Is there no Plan B on Iran?

Last Saturday, the Washington Post ran an excerpt from Bob Woodward’s book on the debt ceiling negotiations of summer 2011; and it contains some instructive reminders of President Obama’s recurrent fantasy: that he dwells in a region above the chafe and bustle of constitutional politics; that he lives for the endgame, husbanding his strength and parachuting in to clinch a victory. It did not work like that for health care—or, if you gauge the result from another angle, it worked at a cost in squandered authority so high that we are still counting.

Woodward has a telling quotation from Harry Reid’s chief of staff, David Krone, on the lack of forethought by the president in case the Republicans should reject his Grand Bargain.“The first rule that I’ve always been taught,” said Krone to Obama, “is to have a Plan B. And it is really disheartening that you, that this White House did not have a Plan B.” Though Woodward must be read with suspicion, his report is consistent with earlier accounts of Obama’s summer of denial: see for example the parallel story by Noam Scheiber in the New Republic. There was no plan B, either, on cap-and-trade, after the House passed the legislation but 60 votes were not there in the Senate. Obama let the issue fade. The same with the environment: two sentences about climate change in his speech accepting the nomination were his first mention of the issue in more than a year. Again, there was no Plan B against a strengthening of the insurgency in the Afghanistan war. A necessary war, and the less said about it, the better.

It looks very much as if Barack Obama has no Plan B for dealing with Iran. The tightening sanctions and the crowding of U.S. war ships into the Persian Gulf almost constitute a siege. In addressing the Israeli interest, some of it conveyed directly by Netanyahu and Barak, much of it by the Israel lobby, President Obama has placated again and again–though without twitching at the precise moment or in the precise way demanded by Israel. He has signaled that what they want concerning Iran is what he wants also. Has Obama then put off a war in the fall by committing us to war in the spring?

While the Israeli demands and American assurances were passing, Kenneth Waltz published an article in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”; and now, in a surprising interjection from a further establishment source, Bill Keller writes in the Times on September 10 that toleration of a nuclear Iran would be preferable to war. Keller asks the president to consider plan B: not to bomb and yet not to encourage Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but to lift the sanctions, gradually, and improve trade relations in return for a regimen of closer inspections. Low enrichment of uranium would be allowed to continue for peaceful purposes.

Yet Congress lags far behind the skepticism of opinions like these. It continues to subscribe with near unanimity to the war resolutions written for its members by AIPAC. We are at a moment when a president with an ounce of invention could move the consensus in this country, and legitimate a stance of containment rather than imminent war. The Israeli position itself constitutes a provocation to war, but every relevant American authority, from the secretary of defense to the chairman of the joint chiefs, has been saying to Netanyahu and Barak that the U.S. retains the right to form its own judgment.

The latest public disavowal was made on September 10 by Hillary Clinton. Interviewed on Bloomberg radio, she sounded an independent note, as if U.S. policy were not bound by an oath of obedience to Israel: “We’re not setting deadlines.” No deadlines and no “red lines,” in the phraseology concocted by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Her remark may indicate a salutary resistance to preventive war, but, if so, the posture will take  stamina to maintain. For, on Iran in 2012, as on Afghanistan in 2009, Obama has trapped himself by misreading the tightness of an establishment consensus he did not like but did not care to contest. On Iran in 2012, as on Afghanistan in 2010, he has put himself on the record favoring a policy that presses toward more violence. It is amazing that in the three years since the failure of his short-winded negotiations with Iran in fall 2009 (not the “hands-on” negotiations he promised in 2008), this president has not worked so much as the length of one speech to try and build an alternative consensus for containment. The materials for such a consensus now exist outside Congress.

If you imagine an opportunity coming tomorrow for an end of the run-up to war, one fact still makes the prognosis less than optimistic. The president has done nothing to prepare the public mind for such a turn of policy. He would have to present the change, therefore, as a fait accompli. If a solution is being drafted in stealth even now, it is being depended on in the same magical way as in the summer of 2011. But war is worse than default. You cannot govern a country on a diet of Plan A and prayer; and supposing you do have in mind a better path, it is dangerous to wait for a moment of fair weather in domestic politics that may never come.

About David Bromwich

David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale. He is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and has written on politics and culture for The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines. He is editor of Edmund Burke's selected writings On Empire, Liberty, and Reform and co-editor of the Yale University Press edition of On Liberty.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 22 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. radii says:

    I got your Plan B right here:
    1. Let Iran do whatever they want, even develop and arsenal of nuclear weapons (up to 150 – what israel is reported to have)
    2. Drop the sanctions and restore normal relations
    3. Use trade agreements and diplomacy to end their funding of terror groups
    4. Encourage a shift to a new generation of leaders (who clearly all hate the mullah system)

    Even if Iran had a full arsenal of nuclear weapons, and a delivery system, they would not use them against israel or anybody else, for that would surely bring about a retaliatory strike – one nuke and the region could be damaged for centuries and Iran’s leaders know this

    • RoHa says:

      I prefer plan C.

