Fifty years after the world teetered on the brink of war in 1962 when the Soviet Union put missiles into Cuba 90 miles from the U.S., we have a more slowly unfolding nuclear crisis with Israel and Iran as our partners in the diplomatic death dance.
In Washington this week, the President tries both to reassure the Israeli prime minister of our firm backing to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and to stay his hand from a preemptive strike to stop them.
“When he warns that an Israeli attack on Iran could backfire,” says a New York Times editorial, “and that ‘there is still a window’ for diplomacy, he is speaking for American and Israeli interests.
“Iran’s nuclear appetites are undeniable, as is its malign intent toward Israel, toward America, toward its Arab neighbors and its own people. Israel’s threats of unilateral action have finally focused the world’s attention on the danger. Still, there must be no illusions about what it would take to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear complex, the high costs and the limited returns.
“This would not be a ‘surgical’ strike like the Israeli attack in 1981 that destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor, or the 2007 Israeli strike on an unfinished reactor in Syria. Iran has multiple facilities, and the crucial ones are buried or ‘hardened.’ Pentagon analysts estimate that even a sustained Israeli air campaign would set back the program by only a few years, drive it further underground and possibly unleash a wider war.
“It would also cast the Iranian government as the victim in the eyes of an otherwise alienated Iranian public. It would tear apart the international coalition and undermine an increasingly tough sanctions regime, making it even easier for Iran to rebuild its program.”
Nonetheless, the President is under intense pressure from both Prime Minister Netanyahu and his would-be November opponents (save Ron Paul) to cowboy into a confrontation. (As a warmup, John McCain wants him to bomb Syria.)
In another dimension, the President and Premier may be playing some high-stakes version of good cop-bad cop. If so, the bad cop had better avoid overacting.
In his measured approach, Barack Obama is taking a leaf from John F. Kennedy half a century ago who said, “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war.”