative approach should be foolish enough to think that we can trust Iran. Israel has good reason to be worried. (I will, however, mention here Israel’s own 100-odd nuclear warheads, just on principle, because they always go unmentioned in columns like these.)

So Netanyahu wants, at the very least, a bombing campaign. But you know as well as I do that most of the leading experts say Iran’s centrifuge capacities are now too numerous and too geographically disparate for a bombing campaign of the usual scope to be very effective. That means a bombing campaign of unusual scope.

Do Netanyahu and Bolton really expect that Iran would not retaliate in such a case? Of course it would retaliate. And far more likely against Israel than against the United States. But the United States would be dragged into it, which is exactly what Bolton and Cotton told CPAC we should all want.

It seems to be what Netanyahu wants, too. It’s what he wanted back in 2002, when—then as a private citizen—he went to Congress and made the case for war against Iraq. As Josh Marshall noted last week, some of his words from back then are enough to make you shudder: “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”

It had the opposite effect, of course. It strengthened Iran and gave us ISIS. And now we’re supposed to make up for that huge mistake by trusting Netanyahu and the neocons again?

I’m sure Netanyahu’s words will be measured Tuesday. He wants Israel’s levels of support in America to be high, and he wants to win re-election. But don’t be fooled. He and his Republican backers are leading us down a potentially catastrophic path. And catastrophic not least for Israel itself: If this path someday reaches its logical end point, it won’t be only liberal Democrats in America who’ll conclude that we should just let Israel fight its own battles.