A Blank Check for Israel? Bad Idea.

AP Photo/ISNA, Amin Khosroshahi

Late last week in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the latest round of nuclear talks between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent five UN Security Council members plus Germany) ended with an agreement for more meetings—a technical experts meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, on March 18, followed by a political directors meeting back in Almaty on April 5-6.

As for the tenor of the talks, most observers agree that it was more upbeat that in the past, with Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili at one point referring to the P5+1’s offer of greater sanctions relief as a “turning point.”

While recognizing that challenges still remain, supporters of the talks were encouraged. “What Almaty showed us is that American and international proposals can elicit the kinds of responses from Iran that are necessary to move the process forward,” said Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs for the Ploughshares Fund. “There’s a clear consensus among the P5+1 and our ally Israel that a diplomatic solution is the preferred outcome, and that’s why it’s essential to continue to test Iranian intentions through robust and creative diplomacy.”

One observer also pointed out to me that, when speaking to the press, Jalili was not, as in the past, flanked by photos of assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists. While it’s a sign of how frustrating the 2012 rounds of talks in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow were that we should find encouragement in such things, given what’s at stake—the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon or another Middle East war—there’s little question that continued, energetic diplomatic engagement toward a negotiated solution is the most responsible course.  

Meanwhile, some in Congress seem determined to play an unconstructive role in the negotiations. One particular measure, co-sponsored by Senators Robert Menendez and Lindsey Graham—and backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee coming out of its big annual policy conference last weekend, as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas— could both undermine diplomacy and green-light an attack by Israel.

The resolution, after listing in some detail the Islamic Republic’s offenses (which, let’s be clear, are quite serious), “Urges that, if the government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.”

In an interview with The Washington Post’s neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, Graham explained the resolution in layman’s terms: “If Israel acts in its own defense—even preemptively—we will support Israel economically, diplomatically, and politically.”

While it’s true that the resolution is non-binding and does not create policy, it’s important to recognize the ratcheting effect these sorts of measures have in terms of framing the debate, and slowly acclimating Americans to the idea that war is inevitable. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison recently addressed this dynamic in a piece looking back at the run-up to the Iraq war. “The poor, limited quality of debate over Iraq policy from the ’90s is happening all over again with Iran, as the ‘debate’ tends to focus on whether U.S. policy should give priority to impoverishing Iranians or to killing them more quickly,” Larison wrote. “The foundations for terrible policy decisions are often laid years before the final decision is taken, and if we don’t pay attention to how those foundations are laid we won’t be prepared to stop the next awful policy in the future.”

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, we should keep that in mind.

There are a few other important things to note about Senator Graham’s resolution. First, it’s out of step with the view of a majority of Americans. A Pew poll last year showed that 56 percent of Americans believe that the United States should not support Israel if it attacks Iran.

Second, it’s wildly inconsistent with the way that U.S. foreign policy—or any country’s foreign policy, for that matter—has unfolded in the past. There’s no precedent for giving this sort of blank check to a client state. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told The Washington Post last year, “We cannot subcontract the right to go to war—that is an American decision.”

The resolution also contradicts the highest-ranking military official in the U.S. armed forces, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Speaking in London last year, Dempsey distanced himself from any Israeli plan to bomb Iran, saying such an attack would “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran's nuclear program.” He then added, “I don't want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.” This resolution makes such complicity hard to deny.

Some of the resolution’s defenders have pushed back on the idea that it represents a significant escalation, noting that Section 2 states, “Nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization for the use of force or a declaration of war.” While on the one hand this language can be taken as an encouraging recognition of how unpopular the idea of another war in the Middle East is, on the other hand, given the language that precedes it, it’s kind of like Ricky Bobby protesting, “But I said with all due respect!” after he’s just grossly insulted someone.

Indeed, Graham himself explained that a slow, methodical escalation toward a war footing is precisely his goal with this resolution. Eventually, he told Jennifer Rubin, he would have Congress say,“Mr. President, here’s authorization” to go to war with Iran. As for the outcome of such a war, Graham’s prediction is simple: “We win, they lose.”

You know, a cakewalk.

As for the idea that the specter of a belligerent Congress somehow strengthens the United States’s negotiating hand and makes a deal more attractive to the Iranians, it’s worth considering whether the reverse would be true. “If Iran took comparably provocative steps in the wake of a negotiating round, many voices in the United States would be yelling about how this shows how hostile are Iranian intentions, how Iranians are not serious about negotiating an agreement, and how the United States must respond by making its own posture even more hard line and inflexible,” wrote Paul Pillar, a 28-year U.S intelligence veteran, in the National Interest. “We should not be surprised if when the provocation is in the other direction, Iranians might react similarly.” 

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