Posts Tagged Iran
Posted by Martin Kramer in on September 11, 2015
This is a screen grab. The original post, with active links, is here.
This post first appeared at the Commentary blog on August 24.
J.J. Goldberg at the Forward has been running a campaign to persuade Americans that Israel’s intelligence community is at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Iran deal. Not only the preponderance of retired professionals, but also currently serving ones, dissent from Netanyahu’s read of the deal. Netanyahu can’t silence the former, but he’s given a “gag order” to the latter—to no avail. Military intelligence has even produced a “surprising,” “game-changing” assessment that undermines him completely, according to which the “upsides [of the deal] aren’t perfect,” but “the downsides aren’t unmanageable…. The disadvantages are not too calamitous for anyone to cope with them.” Military intelligence sees “an imperfect but real opening in Iran. It believes that opportunities are being lost.” Netanyahu’s own “diagnosis doesn’t match his own intelligence.”
It’s all polemical and politicized nonsense.
A real expert, Emily Landau (at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv) has already taken Goldberg to the woodshed about the retired professionals (Goldberg has a weird predilection for calling them “spooks”). Landau, without naming the names of these “experts,” points out that Iranian politics and nuclear issues are well beyond the expertise of most of them. Not everyone with a pension and an opinion is equal. And most of those who think that Israel should back off a fight over the deal still think it’s a bad one. They just argue that it’s inevitable anyway, so why provoke Barack Obama? This isn’t support for the deal, it’s resigned acquiescence. (The military correspondent of The Times of Israel did a parallel debunking, after the White House began to tweet similar claims.)
But what about the “game-changing” assessment by those who serve now? Goldberg is referring to an analysis prepared by Israel’s military intelligence branch (Aman), which was presented to Netanyahu and the political echelon. The main points of the analysis appeared immediately in the Israeli press. To read Goldberg, you’d think that this document is an endorsement of the Iran deal, and that the deal’s flaws are equally balanced by its advantages. Neither Goldberg nor I has seen this document. But even a cursory reading of the press reports (here, here, and here) shows that it’s not what Goldberg claims it is.
Yes, the intelligence assessment is that Iran won’t be able to build a bomb under the terms of the agreement. (That is, if Iran doesn’t cheat—the assessment says the mechanisms for inspection are flawed.) Iran might even show short-term restraint over support for terror, to consolidate its gains from sanctions relief. But the estimate also holds that when the agreement expires, Iran will be only weeks away from a nuclear breakout. In the meantime, Iran gains undeserved legitimacy from the deal, which provokes Arab states to stock up on conventional weapons and accelerate their own nuclear programs. Some of these programs could be militarized over time. The bottom line of the assessment, as reported in the press, is that the risks of the deal outweigh the opportunities. (This formula appears in more than one press report. Goldberg omits it.)
The reason that this “game-changing” assessment isn’t turning the world upside-down is simple. It isn’t “game-changing.” Goldberg’s headline announces that it’s the report “That Bibi Fears,” for “defying the gag order.” But I doubt that Netanyahu experienced even a moment’s discomfort upon hearing it, and it hasn’t been “game-changing” or even especially noteworthy in Israel. Leave it to Goldberg to cherry-pick a few bullet points from the assessment and inflate the whole thing into some sort of insurgency. He’s counting on readers of the Forward not to know any better.
He also elides an important point about the authors of the brief. At one point, Goldberg writes that earlier Israeli press reports flagged “trepidation within the military” among officers who “feared retribution.” The link at “press reports” leads to just one, a piece by Ha’aretz military correspondent Amir Oren. In that piece, Oren attacks the head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi (pictured, far right), and the chief of the research division, Brig. Gen. Eli Ben-Meir, for backing Netanyahu. Oren accuses the two generals of “falling into line toward the right. Eating with their mouths closed, in unison. Hiding any disturbing thoughts.” (Oren doesn’t explain how he’s accessed these thoughts.) Oren claims that “there are those in the Intelligence Corps, including those in the research division dealing with Iran, who have a very positive view of the nuclear agreement.” But Halevi and Ben-Meir have “concealed them from the public,” and in doing so, are “in breach of their national duty.”
Oren (and his newspaper) never stop grinding their axe against the prime minister, but even Oren admits that the top heads of military intelligence are on board with Netanyahu (“falling in line,” in his demeaning words). Indeed, they’re the ones (he alleges) who are silencing “those” analysts further down the chart. (Who or how many are “those,” if they exist? Anyone’s guess.) Yet Goldberg would have us believe that these same two generals have just delivered an assessment that blows away Netanyahu’s case against the deal.
