It struck me early in my interview with President Barack Obama on the subject of Iran and Israel, that the president was addressing himself to a large number of far-flung and competing constituencies at once.
During much of our 45-minute conversation, which was held in the Oval Office Wednesday, Obama was directing a series of complicated messages to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will be visiting the White House Monday for what may turn out to be the single most consequential meeting of Obama’s presidency.
It is widely expected that Netanyahu will seek assurances from Obama that, one day in the not-so-distant future, the U.S. will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, if sanctions fail to dissuade the regime in Tehran to give up its atomic ambitions. Obama, for his part, will be trying to convince Netanyahu not to attack Iran unilaterally, to give sanctions more time to work. One of the ways he will do this is to tell him that the U.S., in his words, “has Israel’s back.” Obama will also, he told me, argue that a premature attack could make the world more sympathetic to Iran. “At a time when there is not a lot of sympathy for Iran and its only real ally (Syria) is on the ropes, do we want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as a victim?" he asked.
With Netanyahu he was performing a balancing act; with the Iranians, not quite so much. The president made it as clear as he ever has that a “military component” is one aspect of his famous formulation that “all options are on the table.” And he warned the Iranians (and comforted the Israelis) by noting: “As president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”
He had messages for other constituencies as well. One was his own administration, which has been speaking in multiple, and sometimes discordant, voices, on the question of America’s options vis-à-vis Iran, and on the possibility that Israel would strike Iran soon. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, last week suggested that Iran was run by “rational” men, which caused jitters among those who believe that Iran’s leaders have systematically made bad choices. Other U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have talked at great length about the dangers and difficulties of a strike on Iran.
Such talk could cause the Iranians to believe that they are safe from U.S. military action. But I predict that such talk will stop now that Obama has said plainly, without equivocating or over-analyzing, that he is committed to keeping Iran from going nuclear.
Another constituency Obama was speaking to: leaders of the Republican Party, who he believes are trying to separate pro-Israel Americans (Jews, mainly, but not only) from the Democratic Party. “Why is it that, despite me never failing to support Israel on every single problem that they've had over the last three years, that there are still questions" about his support for Israel? he asked. He then answered: “There is no good reason to doubt me on these issues.” He went on to say, “Some of it has to do with the fact that in this country and in our media, this gets wrapped up with politics. And I don't think that's any secret. And if you have a set of political actors who want to see if they can drive a wedge not between the United States and Israel, but between Barack Obama and a Jewish-American vote that has historically been very supportive of his candidacy, then it's good to try to fan doubts and raise questions.” Contained his answer was a subtle warning to anyone who claims to support Israel: Don’t turn such support into a partisan issue.
And of course, there is another constituency he was talking to: those American Jews themselves, whose sympathy and support he had in 2008 and hopes to have again as he stands for re-election. When he goes before the AIPAC convention Sunday morning, his message will be fairly unequivocal: Like most other presidents before him, he is on Israel’s side.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter.)
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