"Obama's pressure only begins with Iran
In the last few days, it has become clearer that the Obama administration's obsession over turning Iran into an ally, or at least no longer a foe, is the single highest foreign policy objective for the White House. This new engagement with the Iranians has included cooperation in the current fight with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and the continuing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The importance of Iran to the administration became more evident when Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes was caught on tape telling a group of progressive advocates invited to the White House that a nuclear deal with Iran was as big a deal for President Barack Obama in his second term, as passage of Obamacare was for the first term.
"Bottom line is, this is the best opportunity we've had to resolve the Iranian issue diplomatically, certainly since President Obama came to office, and probably since the beginning of the Iraq war," Rhodes said. "So no small opportunity, it's a big deal. This is probably the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy. This is health care for us, just to put it in context."
The comparison of the Iranian track with the administration's "all-in" commitment to securing congressional approval for his health care reform legislation, is an ominous sign. Within the administration, some of the savviest voices with long experience in working with Congress, such as then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, urged the president not to gamble on a big health care reform package in 2009-2010. The proposed Affordable Care Act was already drawing enormous political fire from Republicans and the newly formed tea party movement, and major elements of the bill seemed to be unworkable or unduly complex. But the president decided, based it seems on the advice of others more ideologically attuned to his politics (e.g., White House adviser Valerie Jarrett), to "go big," and to try to be more "transformative." In the end, the legislation passed, but the electoral fallout in 2010 proved a disaster for Democrats in the congressional midterms.
Predictably, the president and his team made sure that the extension for negotiations with Iran by the P5+1, carried through November 24, three weeks after the current midterm elections. The president and his team are delusional about many things, but likely not so delusional that they are unaware that there will be heavy skepticism about any nuclear deal with Iran, if it happens in the next few weeks, from many corners. First and foremost, the skeptics and critics will include members of the U.S. Senate, primarily Republicans, but also some Democrats. This will be especially the case if the president follows through on what seems to be his current plan to bypass the Senate and its responsibilities to approve treaties, by claiming that any agreement with Iran is a multiparty agreement, but not a treaty. Israel and several Sunni Arab nations are likely to be very nervous about any deal with Iran that will undoubtedly be way oversold by the administration in terms of any restrictions it actually places in the path for Iran to a bomb. Given their suspicions about Iranian intentions, their history with Iranian provocations, and the low likelihood Iran will behave in accordance with any agreement it signs, these nations will likely see any deal as a surrender, providing substantial sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for promises of a continued slowdown in Iran's nuclear program, a slowdown reversible in short order if the Iranians choose to break the deal.
The president receives very low approval scores for his management of foreign policy, particularly as it relates to border security, immigration policy, the Ebola outbreak, and ISIS. The Obama team thought they could coast to a nuclear deal with Iran on the back of a string of "successes" -- the withdrawal from Iraq, the coming withdrawal from Afghanistan, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and their hoped for peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Things have gone south on every front. Rather than peace, this summer saw another battle between Israel and Hamas, this one longer and with heavier casualties than the previous two. The Obama team has been busy at work for six years, trying to reorient and transform American domestic politics vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israeli-Palestinian relations. In this, he has largely succeeded outside of Congress, as left-leaning media, academic and religious groups and Democratic partisans are now far harsher toward Israel than was the case six years ago. The Democrats in Congress have been pressured by the George Soros-backed lobbying group J Street to support a policy of more administration pressure on Israel for concessions to the Palestinians. So far few have formally abandoned their ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for J Street, but pressure from activists is continuing.
When Democrats and Republicans in the Senate were signing on for a new sanctions bill for Iran in case the negotiations broke down a year back, the heavy pressure for Democrats to back off came directly from the White House in its usual heavy-handed fashion, not from J Street.
It now seems likely that the president may use both the Iranian track and the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to try to squeeze Israel to get at least some of what it wants on both fronts. The Palestinian Authority has threatened to go to the United Nations and demand a Palestinian state be established by a certain date, effectively killing the possibility of any negotiated arrangement with Israel that might achieve this. The Palestinians and their allies on the Security Council could force the United States to use a veto to block such an action. The possibility of an American abstention, which would allow such a resolution to pass, may be part of the messaging that has been going on between the two countries in recent weeks. The White House is clearly nervous that fierce opposition by Israel to what would in almost all likelihood be a pathetically weak nuclear deal with Iran (they get something substantive -- sanctions relief -- while the West gets almost nothing) could inspire more pushback from Congress, and lead to a public relations problem for the White House.
It is in this light that Jeffrey Goldberg's article in The Atlantic, wherein senior administration officials go on the record (though anonymously) to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a coward and a chickenshit should be seen. The White House is making clear that Israel would be foolish to view the United States at this point as its backstop and defender. There will have to be give for Israel to get. With no more elections facing the Obama team after November 4, the White House will be at liberty to let the president show Israel where it stands if it defies his will. Challenge him on the nuclear deal and there will be repercussions. Continue to build Jewish housing in areas Obama thinks should be off limits, and America might join with its European allies in U.N. condemnations. Negotiate with the Palestinians and offer more to them or the administration will lay out publicly its own plans, which are sure to resemble Saeb Erekat's.
There is no government that this administration hastreated as rudely and cavalierly as Israel in its first six years. Undoubtedly, the worst is yet to come. Maybe unbeknownst to the president, who seems to get his counsel from those who think he should have his likeness sculpted on Mount Rushmore, there is still widespread support for Israel among Americans. Despite the media coverage of the recent war in Gaza, which primarily emphasized Palestinian civilian casualties, every public opinion survey stillindicates strong support for Israel, though predictably it has weakened among younger Americans (who are more racially diverse) and those on the Left, particularly whilefighting is going on.
If the president wants to launch a frontal assault on Israel, and makes clear his abandonment of the traditional alliance and ties between the two countries, it will not go down smoothly. There are many who understand that the strength of the ties that bind are a lot tougher than a narcissistic president in legacy-building mode at Israel's expense. Obama will leave office and a new president, less transformative but almost certainly more capable, will then have to pick up the many pieces left shattered. An Iran with the bomb, however, is a different kind of humpty-dumpty, and the next White House occupant may find that permanent damage has been done. Iran has not changed, but America under Obama has. Obama's pressure on Israel not to strike Iran before the 2012 presidential election may have aided Obama's re-election effort but it damaged Israel's prospects for keeping Iran from going nuclear. The president has once again shown Netanyahu his "appreciation," this time with the childish name-calling by his aides. We are in for an ugly confrontation, and Israel will soon find out the identity of its real American friends and whether they are willing to take on the president. Hopefully, a few more of them will be elected on November 4.