      1. Let Iran do whatever they want, even develop an arsenal of nuclear weapons (up to 150 – what Israel is reported to have)
      2. Drop the sanctions and restore normal relations
      3. Let the Iranians sort out their own problems.
      4. Tell the Israelis to go and boil their heads.

    • ColinWright says:

      radii says: “I got your Plan B right here:
      1. Let Iran do whatever they want, even develop and arsenal of nuclear weapons (up to 150 – what israel is reported to have)…”

      For a major Shi’a state with messianic pretensions that is next to various unstable Sunni regimes with large Shi’a minorities to have nuclear weapons is not a good idea.

      However, (a) Israel’s legitimate interest in the matter is at best peripheral. An Iranian bomb poses a threat to quite a few parties — but not her.

      (b) Threatening military strikes that are almost certain to be quite limited is not a good way of dissuading Iran. In fact, it pretty much pushes her in the opposite direction.

      Threatening to bomb Iran is not intended to stop Iran’s nuclear program. It serves another agenda entirely.

  2. Dan Crowther says:

    Bromwich makes the key point: Even if O is opposed, his actions have progressed the potential for war at every turn, so he is by definition, carrying on a militarist policy of AGGRESSIVE WAR against Iran.

    Bromwich would do well, in my opinion to call “preventive war” what it is – illegal, aggressive war.

  3. hmm, perhaps i am in denial but this is not my read on the situation. i thought hilary was speaking for obama. we will know soon enough if he will cave because israel has demanded a public commitment by yom kipper (the eve of which obama is giving a speech at the UN).

    Obama has trapped himself by misreading the tightness of an establishment consensus he did not like but did not care to contest…….he has put himself on the record favoring a policy that presses toward more violence.

    actually obama went on record the eve of the 100-0 sanction vote saying he thought sanctions that deep and thorough would be harmful. he had no choice/option to veto the bill because congress can over ride with 2/3 majority and the lobby had 100% servitude on the sanctions vote.

    anyway, we will know soon enough but thus far it doesn’t look to me like obama is chomping down to go to war with iran. not on his watch is my guess. i could be wrong and as mentioned earlier we will know soon enough. there’s lots of msm support for informing everyone israel has laid down the gauntlet with their ‘demand’. i hope he doesn’t cave and set some date. that would be national suicide.

  4. ColinWright says:

    The issue isn’t really Iran and what Iran does so much as Israel and what Israel can make us do — and it looks like we’re finally standing up to Israel. In the last day or two:

    1. Clinton said ‘we’re not setting any red lines.’

    2. It came out that Britain secretly warned Israel not to try anything.

    3. Obama has refused to meet Netanyahu when he comes to New York.

    I see a decision. We’ve drawn a red line alright. It’s for Israel.

  5. RE: “in a surprising interjection from a further establishment source, Bill Keller writes in the Times on September 10 that toleration of a nuclear Iran would be preferable to war.” ~ Prof. Bromwich

    MY COMMENT: OK, OK, OK! I take back what I said about men and their raging hormones.

    DICKERSON3870 November 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    RE: “Friedman and Ken Pollack and Bill Keller and David Remnick– the pen is mightier than the sword.” ~ Weiss

    MY COMMENT: Bill Keller blames it all on his second daughter! Apparently, that’s today’s equivalent of the (Hostess) Twinkie® defense. Don’t laugh, Dan White was only convicted of manslaughter and spent less than five years in prison for murdering two people!

    LIZZY RATNER:

    Consider one of Keller’s first excuses, what I call his Daddy Defense, which he offers up just a few paragraphs into the piece. Sounding something like a neo-Gothic horror novelist, he writes, “I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something — to prove something — was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism. By the time of Alice’s birth I had already turned my attention to Iraq . . .”

    SOURCE – link to mondoweiss.net

    P.S. Those men and their raging hormones! Maybe they should stay at home and look after the children.

    SOURCE – link to mondoweiss.net

  6. piotr says:

    I think that solution to conflict with Iran is easy if we lived in rational world. Iran gives some guarantees about peaceful use of enriched uranium and USA with allies drop all sanctions on Iran.

    Military option is a no-go, because a number of countries are opposed, with Russia and China on top of the list, but India and Pakistan are there too, and even Asian allies like Japan and South Korea are barely cooperating with enhanced sanctions. Small attack will not do any good, big attack, in the face of Eurasian opposition and the size and geographical position of Iran can be a major disaster. In particular, what can USA do if Russia gives a thermonuclear ultimatum to cease and desist? Or if forces in Afghanistan will come under siege — Afghanistan is a landlocked country.

    The warnings that Israel got from UK, Germany and even Canada (?!) reflect this potential for disaster. Given that, the question is where the escalation of sanctions will go. I think that if Iran plays its pieces right (chess are Persian invention), it will not go anywhere close to “crippling”.

    • ColinWright says:

      piotr says: “I think that solution to conflict with Iran is easy if we lived in rational world. Iran gives some guarantees about peaceful use of enriched uranium and USA with allies drop all sanctions on Iran…”

      To my mind the nukes aren’t the issue at all. I’m perfectly prepared to grant that Iran shouldn’t have nukes — although for reasons that have nothing to do with Israel.

