On Saturday afternoon three weeks ago President Obama stepped out of the White House to announce that he was attacking Syria– and instead he blinked. He said that while it was a matter of urgency to attack Syria, he would refer the matter to the Congress.
It was the greatest moment of Obama’s presidency. In an instant he diverted the currents of American militant ideology in the Middle East. Granted an opening, the American people spoke out loudly that they do not want such an attack; and since then we have seen an onslaught of diplomacy. The Russians and Iranians have thrown themselves into public relations efforts in the west to convince American leaders of the need for a negotiated solution in Syria. Americans have gotten to see the Iranians in an entirely new light: And for the first time in decades it appears that the U.S. will be talking to Iran.
The biggest loser in this shift is Israel and its ideological soulmates in the United States, the Israel lobby and the neoconservatives. In falling on his own sword– in allowing himself to be portrayed as “weak”– Obama took down the neoconservatives and Israel lobby with him. He recruited John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and AIPAC as the sponsors of an attack on Syria; and promptly buried them in a tsunami of public opinion.
AIPAC has been exposed as never before, as a militant voice in our politics opposed to popular opinion; and its powers have been greatly diminished. Alan Grayson’s populist campaign against AIPAC — a Democratic congressman who has always had the support of the Israel lobby — has demonstrated the cleavage between the lobby’s interests and the American people’s.
The dearest desire of the lobby and Israel, indeed the reason that they went to bat for the Syrian attack, is the prospect that the United States will attack Iran. Attacking Iran would keep the U.S. on one side forever in a civilizational war, the Jewish democracy versus the heathen Islamists. Attacking Iran would insure that Syria becomes another Vietnam, undergoing a decade of ruin in a society that Iran’s leader rightly calls “a jewel of civilization” (in the Washington Post). Attacking Iran would join the United States to Israel’s hip in a thermonuclear mind-and-body meld for as far as any American policymaker could see. Attacking Iran would empower the neoconservatives over the realists and isolationists for another 10 years. And an attack has never been less likely.
This is Obama’s achievement. In one moment, the president diverted the currents of American policy and ideology. The great correction that we all anticipated in the wake of the Iraq disaster may at last come to pass: and the fools who supported that war will finally be held to account, and the neocons marginalized among the elite councils in D.C. There is a real chance, too, that we will see a political solution in Syria– again, because Obama blinked.
I am sure that many readers don’t want to give Obama credit. They will point out that he is a Afghan hawk and a drone-master, they will say that if there has been a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria it is to the credit of the Labour Party in Britain, which catalyzed Obama’s stand-down by rebelling against David Cameron a couple of days before Obama’s appearance in the Rose Garden. They will say that Obama has pushed for an attack on Syria even as he yielded to the Congress.
These readers underestimate the institutional pressures that Obama was under. He entered the White House thinking that he could undo the pressure of the lobby and the neoconservatives and make an opening to the Arab world and Iran, but he was taught a harsh lesson in his first year, by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who humiliated him on the question of settlements. Obama surely spent a ton of political capital behind closed doors putting off an attack on Iran by Israel– and the United States– but I remind you, all this happened behind closed doors. He could not undo the covert political forces that demand such an attack and that put such financial pressure on him during the last presidential campaign, when he caved to Israel on Jerusalem in a disgraceful moment at the Democratic convention. Obama had surely underestimated the influence of the lobby in the corridors of policymaking, and then catered to it; but his reversal on Syria has done what a hundred Walt and Mearsheimers could not do, he has exposed that influence and made it a subject of popular debate, and in an instant deprived the lobby of much of its power.
There will be no attack on Syria. There will be no attack on Iran. The Israelis know this, and are angry about this– as whingeing Michael Oren showed in denouncing the Iranians’ p.r. offensive as “spin”. Yes, suddenly Rouhani and Putin are publishing editorials in our leading newspapers. The Israelis are on the back foot now. They are enraged to see that they will have to make room for other actors in the court of American foreign policy-making.
And inevitably, these other actors will be putting more pressure on Israel over its criminal brutal occupation. Rouhani, in the Washington Post
we must address the broader, overarching injustices and rivalries that fuel violence and tensions.
This is the great achievement of Obama’s second term. He achieved this breakthrough, and no one else.
Years from now, scholars will write books and convene panels to discuss why Obama did this. Memos will be unsealed, memoirs will disclose new details. My own belief is that, influenced by his powerful wife, Obama said to himself on that Friday night when he had decided to attack Syria, that this is not why he became president. That he had run against a warmongering neoconservative policy, and this was not going to be his legacy, to start another Middle East conflict. The introverted reflective president reasoned that to bring down the lobby, it was worth destroying his own word and taking a giant political loss in Washington. To bring down the lobby he would demolish his own ego.
The result has been a complete triumph. As Rouhani said on NBC, when asked if Obama was weak:
“We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace.”
Let the new era in the Middle East begin.