How America can stop what the New York Times calls "Israel's March to War" is the hot topic this month. The issue—for the Times—is whether Israel is on the verge of bombing Iran's nuclear sites, or can be persuaded to delay that decision and rely on the United States instead. This is what a parade of U.S. officials visiting Jerusalem this summer have counseled (and pressured) Israel to do. But the comments of Israel's top officials suggest that its patience is wearing thin and that it may act soon, in weeks if not months. As the Associated Press put it, "Israeli leaders, who have long issued veiled threats against Iran, now appear to be preparing the country for war. … The heightened rhetoric has fueled jitters that the zero hour is near."
Why would Israel, with so much less power than the United States, decide to take on a task at the far outer edge of its military capacities? Why not leave that task to the superpower, which would do a much better job? The answer is simple: Israelis do not believe the United States will perform the task—will ever use military force, even as a last resort, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
In that belief Israel is not alone; its view is shared by Iran. The Iranian record in the nuclear negotiations demonstrates that its leaders do not see themselves at the edge of the apocalypse. Instead they feel free to delay forever, present ridiculous proposals, and refuse to engage in serious bargaining. Meanwhile they push their nuclear program forward, with ever more centrifuges producing ever more enriched uranium, while they also test improved missiles.
Just last week there were several more proposals about how to bridge the gap between Israel and the United States, and give the reassurance Israel needs. Dennis Ross, adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama on the Middle East, presented his view in the Times.
"First, the United States must put an endgame proposal on the table that would allow Iran to have civil nuclear power but with restrictions that would preclude it from having a breakout nuclear capability," Ross wrote. "Second, America should begin discussions with the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (the so called P5+1) about a 'day after' strategy in the event that diplomacy fails and force is used….Third, senior American officials should ask Israeli leaders if there are military capabilities we could provide them with — like additional bunker-busting bombs, tankers for refueling aircraft and targeting information — that would extend the clock for them. And finally, the White House should ask Mr. Netanyahu what sort of support he would need from the United States if he chose to use force…"
Nice try, but that won't persuade either Israel or Iran. When negotiating with the Iranians, there is no "end game proposal;" everything is a first bid and Ross's "restrictions" become colonial impositions that must disappear. Moreover, the United States and the P5+1 have repeatedly made such proposals before, to no avail. Discussions about a "day after" strategy, or more weapons for Israel, show no greater U.S. resolve. Finally, asking what Israel needs if it uses force only reinforces the view that the United States will not do so.
Almost simultaneously, the former head of Israeli military intelligence Gen. Amos Yadlin weighed in. In an interview with the Times of Israel, he described the situation: "The diplomatic negotiations that took place in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow produced nothing….And therefore if you're not prepared to live with an Iran with a nuclear bomb, you are left with only one option and that's the option of military intervention."
The problem, he goes on, is that there is too little trust that the United States will act. He advises that "even statements" could help, but "not to AIPAC;" instead, "a declaration to the Congress, that if the steps the administration is relying upon today … do not achieve success by the summer of 2013, then the Americans will deal with the problem via military intervention." Then, in addition to words, "actions should be taken to show that you're serious…in order to demonstrate to the world more clearly that you're really training for this and preparing for this."
"The American threat has to be a great deal more credible," Yadlin advises, and he explains why: "It cannot be that the secretary of defense will stand up publicly and say that an attack on Iran will plunge the world into World War III or the Middle East will go up in flames. That shows that you really don't mean to do it." Yadlin wants Israel to delay a decision and wants the United States to take a tougher line. He concludes that "even if the batteries of trust are not full, a public commitment and a legal commitment, like a letter to Congress, would help a great deal toward the correct decision being taken in Israel."
Yadlin is at bottom right. The refusal of President Obama to make a categorical statement that Iran will be prevented from getting a nuclear weapon suggests that he is keeping his options open. Mr. Obama has said, "My policy here is not going to be one of containment. My policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons," adding that, "When I say all options are on the table, I mean it." But having a "policy of prevention" is far from a pledge to prevent, and vague phrases like "I have Israel's back" or "all options are on the table" have obviously failed to persuade Israelis or Iranians that he will use force to stop an Iranian bomb.
On the other hand, no president is going to promise in August 2012 to undertake a military strike precisely "by the summer of 2013." In a Washington Post op-ed a few days after his Times of Israel interview, Yadlin urged that President Obama quickly visit Israel to speak to the Knesset, and simultaneously "notify the U.S. Congress in writing that he reserves the right to use military force to prevent Iran's acquisition of a military nuclear capability." Yadlin's goals are clear, but his methods won't work in the American political and constitutional context. The idea of an Obama visit to Israel in the weeks just before, much less just after, the Democratic party convention is unrealistic; the time for Obama to do that is long past. And as for the president "notifying" Congress that he "reserves the right" to use force, that won't work either; the president either has that right as commander in chief or he does not, and a letter saying "yeah, I do" or even stating another, starker warning to Iran won't be persuasive—especially in the weeks leading up to the election.
