AIPAC speeches are almost always an opportunity for the lowest common-denominator in pandering, the triumph of either jingoism (American or Israeli or both) or cynicism by American politicians. I say almost always because President Obama’s address surprised me.
Obama’s speech built on the themes he developed in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg about a looming Iran war. The short version is captured in the graphic I used for this post. Obama made a case for Israel and AIPAC to trust him on international sanctions to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon while telling Iran not to think he won’t unholster his own guns. He did it without pretending to AIPAC that see the world the same way. Or to put it differently, Obama challenged AIPAC to see the world his way, while every other American politician who addresses this forum will say he sees the world their way.
Some of the most significant parts of the speech are going to get lost in the soundbyte wrap-ups. To my ears, they include: “A nuclear-armed Iran would thoroughly undermine the non-proliferation regime that we have done so much to build.” That yokes preventing a nuclear Iran to Obama’s own geopolitical agenda of a nuke-free world — ironically, something conservatives bash him for promoting. It tells AIPAC and Netanyahu that Obama feels personally invested in the issue, and Obama’s still making the case against a war.
Another significant reference: “We’re providing Israel with more advanced technology — the type of products and systems that only go to our closest friends and allies.” In one sense, this is a reference to the Iron Dome rocket-defense system, jointly developed by Israel and the United States. In the more resonant sense, it’s a reference to Stuxnet; and I would guess it’s also a reference to a Stuxnet successor.
Israel wanted Obama to give Iran a red line not to cross. I would argue he did. “I made a commitment to the American people, and said that we would use all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” That isn’t what Netanyahu wants to hear. As Noah Pollack incisively tweeted — yes, yes, snicker to yourselves, but he’s right — the Israelis want Iran not to be able to produce a nuclear weapon. Obama did not liquidate the disagreement.
Instead, he made a case against “loose talk of war,” and for his diplomatic leadership, which he accurately noted “allowed us to rally the international community as never before; to expose Iran’s intransigence; and to apply pressure that goes far beyond anything that the United States could do on our own.” Anyone who seriously wants to criticize Obama’s diplomatic offer to Iran, or indeed his Iran policies more broadly, needs to grapple with this or be exposed as a lightweight. George W. Bush made the rest of the world believe America and not Iran was the rogue state. It took Obama two to three years to reverse that, and it started with reaching out to the regime. Deal with it.
Are we closer to avoiding an Iran war? It seems like it The onus is on Netanyahu now to respond to Obama. One can cynically suggest that one of Netanyahu’s targets in a strike on Iran is Obama’s presidency; I would not put anything past Netanyahu. But Netanyahu has to consider — and my understanding is his advisers are indeed considering this — that Obama may very well be reelected, and then Israel will have to deal with the consequences of defying him when he returns to the height of his political power. Obama’s speech to AIPAC threw down a gauntlet to multiple audiences, while challenging them to do things his way.