      The question is how to keep Iran from getting nukes — and I don’t think threatening to bomb her is the way to do that in the first place.

      If anything, the threats of military action only make obtaining a bomb that much more attractive to Iran. We know that perfectly well — and we don’t make our threats in the hope of dissuading Iran, but of appeasing Israel. This is all a play in which Iran herself is no more than a pretext for the action. The real interest lies elsewhere.

      • piotr says:

        Who cares if nukes are an issue in your mind or my mind. What is important is that Iran offered a decent deal already and the stumbling block is that USA does not offer any meaningful concessions. If nukes were truly perceived to be a problem, USA would offer something, wouldn’t they?

        • ColinWright says:

          piotr says: ‘ What is important is that Iran offered a decent deal already and the stumbling block is that USA does not offer any meaningful concessions. If nukes were truly perceived to be a problem, USA would offer something, wouldn’t they?’

          The stumbling block is that what Iran offers isn’t really relevant. What’s actually going on is a struggle over the extent to which Israel can dictate US foreign policy.

  7. Les says:

    Secondary boycotts, such as those the US has against both Iran and Cuba, violate GATT rules but it requires a member state to get GATT to overrule the US imposed embargos.

  8. dbroncos says:

    Imagine the Peace Prize winner being badgered into war with Iran. A war launched by a president who ran as the “I stood up against the war on Iraq” candidate in ’08. War with Iran by default. A face saving war. Sadly enough it’s easy to imagine. Obama’s grown accustomed to capitulation and the trappings of climate controlled power.

  9. ColinWright says:

    This just in:

    “American staffer killed in clashes over ‘insulting film’ at U.S. consulate in Libya, sources say
    Armed gunmen attack Benghazi compound over film they say insults the Prophet Muhammad, while in Egypt, protesters scale U.S. embassy in Cairo…”

    This was headlined in Haaretz — for good reason. There are going to be repercussions.

    • ColinWright says:

      Grim chuckle time.

      I didn’t think that film was inadvertent:

      ‘…An Israeli filmmaker went into hiding on Tuesday after his movie attacking Islam’s Prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by Muslims on U.S. diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya, where one American was killed.

      Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, writer and director Sam Bacile remained defiant, saying Islam is a cancer and that he intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion. ..’

      …a film which the US State Department obviously ensured was shown in the right places.

      link to haaretz.com

    • Shingo says:

      “American staffer killed in clashes over ‘insulting film’ at U.S. consulate in Libya, sources say..

      Reports suggest it’s 3 and one of them was the US Ambassador

      • eljay says:

        >> Protesters angered over Bacile’s film opened fire on and burned down the U.S.consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, killing an American State Department officer on Tuesday. In Egypt, protesters scaled the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo and replaced an American flag with an Islamic banner.

        Stupid f*cking protesters, killing and destroying simply because a man was insulted and portrayed in an unflattering manner. >:-(

        • MHughes976 says:

          Morality first – what a bad and horrifying deed. Politically, what a helpful deed for those who cry ‘Savages’!
          Does this force Obama to make a major and dramatic attack on a country we have just congratulated ourselves on liberating? Or if he can’t do that is this the moment when Romney won the election?

  10. RE: “Is there no Plan B on Iran?” ~ Bromwich

    PLAN B SUGGESTION: We get the CIA to put LSD into as much of the bread in Iran and/or Israel as is possible. Problem(s) solved!

    • French bread spiked with LSD in CIA experiment - link to telegraph.co.uk

  11. NickJOCW says:

    There is no way Obama can, just like that, achieve any kind of ‘solution’ to the myriad interconnected events going on in our world. If in doubt, it is better to do nothing, certainly better than doing the wrong thing. Doing nothing doesn’t mean that nothing happens. After all, the US consulate in Benghazi was torched yesterday while 3000 Egyptians stormed the Cairo embassy and, according to the Arab press, the US security guards retaliated by opening fire.

    My read is that Netanyahu is digging himself into a hole and it seems sensible for Obama to let him get on with it while quietly adjusting the parameters until an acceptable response comes into view. I ever recall a fly in the studio where Obama was being interviewed; he watched it quietly for a moment then his arm flashed out like a serpent’s tongue and the fly’s brief fame was over. Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel. Such a tortuous non sequitur must surely represent a good four or five spades full. Hand the man a cloth to wipe his brow.

    • NickJOCW says:

      It appears the US Ambassador was killed in the raid on the Benghazi consulate. link to nytimes.com As I implied above, there are many more things going on than Netanyahu appears to understand. The man whose disgusting film started all this (I could only watch seconds of the trailer) is a self confessed Zionist according to Haaretz.

      • Bumblebye says:

        A blatant Islamophobe who repeatedly called Islam a ‘cancer’ and said he made the film to be provocative. The film was funded by over 100 Jewish donors. Not much of an agenda there, then! Only by zio-supremacists in furtherence of their own middle east goals.
        link to guardian.co.uk