Or, let’s phrase the question another way: is Joe Biden stupid?
He might speak a bit more freely than politicians are supposed to in this day and age, but I don’t think Biden is stupid. And I don’t think he gave Israel a green light to attack Iran. This is the part of his interview with George Stephanopoulos aired yesterday where the issue came up:
George Stephanopoulos: [The Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he’s prepared to make matters into his own hands.
Is that the right approach?
Joe Biden: Look, Israel can determine for itself – it’s a sovereign nation – what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.
Stephanopoulos: Whether we agree or not?
Biden: Whether we agree or not. They’re entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behaviour as to how to proceed.
What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.
If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.
Stephanopoulos: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear programme, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?
Biden: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.
Stephanopoulos: You say we can’t dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.
Biden: I’m not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.
Earlier in the interview, Biden had reiterated that the US along with the other members of the permanent five plus one, Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany, remain prepared to sit down and negotiate with Iran on its nuclear programme. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that if Iran is willing to respond to the offer of engagement then this means that the regime has begun to change course and that “the protesters probably had some impact on the behavior of an administration that they don’t like at all.”
When pressed on whether the policy of engagement should now be put on hold, Biden insisted that the invitation was still out there and that “we have to wait to see how this sort of settles out.”
So what’s going on here? Biden wants to tell the Iranians we’re still ready to talk and at the same time he wants to tell the Israelis its OK if you go ahead and bomb Iran — we won’t get in your way?
Contrary to what the headlines suggest, the message I believe that Biden really wanted to drive home was that the administration remains committed to its policy of engagement.
When asked whether the US would modify its approach in response to choices Israel makes he said it would not. He said: “there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.”
By focusing on national sovereignty and Israel’s right to determine its own choices he was pointing to the fact that Israel and the US do not operate in tandem. And at a moment when Iran has been the focus of global condemnation he did not want it to appear that the US dictates what Israel can or cannot do.
If the Israeli government acts in a way that conflicts with America’s national interest then it should do so with the foreknowledge that this administration has already made it increasingly clear that it will not support Israel’s national interests at the expense of America’s national interest. Israel will no longer be treated like a rambunctious teenager that is given extra latitude by doting parents.
That’s a tough message — but it doesn’t readily reduce itself to a sensational headline.
Still skeptical about my interpretation? Well let’s consider another aspect of the conventional wisdom: Israel’s eagerness to strike Iran.
There has been no shortage of declarations by Israel’s hawkish leaders that would lead one to conclude that the only thing standing in the way of an attack was Washington. Hence, once provided with the requisite green light there would be nothing else holding Israel back. Indeed, with Obama’s policy of engagement now being viewed doubtfully by elements within most political camps, it might well appear that it’s no longer a question of if but simply when an attack will be launched.
But consider: isn’t this perception of Israeli-US power dynamics exactly the one that the Israelis would want sustained? On the one hand it perpetuates the image of Israel as lacking few internal inhibitions on its own use of military power. At the same time it maintains the expectation that whenever Israel launches an attack or starts a war it does so with American consent and collusion.
The one thing that Israel does not want unmasked is its own uncertainty: the fact that — all the bellicose rhetoric notwithstanding — it does not actually know whether it could effectively execute the military operation, nor is it confident that operational success would not also yield a strategic disaster.
John Bolton might be confident, but the confidence of a neocon sitting in Washington probably provides little comfort to anyone in Tel Aviv.