Washington is still working
through recent events pertaining to Iran's nuclear
program and calls for attack. Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to town recently
to make his pro-war case to President Barack Obama
and also to gatherings of pro-Israel groups.
He cannot have come away terribly pleased
as Obama rebuffed him and insisted on more
diplomacy. But the debate continues in the US
media and in the ongoing presidential campaign.
Netanyahu is mobilizing his forces to press the US
into attacking Iran or supporting an Israeli
strike. This, he argues, must be done before
Iran's uranium enrichment facilities are
transferred to sites burrowed well into mountains
where they may be invulnerable to attack.
Nor can Netanyahu be pleased that former
Mossad chief Meir
Dagan is speaking out in
the US media - and in a manner more consistent
with Obama's position of continued sanctions and
diplomacy. Dagan is a seasoned observer of
geopolitics and his words carry weight.
A few minutes with a Mossad
chief Meir Dagan appeared Sunday on the
popular US program and political sounding board
60 Minutes, where he took on Netanyahu and
much of the US and Israeli right, albeit
obliquely. The interview was interspersed with
photos and anecdotes establishing Dagan's strong
military and security credentials and his likely
association with a number of assassinations across
the Middle East. He had already spoken out last
year against war with Iran, calling it "the
stupidest thing I have ever heard".
former Mossad chief noted, with some
qualifications, the "rationality" of the Iranian
leadership. Dagan is not lecturing the American
public on Cartesian philosophy or game theory. He
is breaking with Israelis and Americans who claim
- perhaps even believe - that Iran is ruled by
crazed clerics intent on ending the world who
cannot be deterred from using nuclear arms.
Mutually assured destruction, Dagan believes, can
be obtained in the Middle East. It was the basis
of the US-USSR standoff for many decades, which
kept conflict in check until the fall of the
Dagan has followed
relations with Iran for decades. He knows that
Israel had strong ties with Iran under the shah
and also for many years after the mullahs came to
power in 1979, as Israel helped in the long war
against Iraq (1980-88). The breakdown in relations
did not come from a change in ideology or policy
in Tehran; it came from a political shift in
Jerusalem that, following the destruction of
Saddam's army in the First Gulf War, suddenly -
and perhaps erroneously - saw Iran as unchecked
and dangerous. Iran soon became an enemy.
The former Mossad chief does not rule out
an eventual need to attack Iran but feels that
Iran may be three years away from having a nuclear
weapon. He may prefer the US position of drawing
the "red line" at actual weapons production, not a
shift to mountain enrichment facilities - offering
an honorable way for Iran to back away from war.
For now, however, he calls for continuing
sanctions and diplomacy and encouraging regime
change in Iran.
The significance of his
television appearance yesterday is considerable.
It would be as if a respected former CIA or
military chief had come forward in early 2003 and
expressed deep skepticism over the case for
invading Iraq and a major network gave him the
opportunity to do so.
Perhaps Dagan has
this in mind. He recently offered that war with
Iran could lead to devastating missile attacks on
Israeli cities and to a regional war whose
"security challenge would become unbearable".
The Likud and Israel The US
public has come to see statements on Israeli
national security, whether uttered by an Israeli
prime minister or an authoritative US body such as
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, as
non-partisan and all but above debate. Dagan's
words will weaken that assumption greatly, as will
Netanyahu's continued calls for war.
National security assessments are
evaluations, estimates, and often a little
guesswork. They are shaped as much by prior
beliefs as they are by empirical evidence. Is that
dark area in a satellite image a fertilizer
processor or a missile silo? Opinions can vary
across personalities and institutions.
outlooks of all Israelis have of course been
shaped by the Holocaust - an event with obvious if
overstated parallels to present-day concerns.
Netanyahu's Likud and the other conservative
parties in his coalition were also shaped by their
small nation's miraculous victory over the larger
Arab armies in the 1967 Six Day War.
Surely, many thought, this was a sign that
divine providence was guiding the nation's actions
- a parochial conceit found in other countries and
faiths. Religious fundamentalism alloyed with
reason of state - each quite dogmatic in its way -
which reduced the influence of politicians
informed more by Talmudic morality and nuanced
Netanyahu's hawkish stance is
not based on a broad consensus of Israeli opinion.
Indeed, a recent poll found that only 19% of
Israelis favor unilateral attack on Iran, which in
light of Obama's opposition makes it the only
attack scenario just now.
Nor, it might be
noted amid the Iran debate, does his party and its
coalition partners have an impressive record in
foreign policy. In the 35 years since Menachem
Begin formed the first Likud government, it has
miscalculated badly on several occasions.
Forays into Lebanon against Palestine
Liberation Organization militants led to Shi'ite
opposition and the rise of Hezbollah. Efforts to
weaken Fatah strengthened Hamas. Disproportionate
responses to Palestinian attacks weakened Hosni
Mubarak's rule in Egypt. Settlements on the West
Bank bring reproaches from much of the world and
are coalescing support for a boycott. Perhaps more
to the point, Israel's break with Iran in the
mid-'90s (a joint Labor-Likud venture) played no
small role in bringing about the crisis at hand.
War drums and the US
public Dagan's statements come at an
auspicious time. In many quarters, they will be
warmly embraced and repeatedly quoted along with
his 2011 comment on the fatuousness of attacking
Iran. The US public has been quick to support most
military actions since World War II, but today it
is concerned with the economy and debt. From
recent hard experience, Americans are skeptical of
scenarios involving surgical strikes and
Iran has become a
partisan issue, with conservative politicians and
media outlets steadily drumming for war - or for
surgical strikes with unstated consequences. Obama
has presented his case continued diplomacy and
sanctions and polling data favor him. A February
poll on the Iranian situation found that 60% of
respondents favored continued diplomacy and
sanctions, 20% favored no action, and 17% favored
Obama's position will be
strengthened by the seemingly unrelated matters of
encouraging economic trends and the
unattractiveness of conservative presidential
candidates whose artless calls for action are not
resonating outside the ranks of party enthusiasts.
Pressing for war between now and the November
elections may underscore the partisan and
impractical nature of Netanyahu's agenda - in the
US and Israeli public alike.
has come in from the cold and, in conjunction with
an American network, has spoken to the American
public amid a debate over an impending war. His
words will reverberate through think tanks and
security bureaus in coming months, perhaps also
inside the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee. We'll see if Dagan's words carry more
weight than Bibi's.
Brian M Downing
is a political/military analyst and author of
The Military Revolution and Political Change
and The Paths of Glory: War and Social
Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam.
He can be reached at
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