More persuasive than the Ross or Yadlin proposals would be an effort by the president to seek a formal authorization for the use of force from Congress. This is the way for him to show seriousness of purpose, and for Congress to support it—and send an unmistakable message to the ayatollahs. This path was suggested here in THE WEEKLY STANDARD early July, by Jamie Fly and Bill Kristol, and this is the moment to move forward with it. Like the joint resolutions for the Gulf Wars in 1991 and in 2002 and the joint resolution passed after 9/11 regarding terrorism, a new resolution would not declare war; it would say "The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" to achieve the goal. In this case, that goal would not be to counter "the continuing threat posed by Iraq" or "against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001…in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States." It would be to prevent Iran—the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism, in violation of countless U.N. Security Council and IAEA board of governors resolutions, and under international sanctions—from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Such a proposal by President Obama would be controversial, and many Democrats would vote against him. (There is precedent for this: In the 1991 Gulf resolution, 45 Democrats in the Senate voted against the resolution and only 10 voted for it, and it passed only 52-47; in the House 86 Democrats voted yes and 179 voted no.) But it would, in the phrase Mr. Obama likes to use, be a teachable moment. First, the very presentation of such a resolution by the White House would show a new level of clarity and commitment. This would be likely to affect both Iranian and Israeli calculations far more than statements like "all options are on the table."
Second, should such a resolution fail, everyone would be clear that the United States was not going to act and that Israel need delay no longer so as to leave it to us. Third, a clear statement from the president that he intended to use military force if necessary would almost certainly be backed by the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, producing rare election year unanimity on a national security issue. That too would likely change Israeli and Iranian views of the chances the Americans would act. Fourth, seeking such a Joint Resolution now would be a useful acknowledgement by the United States that we do not have perfect knowledge of when, as Iran advances toward a bomb, a military strike might be needed—so we will start getting ready now.
Those who believe that a negotiated deal with Iran is still theoretically possible should welcome this congressional expression of intent. The Iranian regime still believes it can get nuclear weapons and is not negotiating in good faith. Only if it is persuaded that it will never get those weapons—that the choice is between a negotiated agreement and an American military strike—is a deal possible. Similarly, those who oppose an Israeli strike must realize that the best way to avoid it is to persuade Israelis that by deferring their own action they are not accepting an Iranian bomb but accepting that the world's most powerful nation will deal more effectively with Iran than they will.
Proposing an authorization to use force does not lock Mr. Obama into using force, much less doing so at a specific time. He can use the authorization as a club to beat Iran into a negotiated deal. Therein lies one great appeal of this tack, but also one great trap—for Israel and for those in the United States who believe that Iran must at all costs be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. The risk is that the Obama administration will instead sign a bad deal and call it victory. There is probably no way to avoid this possibility, which exists today as well, but there is one good way to diminish it. Congress could adopt, separately or as part of the "Use of Force" resolution, certain standards. A June 15 letter to the president from 44 senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, suggests what those standards might be. The joint resolution could say that force is authorized to prevent an Iranian bomb, acknowledge that a negotiated outcome is far more desirable, and then state that any acceptable negotiated deal must require immediate closing the underground facility at Fordow, freezing of all enrichment above five percent and exporting of all of Iran's stockpile of uranium enriched above that level, and imposing intrusive inspections to ensure that the program is not secretly reestablished.
There are few legislative days left in 2012 because this is an election year, but there are enough to debate and pass this joint resolution if it is given its proper priority. Congress needs to act on the farm bill and the federal budget before adjourning, but it is quite likely in both cases that three or six month extensions will kick those balls down the road to a lame duck session or into the new Congress next year. The Iranian nuclear program, by contrast, must be addressed right now—or Israel is quite likely to strike while it still can.
In any event, the debate over a joint resolution will clarify who stands where. At the moment, no one is persuaded that the United States will use force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That situation worries Israelis and emboldens Iranians, not the outcome we want. A clear statement now that is backed by the nominees of both parties and elicits widespread support in Congress would demonstrate that, whatever the election results, American policy is set. That is the best (and may be the only) way to avoid an Israeli strike in the near future and the best (and may be the only) way to persuade Iran to negotiate seriously. And if we are unwilling as a nation to state that we will act to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, that conclusion should solidify support for what would then become the inevitable Israeli strike. A refusal by the White House to seek such a joint resolution would itself suggest that, while "all options are on the table," the likelihood is that that is precisely where they will remain.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.