In the Arena

Enter Bibi

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Baz Ratner / Reuters

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem September 2, 2012.

It may be, as Jeff Goldberg asserts, that Bibi Netanyahu is just frustrated over President Obama’s refusal to approve an Israeli attack on Iran. Or it may be something else: an unprecedented attempt by a putative American ally to influence a U.S. presidential campaign. Either way, Netanyahu’s recent behavior is outrageous. He is trying push us into a war that is not in our national interest, a war that would only further destabilize a region that is already teetering near chaos. He is trying to get us to damage our relations with the rest of the world–especially the Russians and Chinese, whom we spent great diplomatic effort luring into the Iranian economic sanctions–so that he can pursue a strategy that even the Israeli military and intelligence communities find questionable. President Obama will not yield to this pressure, nor should he–and every American should know the implications of what Netanyahu and his American neoconservative allies, including Mitt Romney, are proposing.

Iran is not Afghanistan or Libya. It is not a bunch of tents in the desert. It is also not Iraq or Pakistan, clumsy collections of tribes and ethnicities cobbled together by Europeans a century ago. It is an actual place, a real country with real borders. It has the best-educated population in the region, outside of Israel; and that population is extremely proud of the country’s heritage while also being generally pro-American (especially American culture, which is received on the satellite dishes that mushroom every rooftop). It is a complicated culture, ironic and poetic and deeply paranoid, especially about the machinations of former colonial powers. It represents, I believe, the greatest mismatch between a people and a government of any country in the world.

The Iranian government is dreadful and brutal, but not crazy. The Supreme Leader is not Saddam Hussein. The Iranians have much to lose if they ever chose to attack Israel or–anyplace, for that matter. They took 1 million casualties in Ayatullah Khomeini’s foolish war with Iraq in the 1980s; 100,000 were chemical victims of Saddam’s poison gas (which most Iranians believe that US provided). Missiles rained on Tehran; it was a terrifying experience for that middle class city. I was present at Tehran University in December 2011 when Ayatullah Rafsanjani made the only direct mention of the need for an Iranian nuclear weapon. He said an “Islamic bomb” was necessary to deter the Israeli nuclear threat. I believe that if the Iranians are foolish enough to “break out” and assemble a weapon, deterrence will be its only purpose. And if Iran gets the bomb, a U.S. policy of containment and deterrence will be as successful as it was against the Soviet Union, whose leaders once went around saying as crazy things about us–“We will bury you!”–as the Iranians occasionally say about Israel.

An attack on Iran by Israel, or by the United States, will not stop the Iranian nuclear program for very long–and may well intensify it, since there will be all the more reason for Iranians to fear aggression from the west. An attack will, however, prompt a counterattack by Hizballah or another of the terrorist proxies the regime backs around the world. Iran has capabilities that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan had; it can hit us where we live–and it can certainly strike at the heart of Israel, via Hizballah. For these and other reasons, I have yet to meet a ranking member of the U.S. military who favors an attack on Iran.

Indeed, I haven’t met very many Americans who are seeking another war, or greater uncertainty, or more wounded warriors, or murdered diplomats. When I take my annual road trips, I very rarely hear people mention Iran at all–and those who do mention it are Jews concerned for the future of Israel. That is a legitimate concern; I’m worried, too–as much by the aggressive Likud delusion of a Greater Israel, which its neighbors will inevitably see as a threat, as I am by Iran’s offensive behavior. But you should know: most Americans don’t care about this at all. They see China as our greatest foreign policy challenge. They see Al Qaeda as our most dangerous enemy. And they’re right about both.

The truth is, Iran is a political issue more than a national security challenge. It has achieved the prominence in the current debate that it was because Bibi Netanyahu and his neoconservative pals have made it an issue, because twisted American zillionaires like Sheldon Adelson have bought politicians to promote it, because Jewish organizations like AIPAC and the ADL and the AJC have conflated Israel’s national security with our own–and their perceptions of Israel’s long-term national security are, I believe, grievously flawed.

But think about it: What if David Cameron was pushing us to go to war with Argentina over the Falklands? What if India was interfering with the American presidential campaign in order to promote an attack on Pakistan? When was the last time a foreign leader tried to influence an American political campaign? Oh, I remember–Osama bin Laden, in 2004. He was our mortal enemy, of course, not a beloved ally like Israel. It goes without saying that there’s zero moral equivalence between Israel and the terrorists.

But Netanyahu is doing two things that should be intolerable for any patriotic American: he is a foreigner trying to influence our presidential campaign and he is a foreigner trying to shove us into a war of choice in a region where far too many Americans have already died needlessly. The Romney campaign–as well as AIPAC, the AJC and every other American Jewish organization–should make it clear to Netanyahu that his interventions into our political process and policy-making are not welcome here.