When I was young, the Philadelphia Bulletin ran cartoon ads that usually featured a man in trouble -- dangling by his fingers, say, from an outdoor clock. There would always be people all around him, but far too engrossed in the daily paper to notice. The tagline was: "In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin."
Those ads came to mind recently when President Obama commented forcefully on war, American-style, in ways that were remarkably radical. Although he was trying to ward off a threatened Israeli preemptive air strike against Iran, his comments should have shocked Americans -- but just about nobody noticed.
I don't mean, of course, that nobody noticed the president's statements. Quite the contrary: they were headlined, chewed over in the press and by pundits. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich attacked them. Fox News highlighted their restraint. ("Obama calls for containing Iran, says 'too much loose talk of war.'") The Huffington Post highlighted the support for Israel they represented. ("Obama Defends Policies Toward Israel, Fends Off Partisan Critiques.") Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed back against them in a potentially deadly U.S.-Israeli dance that might bring new chaos to the Middle East. But somehow, amid all the headlines, commentary, and analysis, few seemed to notice just what had really changed in our world.
The president had offered a new definition of "aggression" against this country and a new war doctrine to go with it. He would, he insisted, take the U.S. to war not to stop another nation from attacking us or even threatening to do so, but simply to stop it from building a nuclear weapon -- and he would act even if that country were incapable of targeting the United States. That should have been news.
Consider the most startling of his statements: just before the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, the president gave a 45-minute Oval Office interview to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. A prominent pro-Israeli writer, Goldberg had produced an article in the September issue of that magazine headlined "The Point of No Return." In it, based on interviews with "roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike," he had given an Israeli air attack on Iran a 50% chance of happening by this July. From the recent interview, here are Obama's key lines:
"I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."
Later, he added this chilling note: "I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks."
The next day, in a speech meant to stop "loose talk about war" in front of a powerful pro-Israeli lobbying outfit, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the president offered an even stronger formula, worth quoting at length. Speaking of seeing the consequences of his decisions to use force "in the eyes of those I meet who've come back gravely wounded," he said:
"And for this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it... We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran's leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States -- just as they should not doubt Israel's sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs. I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power... and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.
"Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."
An American president couldn't come closer to saying that, should American intelligence conclude the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, we would attack. The next day, again addressing an AIPAC audience, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta set the president's commitment in stone: "No greater threat exists to Israel, to the entire region, and indeed to the United States, than a nuclear-armed Iran... Military action is the last alternative if all else fails, but make no mistake: When all else fails, we will act."
The Power of Precedents
To understand what's truly new here, it's necessary to back up a few years. After all, precedent is a powerful thing and these statements do have a single precedent in the atomic age (though not one the president would profess to admire): the Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq. After all, one clearly stated reason for the invasion was Saddam Hussein's supposed nuclear program as well as one to produce biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
In a series of speeches starting in August 2002, President George W. Bush publicly accused the Iraqi dictator of having an active nuclear program. His vice president hit the news and public affairs talk show circuit with a set of similar accusations, and his secretary of state spoke of the danger of mushroom clouds rising over American cities. ("We do know that [Saddam] is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon... [W]e don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.")
At the same time, the Bush administration made an effort -- now long forgotten -- to convince Congress that the United States was in actual danger of an Iraqi WMD attack, possibly from anthrax, in the immediate future. President Bush suggested publicly that, with unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), Saddam might have the ability to spray East Coast cities with chemical or biological weapons. And Congress was given fear-inducing classified private briefings on this.