Well, the “eruption of dissent” is imaginary, and so is the “gag order.” Debates in Israel’s intel community not only occur, they’re encouraged (there’s even an officer in military intelligence who’s a designated “devil’s advocate”). Likewise, it’s vital for Israeli planners to think about the day after a done deal on Iran, and how Israel can make the most of it. But that’s all it is. Goldberg’s latest job is a conspiracy theory for the gullible. You don’t have to be an intel officer to know that it’s a red herring.
Addendum: Yossi Melman, Israel’s best-regarded intelligence correspondent (and no admirer of Benjamin Netanyahu), has written this in response to Amir Oren, and it could just as well be taken for a reply to Goldberg:
There is almost no expert or researcher, junior or senior, serving in military intelligence, the Mossad, the general staff or the different branches of the IDF, the National Security Council, or the Ministry of Intelligence Affairs, who thinks that the agreement reached between the powers and Iran is positive. The grades they give to the agreement range from “awful” to “not good” to “bearable” to “we can live with it.” But there is no enchantment with the agreement, even if it has some positive clauses…. There is also almost total consensus that it was possible to achieve a better agreement…. In this respect, there is a convergence of opinion, with different emphases, among the political echelon led by the prime minister, the intelligence community, and retired senior officials, that a different agreement would have been preferable to the one that was signed.
Melman has heard criticism of Netanyahu’s tactics vis-à-vis Obama, but that’s already politics. On the agreement itself, according to Melman, the views cover a narrow range, and are close to unanimous.
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— Robert Satloff (@robsatloff) August 25, 2015
Posted by Martin Kramer in on August 20, 2015
Martin Kramer delivered these remarks at a Harvard symposium on “Iran: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?” convened by Middle East Strategy at Harvard, April 30, 2009. Posted retroactively.
Let me begin by taking you thirty years back in time, to March 1979, just after the triumph of Khomeini. A report in the Washington Post opened with these words:
In the lobby of the Intercontinental the main tea-time occupation is comparative revolutions. Those who covered the Portuguese or Cuban revolutions argue over whether Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan is more a Soares or a Castro. Those with a historical turn of mind seek parallels in the Russian revolution, wondering if the Fedayeen will fill the role of the Bolsheviks. For those who fancy the French revolution there’s the fun of identifying a future Napoleon from the ranks of obscure Iranian colonels.
Now as that suggests, initially no one was sure which analogy to follow as the revolution in Iran unfolded. But eventually, and with the help of the academy, one analogy prevailed over the others: the Iranian revolution would come to be described as a “great revolution” on the scale of the Russian Revolution.
I say with the help of the academy, because it was academic students of comparative revolution who singled out the Iranian revolution from the jumble of Third World turmoil, as something different, of world-historical significance. This may have had to do with high expectations of the revolution on the international left, for its dethroning America’s puppet, the Shah of Iran. And it was a politically correct thing to do, to add at least some Muslims to the “great revolution” pantheon. Theda Skocpol, student of comparative revolution here at Harvard, set the tone: “The Iranian revolution… surely fits more closely the pattern of the great historical social revolutions than it does the rubric of simply a political revolution, where only governmental institutions are transformed.”
But it wasn’t just the academic left. Iran and Middle East specialists loved to put Iran in the big leagues. Iran expert Marvin Zonis told a State Department session in 1984: “The message from Iran is in my opinion the single most impressive political ideology proposed in the twentieth century—since the Bolshevik Revolution. And if we accept that Bolshevism is a remnant of the nineteenth century, then I argue that we’ve had only one good one in the twentieth—and it’s this one.” And here, for variety, is Bernard Lewis: “The Iranian Revolution was a real revolution, in the sense that the French and Russian revolutions were real revolutions.” (Note that both Zonis and Lewis don’t even include China as a referent.)
This categorization of Iran’s revolution among the “greats,” so close to its occurrence, seems hasty in retrospect. Compare France, Russia, and even China, with Iran thirty years after their “great revolutions.” They became military or economic superpowers; Iran clearly hasn’t. It’s more reminiscent of Nasser’s revolutionary Egypt in its ability to mobilize and project power. But first impressions matter, and from a very early stage, Iran’s revolution was deemed analogous to Russia’s.
America’s foreign policy community, combining long Soviet experience with patent ignorance of Iran, then deliberately or unconsciously imposed a Cold War template on Iran. As a result, U.S. policy discourse on Iran has become suffused with Cold War analogies and referents. It began in earnest after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, and its collapse became the model of how America could win without war, with lots of bows to George Kennan and “containment.” In 1993, both Iran and Iraq became subject to the policy of “dual containment.” Over time, Iraq would be separated in U.S. thinking from Iran. But Iran remains quite firmly embedded in America’s Cold War template, despite Ahmadinejad’s personal efforts to evoke Hitler. And this isn’t the preference of only one side in the Iran debate. Cold War referents are used by analysts and journalists who want the United States to take Iran as a serious challenge that needs to be confronted. And they are used by those who think the United States should take Iran as a serious challenge and engage it.
