In a recent essay, Grant Smith very appropriately hammered President Barack Obama for an omission — or perhaps, a dodge — when he was asked a question by the venerable Helen Thomas during Monday night’s big press conference. (Obama actually recognized the moment as a big one when he called on her, saying with a smile that this was his “inauguration.” She is the dean of White House correspondents, and is well known for asking tough questions and then doggedly pursuing with follow-ups.) Ms Thomas asked him: “Mr President, do you know of any Middle Eastern country that has nuclear weapons?” (This, by the way, after a longish Obama soliloquy on Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon – a pursuit that the Iranian government denies.)
The obvious answer — the ka-zillion-ton gorilla in the room — was, “Yes, Helen, of course — Israel.” Israel has never admitted it up front, but as Smith notes, Jimmy Carter (who certainly was in a position to know) divulged only a few months ago that the Israelis have an arsenal of at least 150 nuclear weapons (not to mention the most powerful military in the Middle East, largely thanks to US taxpayers). But because Israel has never owned up to it, the US has preferred to ignore it, at least in public discussion. All very silly, really, except for the transparent dishonesty. And as Smith also notes, Obama (as well as a long string of his presidential predecessors) conceivably stands in violation of the 1976 Symington Amendment, which, Smith notes,
prohibits most U.S. foreign aid to any country found trafficking in nuclear enrichment equipment or technology outside international safeguards. Israel has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If U.S. presidents complied with the Symington Amendment, they would not deliver yearly aid packages to Israel totaling billions of dollars. Presidents make-believe that Israeli nuclear weapons don’t exist so Congress can legally continue shoveling the lion’s share of the U.S. foreign aid budget to Israel.
Perhaps the president wasn’t ready for the question. Perhaps he sensed that Thomas meant to corner him with that ka-zillion-ton gorilla — I suspect she did — and he may have refused to respond honestly because he didn’t want to deal with any follow-up — which she tried to do (it was quite audible, even over my muttering disbelief as I watched the scene unfold). Or perhaps Obama doesn’t consider Israel to be a country in the Middle East. Evidently the Pentagon doesn’t. In DoD organizational terms, all of the Middle Eastern countries come under CENTCOM’s scope, except Israel, which is included under the European command. (Edward Said would be smiling).
But the bottom line here is that Israel does indeed have a nuclear arsenal. Add to that the following considerations:
- some commentators have advocated the use of “tactical nuclear weapons” to eliminate Iran’s nuclear installations;
- Israel has a track record of launching surprise aerial attacks to destroy them in other countries (think of their destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 — which the US applauded — or their destruction last year of a probable nuclear installation that was being built in Syria);
- this week’s elections in Israel will most likely bring to power a hard-right government under a prime minister who has railed long and loud against Iran’s alleged intention to inflict a second Holocaust upon the Jewish people, and the need to take steps to prevent it;
- Israel (in distinct contrast to Iran) has never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;
- Iran for several years now has found itself bracketed with powerful US forces to its west (in Iraq), and with the US’s most militarily powerful ally (Israel) just over the horizon; to its east (Afghanistan); and to its south (the US bases and naval forces in the Persian Gulf) — and the US military presence in Afghanistan is even now being ramped up to unprecedented levels, and is likely to remain there for many years;
- for the past 8 years (at least) the US was intoning a mantra about the need for “regime change” in Iran (where, it was said, “real men” were destined to go after Iraq had been disposed of).
Well, connect the dots. And then maybe we all ought to invite Helen Thomas to confront Mr Obama with another question — in fact, with two of them:
- “Mr President, which country or countries have done the most in recent years to destabilize the Middle East?
- “Mr President, which country or countries are poised to destabilize the Middle East the most in the next few years?”
I would hope that our president would think long and hard about the correct answer — and this time, not dodge her question.
John Robertson is a professor of Middle East history at Central Michigan University and has his own blog, Chippshots.