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The Other Bluffer

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Bret Stephens, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, takes President Obama to task for not standing behind his declarations regarding Syria and Iran.
Bret Stephens, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, takes President Obama to task for not standing behind his declarations regarding Syria and Iran.
Until not long ago, Israelis remained prudently coy about whether they would strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. More recently, prominent Israelis have voiced doubts about whether Israel can strike those facilities, at least in any way that would make a lasting difference to Tehran’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons.

Essentially, they’re saying it’s all a bluff.

The transition marks another decline in the quality of the Jewish state’s deterrence. This would be bad news in better circumstances. Considering the way the Obama administration is acting with respect to Syria, it’s much worse than that.

That’s because President Obama has now made it clear that, when it comes to rogue regimes and weapons of mass destruction, he’s exactly the bluffer he promised he wasn’t. He warned repeatedly that the use by Bashar Assad’s regime of chemical weapons against the Syrian people was a red line, a game changer, a thing “we will not tolerate.” And he responded to the regime’s use of chemical weapons by doing nothing. This is supposed to be the guy who has Israel’s back and will never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon?

What’s Fuhgeddaboudit in Yiddish?

That’s a lesson that needs to sink in fast with Israeli decision makers. Israel has justified reservations about taking anything except covert or surgical action against Iran and Syria. Among those reservations: the limits of its military capability; its vulnerability to counterstrikes; its diplomatic isolation; the displeasure of the Obama administration.

Above all, Israelis have shied away from action on the theory that Mr. Obama’s red lines were real, even if he drew them further down field than Israel would like. What’s the point of rushing to do something yourself at great immediate risk, when you can wait for someone else to do it, at much less risk to them or to you, a little later?

Sound logic, one flaw: There is no someone else. Israelis are now watching how the administration reacts when a rogue regime crosses the president’s red lines. It calls for a U.N. investigation to corroborate the findings of Western intelligence agencies. It justifies the exercise in the name of international consensus. It emphasizes the need to avoid the mistakes of the Iraq war.

That’s the path the administration is traveling in the Syrian chemical-weapons case, and things will only get worse. As the Assad regime realizes it can use these weapons without international penalty, it will unleash them again. Sooner or later it will figure out that the more widely it uses them, the quicker it can kill enemies at home and deter enemies abroad. A twofer. The administration will go from arguing that it’s too soon to intervene in Syria, to arguing that it’s too late.

What Israel gets from this is a chemical-weapons free-fire zone on its Syrian border, along with the growing likelihood that the weapons will reach Hezbollah’s hands along its Lebanese border. On the plus side, Israel also gets an arms deal from the administration. But the deal consists of selling Israel stuff it already has or doesn’t particularly need, like aerial tankers and V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, while withholding stuff it doesn’t have and dearly needs, like large bunker-busters and the means of delivering them.

Meanwhile, Israel faces an Iran that, according to former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, has already crossed the nuclear red line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew at the U.N.’s General Assembly last September. Did Mr. Netanyahu draw that line as a means of warning Iran, or of goading the U.S. to act?

If it was the latter, it was a bad bet. Mr. Obama will treat evidence of Iran’s impending nuclearization the way he has looked at Syria’s use of chemical weapons, demanding a standard of proof that will be impossible to meet until it is too late to do much about it. And as in Syria, the longer he searches for proof, the tougher the military options will become.

If it was the former, however, then Israel had better be prepared to act. Soon. A threat that cannot be executed should never be issued. It invites contempt from friend and foe alike. If Mr. Netanyahu really has been bluffing all along, he’ll go down as the man who made Ehud Olmert look good.

Israel’s military planners have now had more than a decade to plan an attack on Iran. Let’s assume their capabilities are better than advertised. (Can a country that can come up with Iron Dome be incapable of producing the required bunker busters?) Let’s assume also there’s a known-unknown in this plan, an element of surprise that will take even the most hardened war-gamers by surprise.

It had better work. Because Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran. Because Israel should know by now that this American administration will not be coming to its rescue. Because the purpose of a Jewish state is never having to rely for survival on the kindness of others, even ones so charming and solicitous as Barack Obama.

Author Bio: Bret Stephens is the deputy editorial page editor responsible for the international opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal. He also writes “Global View,” the paper’s weekly foreign-affairs column, and is a member of the Journal’s editorial board. He is a regular panelist on The Journal Editorial Report, a weekly political talk show carried by Fox News Channel.

 

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