We don’t know what’s in the secret policy briefs, but the same kind of message has come across in public statements by U.S. officials. Example: in beefing up the U.S. presence in Dubai to monitor the situation in Iran, Nick Burns, who’s now here at Harvard, invoked Riga Station:
We sent a young kid from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926 out to Riga station: George Kennan. We said, go and learn Russian. Sit in Riga. You be our window into the Soviet Union. That is what we are saying to these young kids today. You go to Dubai. We can’t be in Iran. You interview every Iranian you can find… all the Iranians who… do their banking… and weekends there—and you tell us how we should understand Iran.
Had I more time, I could regale you with similar snippets, which I would label under the category of Sovietological displacement.
But there’s a problem with the Cold War analogy. It hides Iran’s weakness. It presumes Iran has the kind of superpower clout that the Soviet Union had—even though Iran can’t invade countries, sell top-of-the-line weapons systems, or rattle a nuclear saber. In doing so, it tilts the U.S. approach to Iran away from prevention and preemption, and toward containment and deterrence. It thus works, paradoxically, as a self-fulfilling analogy. Thanks to its hold on our imaginations, the United States is already in the process of resigning itself to the continued growth of Iranian power, until it does more closely resemble a major power in its capabilities.
Many of those who do favor “containment” cite George Kennan as their hero. But for Kennen, Iran was no Soviet Union. We know that, because Kennan testified on Iran in 1980, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the time, Iran was holding U.S. hostages. Kennan said that in face of what he called “unprecedented insults” by Iran, the Carter administration should go to Congress for a declaration of war. It should then seize Iranian assets, and intern Iranian officials in the United States. He then added this: “We should hold in readiness means of unilateral pressure on the Iranian regime, not excluding the military ones.” Kennen would have found preposterous the notion that the United States might ever be locked in a Cold War with the likes of Iran—a state with about one percent of the U.S. GDP and one percent of U.S. military expenditure.
And there are people who have watched Iran up close and reached the same conclusion. A year ago, then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker was asked this question in an interview: “So is there a New Cold War, comparable to that with the former Soviet Union, between the U.S. and Iran?” He gave this answer: “The Soviet Union was a formidable force at its height, with a massive nuclear arsenal. It had half of Europe locked up in its grasp. Iran simply does not carry anything remotely like that weight, not internationally, not even regionally.”
If this is so, why do we demoralize ourselves and feed Iran’s ambitions with flattering and misleading analogies? Which is why it’s time to stop thinking analogically about Iran. The alternative is simple: think logically.
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 20.
Critics of the Israel boycott resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) sometimes ask why the ASA doesn’t also boycott Chinese or Iranian universities. (I make the double-standard argument myself, in a post at Foreign Policy.) Even the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, admits that Israel’s neighbors have worse human rights records, but adds that “one has to start somewhere.”
But the Israel boycott resolution isn’t the ASA’s first “start” in the Middle East. In fact, the ASA had an earlier foray, in Iran. More precisely, it coddled one of Iran’s most prominent America-bashing academics, at the very moment when Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was busy purging Iran’s universities.
In 2005, the University of Tehran established a Department of North American Studies, as part of a new Institute for North American and European Studies. The notion was that Iran needed to school experts on America, but in a way that wouldn’t pollute them with traces of sympathy for their object of study. For that, the project needed a regime loyalist knowledgeable about America but appropriately contemptuous of it.
Meet Seyed Mohammad Marandi. Born in the United States to an exiled Iranian physician, Marandi came to Iran at the age of thirteen, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, did an English lit Ph.D. in Britain, and worked his way up the university ladder, becoming director of the new department. Marandi is familiar to every Iran news addict. He’s the fellow the international networks can always depend upon to defend every action of the regime, from suppression of the “Green Revolution” to the shocking execution of dissidents (sorry, “terrorists”). This is a man capable of acclaiming Ayatollah Khamenei (a “just, pious, and courageous” leader) as being perhaps even greater than Ayatollah Khomeini himself—”as he did not have the advantage of being the Founder of the Revolution.”
The ASA brought Marandi to the United States for its annual conference in 2005. An American academic who knew Marandi in Iran at the time told the story:
Someone suggested to the leadership of the ASA that the organization invite him to attend the annual meeting that year in Washington, D.C., all expenses paid. The ASA paid for him to come and gave him a free registration and money for a hotel, and it didn’t ask him to do anything other than roam the corridors of those opulent hotels.
