Congress Joins Bibi Assault on Obama's Iran 'Red Line'
Hey, remember a few weeks ago when our old friend Bibi Netanyahu came to town and made a hullabaloo over Iran and "red lines"? Admittedly, much of what the Bibster said to the US media was bluster, but the gist of the "red line" issue was that the "red line" President Obama has set for Iran—meaning, the point at which the military option would become a real option, which Obama set at developing a nuclear weapon—isn't motivation enough for Iran's leaders to bring about a resolution to the conflict over Iran's nuclear program. Nevermind the fact that Netanyahu's analysis of the issue is incredibly flawed—why believe that "red lines" have any bearing on Iran's actions, or that they are what is preventing a diplomatic accord from being struck, when the West has yet to take diplomacy seriously? What the Israeli prime minister wants our president to do is shift his "red line" a bit further down in the timeline, to when Iran is nuclear capable, a term which the PM left conveniently vague. No matter the precise definition, though, under Bibi's "red line", Iran could be bombed even if it has no intention of actually building a nuclear weapon. And that's just plain stupid.
Now, much to the President's credit, the Obama administration did not stay quiet on this, nor did it give in. Instead, the administration stuck its neck out by reaffirming its "red line" narrative. "We’re not setting deadlines," Secretary Clinton told Bloomberg Radio the day after Netanyahu said that the international community "should set an ultimatum with a timeline" for Iran. And Ambassador Susan Rice, appearing on Meet the Press right after Bibi on September 16, fervently defended the administration's position:
[T]he president has been very, very clear. Our bottom line, if you want to call it a red line, president’s bottom line has been that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon and we will take no option off the table to ensure that it does not acquire a nuclear weapon, including the military option.
So what does it say that, less than a week after Netanyahu made his rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows, the US Senate voted overwhelming for a resolution affirming not the US president's position, but that of the Israeli prime minister?
Yes, that's right: on Saturday, the Senate passed the Graham "red line" resolution, S. Res. 380, in a 90-1 vote, with Kentucky Republican Rand Paul being the lone dissenter. The resolution expresses "the sense of the Senate regarding the importance of preventing the Government of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability." It resolves, among other things, that the Senate—
rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran; and
urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.
Of course, the "red line" debate didn't begin with Neyanyahu's propaganda tour of the US. Back in February, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced twin legislation (the House version being H. Res. 568) calling upon the President to shift his "red line" from the production of nuclear weapons to the development of a nuclear weapons capability. The bills picked up steam when the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) made them the centerpiece of their legislative agenda at their annual conference in March. And as we all know, when AIPAC comes calling, our representatives have a hard time saying 'no'.
What is amazing is that, back in March, Obama did say no—and has continued to do so ever since. Ahead of the annual conference, where the President and other administrative officials were set to speak, Netanyahu and AIPAC made it clear that it expected to hear the admin singing the "red line" tune in the Likud key. Secretary Clinton even made a public statement to the desired effect at a House committee hearing just ahead of the summit, at which point it seemed as if Obama had capitulated. But in a surprising show of constancy, the admin stated that Hillary had misspoken. And at the AIPAC conference, Obama reaffirmed his "red line"—refusing, in this small but significant way, to shrink before the self-styled most powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington.
Congress, on the other hand, has not been so bold. The House bill calling for a "red line" shift was passed in May in a 411-11 vote, with nine voting 'present'. The Senate version, however, got stalled—that is, until it was picked up again last week in anticipation of the long congressional recess that began over the weekend and doesn't end until after the November elections. Only two Democratic Senators—Patty Murray (D-WA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA)—did not vote for the resolution, though neither voted against it. The fact that Boxer, who wrote a scathing open letter to Bibi criticizing his media campaign as an attempt to meddle in US domestic politics, abstained but did not vote 'nay' is a testament to the power of AIPAC and its ilk.
Even Obama's unlikely though apparent ally in the "red line" debate two weeks ago, Mitt Romney, has since executed a remarkable flip-flop in favor of the Likud line. On a conference call with US rabbis last Thursday, Romney was asked whether he agreed with his "good friend" the Bibmeister's "red line" assessment. Like a good dog, Mittens gave the answer he knew the rabbis wanted to hear. According to Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy's The Cable, things went something like this:
"With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere," Romney said. "So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world."
"Exactly where those red lines [should be drawn] is something which, I guess, I wouldn't want to get into in great detail, but you understand they are defined by the Iranian capability to have not only fissile material, but bomb making capability and rocketry," Romney said.
So we've got both chambers of Congress and a presidential nominee siding with a foreign leader over the sitting president. Way to show solidarity, guys.
The only saving grace is that the congressional resolutions have no teeth: the Obama administration can decide to ignore them since it is his constitutional prerogative to conduct diplomacy, and the demands made upon him by these resolutions would constrain his ability to do so. And so far, it looks like Obama is treating the "red line" ruckus as a bunch of hot air. In a speech before the UN on Tuesday, the President invoked the nuclear weapon "red line"—not the nuclear weapons capability one. And on Sunday, Obama told 60 Minutes,
When it comes to our national security decisions -- any pressure that I feel is simply to do what's right for the American people. And I am going to block out -- any noise that's out there.
Far more frightening is the prospect of dear Mittens getting elected and having a Congress seemingly ready to authorize military action at the earliest convenience—which, I assume, would be dictated by our new supreme leader in Tel Aviv, as so much of Congress's and Romney's views on Iran have been to date. But there's no use in talking in hypotheticals at this juncture. It is enough to hope that Obama sticks to his guns—and keeps them stowed in the trunk, not loose on the front seat.