J Street’s annual conference hosted a panel discussion this morning on “Averting the Crisis: American Policy Options.” The panel was notably missing the hawkish voice of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Patrick Clawson (who canceled earlier in the morning). The resulting panel largely reflected the realist view that a U.S. policy of discouraging Israel from engaging in any immediate military action against Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran and the Obama administration’s strategy of containment and engagement with Iran is advantageous for both U.S. and Israeli interests.
Some key quotes from the panel included Saban Center director Kenneth Pollack calling for the U.S. to hold Israel back from any “rush action” while the Middle East is in a state of turmoil:
This hasn’t been about Israel. And the most important thing for the Israelis to do is to not make it about Israel. There are a lot of things that the government of Israel could do right now that would be extraordinarily unhelpful. Unhelpful to the events playing out in the region and ultimately unhelpful to the future and security of the state of Israel.
It would be driven by the fear, the siege mentality. It’s one of our roles as the United States, and their great ally and friend, to help them through this period without taking rash action that will ultimately be to the detriment of Israel and the U.S. and to the benefit of Iran.
I think the Iranians would like nothing more than to see the Netanyahu government take a series of rash steps that would infuriate the Arab populations.
This theme — that hardliners in Iran, not to mention other Arab leaders facing citizen uprisings, will benefit from aggressive behavior on the part of Israel — was recurring during the panel’s discussion.
Pollack also addressed the argument that democratic revolutions in the Middle East can be hijacked, saying:
We need to be alive to the possibility that these revolutions can come off the rail, that there are spoilers out there who look to take advantage of it. Iran is one that is unquestionably trying to do just that. What we have to do is make it hard for Iran to do it and help our allies in Israel not become spoilers themselves.
Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, added her own warning: that the U.S. must be careful not to fall victim to Islamophobic fear-mongering as popular democracy movements sweep across the Middle East.
You are seeing at every level people who conflate the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Al Qaeda as if they were all one thing whose primary purpose is to blow us up in our supermarkets. That is the rhetoric we’re going to be confronting here in Washington.
The New York Times’s Roger Cohen emphasized that the constant predictions that Iran is on the precipice of producing a nuclear weapon (with many of the deadlines already having passed) has been highly inaccurate:
We’ve had a lot of predictions that [Iran would be producing nuclear weapons] and the fact is it hasn’t happened.
The Iranians have been messing around with this nuclear program for forty years! What are they doing?
The discussion about Iran tended to focus on what the democratic uprisings in Iran and elsewhere will mean for Israel and its fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The panelists admitted that Iran had lost its position on the front pages of newspapers and, as breaking news emerges from the Middle East on a daily basis, the Obama administration’s focus on Iran’s nuclear program will be diminished.
A lot of the people who previously spent all their time working on Iran, trying to craft these sanctions, trying to bring all these other countries aboard against Iran are now spending 24 or 25 hours a day doing nothing but working on Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, etc… Iran is very much on the backburner at the moment in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon.
Pollack, who is not a favorite of mine (not that it matters to him, of course), says some interesting things here — or at least things that I find sensible. Of course I part company with him completely when he says it’s our role to “help them [i.e, the Israelis] through this period.” No, we need to help ourselves through this period, which is going to be very challenging for America. The Israelis can go to hell, and probably will in a few decades.
It would of course be stupid to conflate al Qaeda with the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. But to think that the U.S. can steer its way through an Arab world in which the Islamists have come out on top is absurd. This is the problem with foreign policy liberals on this issue (and others) — they turn their wishes into facts, or rather proto-facts, while realities are pushed aside. They become, in a word, mushy — softheaded.
Roger Cohen is a wonderful person and his views on Iran are sound, but he too often fails to resolve the conflict between hope and reality; he can be as mushy as they get.
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