Red Lines

In what would have been certainly been the top foreign policy topic du jour almost any other day, Bibi Netayahu has been stepping up his heated campaign to publicly demand the Obama administration set “red lines” towards Iran’s nuclear program, or abdicate any claim to tell Israel it can’t launch unilateral military attacks on that country:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making it clear that Israel will not wait to take out Iranian nuclear facilities.

In heated comments toward the United States, the Israeli prime minister said that it’s becoming clear that diplomacy will not work with Iran.

“The world tells Israel, `Wait. There’s still time,’” Netanyahu said Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. “And I say: `Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”

It has also been reported (but not confirmed) that Netanyahu called for some sort of emergency meeting with Obama on the subject, and was rebuffed.

So what’s up here? The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright usefully explains Bibi’s actual demands:

Is it true, as Bibi Netanyahu says, that the point of contention is the unwillingness of the U.S. to set a “red line”–i.e., a line that, if crossed by Iran, would bring U.S. military action?

Not really. Obama has already laid down a red line. He did so pretty clearly on this very web site, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in March: “As president of the United States, I don’t bluff… I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” In other words, if Iran tries to build a nuclear weapon–something that would require, for starters, the very conspicuous breaking of UN monitoring seals at its nuclear facilities–Obama will resort to military force to stop it….

Well then what is the real disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu?

Netanyahu would like Obama to move the red line. He thinks Iran shouldn’t even be allowed to have a “nuclear weapons capability“–i.e., to be in a position where, if it decided to build a bomb, it could do so in, say, six months or nine months or … well, the number of months can vary, depending on who is defining “capability.” That’s why “capability” is such a vague red line (more like a red blur, really). By the more expansive definitions, Iran already has weapons “capability,” because it could probably build a crude (though not “deliverable”) bomb within a year.

Now this division between the Israeli and U.S. governments has been pretty obvious for a good while. So the only real news is that Netanyahu thinks it behooves him to threaten Obama with unilateral military action unless America’s policies towards Iran quickly converge with Israel’s. We do not know, of course, whether this new heat from Bibi is intended to tee up attacks on Obama’s “weakness” by his very good friend Mitt Romney, whose position, along with most prominent Republicans, is that the United States dare not disagree with Israeli’s public posture towards its Middle East adversaries, Persian or Arab. If so, the timing may be unfortunate, since after today, I suspect Team Mitt will be pretty frantic to return to domestic issues. It’s one thing to attack the Commander-in-Chief immediately before and after the assassination of a U.S. Ambassador. But it may be another thing altogether to follow that up with words of solidarity with a foreign leader who is transparently trying to blackmail your country into changing its policies with respect to one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints. That might represent a “red line” that even Mitt Romney would hesitate to cross.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.