‘Red line’ folly

By Fareed Zakaria

Underneath the headlines of the presidential campaign, there are growing signs that we are moving toward another war in the Middle East. This week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly scolded the United States for refusing to draw a “red line” on Iran’s nuclear program that, if crossed, would commit Washington to military strikes. He added that he would not accept a “red light” placed in front of Israel. Unless something dramatic changes its course, Israel is on a path to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in the next six to nine months.

Israel’s rhetoric over the past year had seemed, to me, designed to force the international community into action and theUnited States into hyper-action. It worked in the sense that international sanctions and isolation of Iran are at their highest point ever. But Iran has not surrendered, and Israel seems to view any other scenario as unacceptable. Last month, an Israeli “decision maker” — widely reported to be Defense Minister Ehud Barak — gave a revealing interview to the newspaper Haaretz in which he implied that Israel could not wait for the United States to act and might not be able to wait until next spring before taking matters into its own hands.

The “decision maker” made the point that Israel might find itself more hamstrung if Mitt Romney were elected in November. “[H]istory shows that presidents do not undertake dramatic operations in their first year in office unless forced to,” he said. This strikes me as an accurate reading of the likely scenario that a Romney administration would view economic policy as its urgent preoccupation upon taking office.

The Obama administration has brought together a global coalition, put into place the toughest sanctions ever, worked with Israel on a series of covert programs and given Israel military hardware it has long wanted. In addition, the Obama administration has strongly implied that it would be willing to use force as a final resort. But to go further and define a red line in advance would commit the United States to waging a war; no country would make such a commitment.

Notice that while Netanyahu assails Obama for refusing to draw a clear line, he himself has not drawn such a line. Israelhas not specified an activity or enrichment level it would consider a casus belli. The reason is obvious: Doing so would restrict Israel’s options and signal its actions and timetable to Iran. If it doesn’t make sense for Israel to do this, why would it make sense for the United States?

Israeli action is not certain. There continues to be a vigorous debate in Israel, with a majority opposed to unilateral action. Because Israel operates under a parliamentary system with a cabinet government, action would require an affirmative vote in the full cabinet and the smaller security cabinet. And there are some indications that Netanyahu does not have a clear majority.

Many Israelis, particularly in the military and defense establishment, understand that an Israeli strike would delay, not destroy, Iran’s program. The program could be rebuilt, probably quickly and with greater determination. Colin Kahl is among several scholars who have documented how, contrary to conventional wisdom, Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor actually accelerated Saddam Hussein’s determination to build nuclear weapons. When United Nations inspectors went into Iraq after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, they were stunned at how quickly Hussein had rebuilt his program.

Iran’s nuclear program is already popular. Mir Hossein Moussavi, the leader of the Green Movement who is under house arrest, has been a vocal supporter, and he has criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for making too many concessions to the West on nuclear issues. An Israeli attack would enhance the program’s popularity among Iranians and might even bolster the Tehran regime, just as sanctions and weak economic performance are causing deep internal tensions.

In his book “Confront and Conceal,” David Sanger of the New York Times describes the many U.S. war simulations that have assumed an Israeli attack on Iran: “Soon, the battle sucks the region in, and then Washington. The war shifts to defending Saudi oil facilities against Iranian attacks, and Iran’s use of proxies means that other regional players quickly become involved. And in the end, no one wins.”

The Obama administration is trying to assure Israel not to act. But in doing so, it will have to be careful not to lock itself onto a path that makes U.S. military action inevitable. We should have a national debate before the United States finds itself going to war in the Middle East — again — on auto-pilot.

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