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Ira Chernus: Obama's Risky Middle East Fantasy

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Had you searched for "Israel, nuclear weapons" at Google News in the wake of President Obama's recent trip to the Middle East, you would have gotten a series of headlines like this: "Obama: Iran more than a year away from developing nuclear weapon" (CNN), "Obama vows to thwart Tehran's nuclear drive rdquo; (the Times of Israel), Obama: No nuclear weapons for Iran (the San Angelo Times), "US, Israel increasingly concerned about construction of Iran's plutonium-producing reactor" (Associated Press), "Obama says "there is still time' to find diplomatic solution to Iran nuke dispute; Netanyahu hints at impatience" (NBC), "Iran's leader threatens to level cities if Israel attacks, criticizes US nuclear talks" (Fox).

By now, we're so used to such a world of headlines -- about Iran's threatening nuclear weapons and its urge to "wipe out" Israel -- that we simply don't see how strange it is.  At the moment, despite one aircraft carrier task force sidelined in Norfolk, Virginia (theoretically because of sequester budget cuts), the U.S. continues to maintain a massive military presence around Iran.  That modest-sized regional power, run by theocrats, has been hobbled by ever-tightening sanctions, its skies filled with U.S. spy drones, its offshore waters with U.S. warships.  Its nuclear scientists have been assassinated, assumedly by agents connected to Israel, and its nuclear program attacked by Washington and Tel Aviv in the first cyberwar in history. As early as 2007, the U.S. Congress was already ponying up hundreds of millions of dollars for a covert program of destabilization that evidently involved cross-border activities, assumedly using U.S. special operations forces -- and that's only what's known about the pressure being exerted on Iran.  With this, and the near-apocalyptic language of nuclear fear that surrounds it, has gone a powerful, if not always acknowledged, urge for what earlier in the new century was called "regime change."  (Who can forget the neocon quip of the pre-Iraq-invasion moment: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad, real men want to go to Tehran"?)

And all of this is due, so we're told, to what remains a fantasy nuclear weapon, one that endangers no one because it doesn't exist, and most observers don't think that Tehran is in the process of preparing to build one either.  In other words, the scariest thing in our world, or at least in the Middle Eastern part of it -- if you believe Washington, Tel Aviv, and much reporting on the subject -- is a nuclear will-o'-the-wisp.  In the meantime, curiously enough, months can pass without significant focus on or discussion of Pakistan's expanding nuclear arsenal.  And yet, in that shaky, increasingly destabilized country, such an existing arsenal has to qualify as a genuine and growing regional danger.

Similarly, you can read endlessly in the mainstream about President Obama's recent triumphs in the Middle East and that Iranian nuclear program without ever stumbling upon anything of significance about the only genuine nuclear arsenal in the vicinity: Israel's.  On the rare occasions when it is even mentioned, it's spoken of as if it might or might not exist.  Israel, Fox News typically reports, "is believed to have the only nuclear weapons arsenal in the Mideast."  It is, of course, Israeli policy (and a carefully crafted fiction) never to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal.  But the arsenal itself isn't just "believed" to exist, it is known to exist -- 100-300 nuclear weapons' worth or enough destructive power to turn not just Iran but the Greater Middle East into an ash heap.

To sum up: we continue to obsess about fantasy weapons, base an ever more threatening and dangerous policy in the region on their possible future existence, might conceivably end up in a war over them, and yet pay remarkably little attention to the existing nuclear weapons in the region.  If this were the approach of countries other than either the U.S. or Israel, you would know what to make of it and undoubtedly words like "paranoia" and "fantasy" would quickly creep into any discussion.

With that in mind, let Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular and an expert on separating fantasy from reality, take on the tough task of putting aside the media hosannas about the president's recent Middle Eastern travels and making sense of what actually happened. Tom

Obama Walks the High Wire, Eyes Closed
When It Comes to Israel, Palestine, and Iran, It Could All Come Crashing Down
By Ira Chernus

Barack Obama came to Israel and Palestine, saw what he wanted to see, and conquered the mainstream media with his eloquent words. U.S. and Israeli journalists called it a dream trip, the stuff that heroic myths are made of: a charismatic world leader taking charge of the Mideast peace process. But if the president doesn't wake up and look at the hard realities he chose to ignore, his dream of being the great peacemaker will surely crumble, as it has before.

Like most myths, this one has elements of truth. Obama did say some important things. In a speech to young Israelis, he insisted that their nation's occupation of the West Bank is not merely bad for their country, it is downright immoral, "not fair... not just ... not right."

I've been decrying the immorality of the occupation for four decades, yet I must admit I never dreamed I would hear an American president, standing in Jerusalem, do the same.

Despite those words, however, Obama is no idealist. He's a strategist. His Jerusalem speech was clearly meant to widen the gap between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the substantial center-left portion of Israeli Jews, who are open to a deal with the Palestinians and showed unexpected strength in recent elections. The growing political tensions in Israel and a weakened prime minister give the American president a potential opening to maneuver, manipulate, and perhaps even control the outcome of events.

How to do so, though? Obama himself probably has no clear idea.  Whatever Washington's Middle Eastern script, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, it will require an extraordinary balancing act.

The president will have to satisfy (or mollify) both the center-left and the right in Israel, strike an equally perfect balance between divergent Israeli and Palestinian demands, march with Netanyahu up to the edge of war with Iran yet keep Israel from plunging over that particular cliff, calibrate the ratcheting up of punishing sanctions and other acts in relation to Iran so finely that the Iranians will, in the end, yield to U.S. demands without triggering a war, and prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling into Israel, which means controlling Lebanese politics, too.  Don't forget that he will have do it all while maintaining his liberal base at home and fending off the inevitable assault from the right.

Oh, yes. Then there are all the as-yet-unforeseeable variables that will also have to be managed. To call it a tall order is an understatement.

The Fantasy of Perfect Control  

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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