Iran, Israel, and Obama

President Obama has placated Israeli hawks with his willingness to legitimize the notion of a preemptive strike on Iran. Here, Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Official White House Photo/Pete Souza.

The mainstream media have frequently framed their discussions about U.S. and Israeli policy toward Iran as a debate between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about whether to strike Iran immediately or to wait to see if sanctions work. This narrative has set the framework for a march toward war by excluding from the discourse the nonviolent option: that we not use coercion to achieve our ends.

The Obama administration has done little to disrupt this troubling narrative. Following in the path of George W. Bush, Obama has instead helped to legitimize the notion of a preemptive U.S. military strike against Iran—a nation that has never taken direct military action against the United States.

Indeed Ben-Dror Yemini, the opinion editor for the Israeli daily newspaper Ma’ariv, said this March that Obama couldn’t have been much clearer in his commitment to make a military strike against Iran unless sanctions deterred Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. “He didn’t say he would vote for the Likud. But aside from that, one should pay attention, he sounded almost like the Likud leader,” Yemini said.

The Legitimization of Preemptive Strikes

In truth, President Clinton already blazed the path to preemptive strikes in his attempts to save the people of Bosnia from the genocide that was being carried out by Serbia. And the legitimacy of attacking a nation for a reason other than self-defense was again affirmed when the United States intervened as a silent but strong partner in the NATO intervention to stop Muammar el-Qaddafi from murdering the Libyan citizens who had rebelled against his regime. The argument for military intervention is stronger in humanitarian cases such as these, which involve the clear and present suffering and deaths of civilians.

Far weaker is the argument that an intervention can be justified whenever one is able to offer a worrisome hypothesis about what any given regime may do at some future point. This approach leads us to a world in which statements from extremists inside or outside the government of a rival state give the powerful free license to use military strikes or even start wars to preempt the feared evil of the other side.

If we go too far down that path, we get into arguments like those heard about Iran, with those who favor a preemptive strike saying, “Well, Iran’s president and Ayatollah both have made statements calling for Iran to eliminate the Jewish state,” and those who oppose the strike saying, “No, that’s a mistranslation. Iran’s leaders did not pledge to do this; they just said they wished the current Zionist expansionist regime would disappear into the dustbin of history. That is a wish shared by many Israelis who want a secure Israel but don’t necessarily want it to be tied to the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.”

From the standpoint of those of us who want a peaceful world, Obama’s legitimization of preemptive warfare in principle is a big victory for the war-makers of the future. It’s a terrible development that could be as destructive as his decision to sign into law the part of the National Defense Appropriation legislation that authorizes the president to imprison for life and without trial any U.S. citizen suspected of supporting terrorists. And it rivals the current administration’s development of drones used for “targeted assassinations” that frequently kill other human beings in the vicinity.

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