William Katz:  Urgent Agenda






NEW IRAN POLICY COMING? – It may be election-year politics, but there is talk, reported by the Wall Street Journal, that President Obama may revise his Iran policy, which clearly is not having the intended effect...stopping Tehran's nuclear program:

WASHINGTON—Complaints from Israel about the U.S.'s public engagement with Iran have pushed the White House to consider more forcefully outlining potential military actions, and the "red lines" Iran must not cross, as soon as this weekend, according to people familiar with the discussions.

President Barack Obama could use a speech on Sunday before a powerful pro-Israel lobby to more clearly define U.S. policy on military action against Iran in advance of his meeting on Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, these people said.

Israeli officials have been fuming over what they perceive as deliberate attempts by the Obama administration to undermine the deterrent effect of the Jewish state's threat to use force against Tehran by publicly questioning the utility and timing of such strikes.

The Israeli leader has told U.S. officials that he wants Mr. Obama to outline specifically what Washington views as the "red lines" that Iran cannot cross, something the administration is considering as it drafts the president's speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and sets the agenda for his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu.

Some administration officials said that if Mr. Obama decides to more clearly define his red lines, he is likely to do it in private with Mr. Netanyahu, rather than state it in his AIPAC speech.

Mr. Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials also are pressing for Mr. Obama to publicly clarify his insistence that "all options are on the table" in addressing the Iranian nuclear threat.

COMMENT:  Bibi Netanyahu is not always the most diplomatic of prime ministers, and his relationship with American presidents has sometimes been testy.  He doesn't win any popularity contests in the international community, and I've always believed he could do far more to advance his own cause if he were a little less blunt about it.

However, in this case I think he has a point, and that listening to him would advance the American interest as well as the Israeli interest.  You don't get anywhere with a regime like Iran's by showing weakness, or undercutting the argument for a military strike against Iran's nuclear program.  You want Iran to fear us, not love us.  And yet, administration figures have, on virtually every available occasion, played down the possibility of a military strike.  They run constantly to Israel to beg the Israelis not to hit the Iranian program. 

Why do they do this?  Apparently, they think it makes Washington look even-tempered and rational, and they want to show a contrast with George W. Bush.

But it's getting us nowhere.   Instead of disparaging the idea of an Israeli strike, we should be dangling it out there, almost sending the message that, "Gee, we can't control these crazy Israelis.  You know, they may just have to do it."

There is a theory in strategic studies called "the rationality of irrationality."  It holds that if you act somewhat irrationally, you increase your perceived power over an enemy.  The enemy becomes frightened by your "irrational" behavior, and is more likely to come to terms.

During the Vietnam War, one of my mentors, the strategist Herman Kahn, suggested, only partially tongue-in-cheek, that we drop ping-pong balls on Hanoi.  He reasoned that the Communists would say, "These people are crazy.  Do we want to risk everything by fighting crazy, irrational people?"  The point he was making was that "irrationality," pursued rationally, is an effective tool.

A tougher, more Bushian policy, might just convince the Iranian leaders that they themselves may die if they continue on their current course.  If they get the bomb in the face of American efforts to stop them through sanctions alone, it will mark a terrible setback for American foreign policy.

February 28, 2012