When it comes to Israel, no leading from behind by Obama

According to this Washington Post report, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu displayed “unusual solidarity” during the first day of Obama’s visit to Israel. By this, the Post means unusual solidarity for them. The Obama-Netanyahu interaction was what one expect from the leaders of two close allies, but not what we’ve seen in the past from these two, thanks to Obama’s studied belligerence.

But, the appearance of good will notwithstanding, it seemed to me that there was less solidarity than met the eye when it came to Topic A — Iran. In his remarks during the joint press conference, Netanyahu said:

Mr. President, I want to thank you once again for always making clear that Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threats. . . .I know that you appreciate that Israel [must] never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends, and Israel has no better friend than the United States of America. (emphasis added).

In his remarks, Obama did not, of course, disavow Israel’s right to defend itself by itself, or explicitly ask it cede the right of self-defense to others. And he affirmed that “my job as President of the United States is first and foremost is to keep the American people safe [and] Bibi, as Prime Minister, your first task is to keep the people of Israel safe.”

However, Obama’s comments pertaining to Iran — which came late in his statement, and only after he had discussed the Palestinians — assumed collective U.S.-Israeli action:

Iran’s leaders must understand, however, that they have to meet their international obligations. And meanwhile the international community will continue to increase the pressure on the Iranian government.

The United States will continue to consult closely with Israel on next steps, and I will repeat: all options are on the table; we will do what is necessary from prevent Iran from getting the world’s worst weapons.

I don’t read this as Obama giving the green light to Israel to act against Iran as it sees fit. I read it as asserting that the U.S. is in charge; that it will consult with Israel; and that the option Israel ultimately may well prefer — an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities — is not off the table.

In principle, we, as U.S. citizens, should want the U.S. president to take this stance. An Israeli attack on Iran would likely produce important consequences for the U.S. (some good, some bad). And, as Obama suggests, his job as president, first and foremost, is to protect U.S. interests. Thus, it’s perfectly appropriate for a U.S. president to seek as much control as possible over decisions made by foreign leaders that affect our interests.

Unfortunately, President Obama’s instincts and preferences, from the point of view of U.S. interests, are utterly misguided, if not perverse. Thus, I would prefer that he “lead from behind” when it comes to Iran, or better yet, step aside and not try to lead at all.

But that’s not going to happen, as Obama made clear in his statement yesterday.


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