So Marandi got a taste of “state of the art” scholarship in American studies. As it turned out, this wasn’t as valuable as it might sound, or so his American friend reported:
The topics that this director found himself learning about, as he made his way through the hallways of this grand hotel, were so esoteric as to be of no help to him in planning how to teach himself American studies so that he could teach his students. He would stay for a few moments at each panel, trying to relate it to the needs of the institute he was building back home, before he staggered on to the next.
The ASA’s patronage of Marandi’s shop didn’t end there. In 2006, the Center for Distance Learning at SUNY Empire State College received a “partnership grant” from the ASA to promote its ties with Marandi’s department—”seed money” for a full-blown exchange. (It didn’t happen.) And in 2007, Marandi was back at the ASA, at its annual meeting in Philadelphia, to present a paper savaging literary memoirs written by Iranian critics of the regime, some of which had become popular in the United States (e.g., Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis).
If anyone had any doubt about Marandi’s standing as a regime stalwart, it should have been dissipated by the regime’s simultaneous purge of university faculty, at the University of Tehran and elsewhere. In September 2006, President Ahmadinejad launched a tirade against “the continued presence of liberal and secular professors in the country’s universities.” Word came that these professors were being retired en masse. The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) issued a letter urging that “Iran’s universities use transparent and non-discriminatory criteria in any decisions regarding compulsory retirement, and that no academics face dismissal solely or mainly because of political views that they express peacefully.” In May 2007, MESA issued another letter, noting that over the previous year, “students and professors from numerous Iranian universities have been disciplined, fired, forcibly retired, expelled, and otherwise harassed on grounds that are clearly related to their political opinions and associations.”
After suppression of the “Green Revolution,” the dismissals accelerated, provoking a flood of protests by human-rights organizations. In October 2009, MESA wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei, protesting the “harassment and dismissal of university faculty on grounds of political and ideological dissent,” and lamenting that “the abuses of power by the Iranian state and the atmosphere of fear to which students and faculty are subjected on and off the university campuses [are] by far among the most dismal in the world.”
Yet through all this turmoil, Marandi and his university program flourished, and he became the go-to man for the official point of view in the world media. At times, his slavish fealty to the regime, expressed in perfect American English, exasperated even the most indulgent interviewers. In one particularly memorable exchange, at the height of the street violence, Fareed Zakaria lost his patience, asking Marandi this question:
Do you worry that you will be seen in history as a mouthpiece for a dying, repressive regime in its death throes? That twenty years from now you’ll look back, and the world will look back at you, the way it did some of those smooth-talking, English-speaking, Soviet spokesmen who were telling us right in the middle 1980s, that the Soviet Union was all just fine and democratic and wonderful?
When Marandi retorted he was an academic and no one’s mouthpiece, Zakaria asked why “the only person we are allowed to speak to [via satellite from Iran] is you.”
Marandi’s performance during the “Green Revolution” seems to have put him beyond the pale, perhaps even for the ASA. But the episode casts a harsh light on the ASA’s latest decision to boycott Israel’s institutions of higher education. Israeli academe is chock-full of people who make names for themselves by lambasting the Israeli government of the day and the “occupation,” if not the very premises of Israel itself. Take Tel Aviv University, where I spent twenty-five years. There I was a colleague of the late Tanya Reinhart, a linguist who habitually accused Israel of genocide, and Shlomo Sand, a historian who has written two books insisting that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are Zionist fabrications. (He’s also written a tract on when and how he stopped being a Jew.) These Israeli professors have no remote equivalents at the University of Tehran. But the ASA now boycotts Tel Aviv University, not the University of Tehran, and even worse, it has a record of legitimating the very faction on the Tehran campus installed by the regime as part of a purge.
Now that I think about it, the ASA boycott resolution of Israel provides a perfect opportunity for the ASA to renew its links with Marandi and the regime’s “American studies” project. After all, it’s the Islamic Republic of Iran that leads the world in promoting the isolation of Israel, as a prelude to its eventual dissolution. It’s a natural partner. So what if institutional members of the ASA like Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg drop out? There’s always the University of Tehran to take their place.
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The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:
What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.
Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?
Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.
Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.
2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.
“Not worth five cents”
What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.
Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:
President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…
We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…
If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…
The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”
Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.
Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.
I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….
I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.
The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.
The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.
After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing.
There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.
“Too big for business as usual”
In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.
In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”
Views differ differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, should it conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.
And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:
Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”
That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has urged that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”
Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 17.