As an American President prepares for his reelection campaign, he has to deal with a complex crisis in the Middle East. A radical regime is projecting its military power, trying to destabilize the pro-American governments in the Middle East, threatening the state of Israel, and aiming to achieve regional supremacy.
America’s allies in the Middle East and Europe, including France and Britain, are joined by an Israeli leadership that compares the leader of the radical regime to Hitler and urges Washington to pursue tough diplomatic and military action against the emerging threat. But the American President is more cautious and refuses to give a green light to Israel and other friendly governments to use military force to resolve the crisis.
In 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dallas regarded Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser—the fiery Arab nationalist who had pledged to rid the Arab world of the pro-Western monarchs in countries like Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—as a potential threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the Israelis perceived Nasser as a new Hitler who intended to eradicate the Jewish state as part of the implementation of his pan-Arabist grand designs, while the British and the French were worried about Nasser’s plans to weaken their hold over their protectorates in North Africa and the Persian Gulf and were intent on reversing his decision to nationalize the Suez Canal, which they had built and owned.
Like Eisenhower in 1956, President Obama in 2012 has been trying to utilize the United Nations and mobilize the “international community” against the Middle Eastern villain du jour. Washington has been instrumental in pressing for an effort to isolate the ayatollahs in Tehran and to impose tough economic sanctions on Iran in order to force Tehran to put its plans to develop military nuclear power—the first step in the process being the capability to enrich uranium—on hold.
But the Israelis regard a nuclear Iran, in the same way they saw Nasser equipped with advanced Soviet arms in 1956, as an “existential threat” and are advertising through an impressive media blitz their plans for a preemptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, which they will launch sooner rather than later—or so they say—if the United States and her Western allies fail to force the ayatollahs to discontinue developing an Iranian nuclear bomb.
Israel is being joined by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab regimes in pressing Washington to “do something” about Iran. In 1956, the Saudis and the Jordanians feared the challenge that Nasser’s secular Arab-nationalist message (not to mention his active efforts to oust them from power) would pose to their legitimacy. Today, the same Arab-Sunni monarchies believe that the Islamic regime in Tehran and its Shi’ite allies in Iraq (which came to power thanks to the U.S. “liberation” of that country), Lebanon, and the Gulf are in the process of forming an anti-Sunni Shi’ite alliance.
France, Britain, and other European countries that receive much of their oil supplies from the Persian Gulf are certainly not interested in seeing a nuclear Iran emerging as a hegemon in that region, and are wondering whether an overstretched U.S. military that relies on a financially distressed American economy would be able to prevent that from happening.
Not unlike Eisenhower in 1956, Obama believes that pursuing a military option against the aspirant to regional power would not be cost-effective. Indeed, in the debates taking place in both Washington and Jerusalem, leading American and Israeli security experts, including former CIA and Mossad officials, predict that a military strike would only delay the development of an Iranian bomb by a year or two and warn that it could ignite a major regional military conflagration.
These war skeptics recommend that, instead of attacking Iran, the United States and Israel should continue to use covert action to slow down Iran’s nuclearization and come up with an effective deterrence strategy if and when Iran does get the bomb (the same strategy that the United States pursued against a nuclear Soviet Union or that India is using against a nuclear Pakistan today).
Moreover, if attacked, Iran could retaliate against Saudi Arabia as well as against American targets in the region and encourage Hezbollah to launch missile attacks against Israel, which could lead to a war involving Israel, Lebanon, and perhaps even Syria. A military confrontation in the Persian Gulf could halt oil supplies from the region, devastating the weak economies of Europe; raise energy prices to the stratosphere; and bring to an end the slow recovery of the U.S. economy—and ensure that President Obama doesn’t get reelected in November.
But Obama is quite constrained in his ability to force the hands of the Israeli leaders. One major difference between 1956 and 2012 is that Eisenhower didn’t have to face the kind of powerful pro-Israel lobby that operates in Washington today, one that relies not only on the support of Jewish voters and donors but on the huge evangelical Christian electorate that plays a major role in determining the outcome of GOP primaries.
It is not surprising, therefore, that all the leading Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, are urging Obama to bomb Iran as soon as possible and to provide Israel with all the support she needs if she decides to do that. At the same time, neoconservative pundits—the very ones who not so long ago acted as cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq—are writing op-eds and bombarding the airwaves as they prepare Americans for the start of Gulf War III.
Unlike in 1956, this time Israel would not have to go behind the back of a skeptical U.S. President if and when she decides to attack her adversary. In fact, don’t be surprised that this time around the U.S. President may not simply green-light the Israeli action but decide that he has no choice but to do the job himself.