Let’s be serious for a moment. President Barack Obama will not bomb Iran. This is not because he is a liberal, or because he is a peacenik, or because he doesn’t have the guts to try and “save” his presidency in this time-honored manner, as Sarah Palin said she would like him to do.
The president will not bomb Iran’s nuclear installations for precisely the same reasons that George W. Bush did not bomb Iran’s nuclear installations: because we don’t know exactly where they all are, because we don’t know whether such a raid could stop the Iranian nuclear program for more than a few months, and because Iran’s threatened response—against Israelis and U.S. troops, via Iran’s allies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Lebanon—isn’t one we want to cope with at this precise moment. Nor do we want the higher oil prices that would instantly follow. No U.S. president doing a sober calculation would want to start a new war of choice while U.S. troops are still actively engaged on two other fronts, and no U.S. president could expect public support for more than a nanosecond.
But even if Obama does not bomb Iran, that doesn’t mean that no one else will. At the moment, when Washington is consumed by health care and the implications of the Massachusetts Senate special election, it may seem as if Obama’s most important legacy, positive or negative, will be domestic. In the future, we may not consider any of this at all important. The defining moment of his presidency may well come at 2 a.m. some day, when he picks up the phone and is told that the Israeli prime minister is on the line: Israel has just carried out a raid on Iranian nuclear sites. What then?
This is hardly an inevitable scenario: If the Israelis were as enthusiastic about bombing raids as some believe, they would have carried them out already. They had no qualms about sending eight jets to take out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 or about bombing a purported Syrian facility in 2007. Both are now considered model operations. They were brief and successful, they provoked no serious retaliation, and they even won de facto acceptance from the outside world as legitimate defensive measures.
The Iranian context is different, as Zeev Raz, the squadron leader of the 1981 raid, readily concedes. “There is no single target that you could bomb with eight aircraft,” he told the Economist (in a strangely tragic article that says Raz “exudes gloom” while his children apply for foreign passports). The Israelis have the same doubts as everyone else about the efficacy of raids, which is why they have focused on covert sabotage and even off-the-record diplomacy, despite having no diplomatic relations with Iran, in the hopes of slowing down the nuclear development process. They have also quietly studied the ways in which Iran could be deterred, knowing that they will have the advantage in nuclear technology for the next couple of decades. Though they keep all options on the table, they have so far concluded that bombing raids aren’t worth the consequences.
At some point in the future, that calculation could change. Since Americans often assume that everyone else perceives the world the same way we do, it is worth repeating the obvious here: Many Israelis regard the Iranian nuclear program as a matter of life and death. The prospect of a nuclear Iran isn’t an irritant or a distant threat. It is understood directly in the context of the Iranian president’s provocative attacks on Israel’s right to exist and of his public support for historians who deny the Holocaust. If you want to make Israelis paranoid, hint that they might be the target of an attempted mass murder. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does exactly that.
If that ever happened, the 2 a.m. phone call would be followed by retaliation, some of which would be directed at us, our troops in Iraq, our ships at sea. I don’t want this to happen, but I do want us to be prepared if it does. Contrary to Palin, I do not think Obama would restore the fortunes of his presidency by bombing Iran, like a character out of the movie Wag the Dog. But I do hope that this administration is ready, militarily and psychologically, not for a war of choice but for an unwanted war of necessity. This is real life, after all, not Hollywood.
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