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No war by proxy

The United States must not signal that it would be acceptable for Israel to bomb Iranian targets.

July 03, 2008

Israel and the United States are starting to look like two anxious children trying to decide how to deal with a schoolyard bully, Iran. Each appears to be whispering encouragement to the other to go kick the bully in the shins, but each is so terrified of the consequences that neither wants to go first.

President Bush telegraphed this dangerous diplomatic gambit to the media Wednesday when he was asked about the recent spate of reports that military action against Iran, by either Israel or the U.S. and before the end of Bush's term, is under discussion. First he repeated his long-standing position that while “all options” are on the table, his "first option" to solve the problem of Iran's nuclear programs would be through diplomacy. But Bush then dodged the question "Would you strongly discourage Israel from going after Iran militarily?" The unmistakable signal is that Bush not only won't discourage Israel from striking at Iranian nuclear targets but would support Israel should Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decide to bomb.

The military reality is that Israel cannot effectively attack Iran without Bush's acquiescence because Israeli jets would need to cross Iraqi airspace that is currently controlled by the U.S. And multiple bombing runs would be required (though even strikes by the far superior U.S. Air Force would probably do no more than delay Iran's development of a nuclear weapon by a few months or years). That means Israel would not be able to protect the United States with the political fiction that it had conducted a surprise attack without informing the U.S. beforehand. In any case, Tehran has already announced that it would make no distinction between a U.S. or an Israeli attack. Nor would many other nations.

There are a dozen reasons why "If you want to whack them, we've got your back" is the wrong message for the U.S. to send Israel, publicly or privately.

One is the increase in oil prices as a result of the war talk, which only enriches Iran. But here are two better ones: The consequences of an Israeli war with Iran are unpredictable, and it is nearly impossible to assess Iran's ability to make good on its threats to retaliate against the United States, presumably through its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. The last thing the U.S. needs now is more instability, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael G. Mullen said Wednesday. And while the odds may be low that diplomacy will solve the problem, we can't know for sure because we haven't tried it. Only the Europeans have. If bilateral talks with nuclear North Korea were acceptable to Bush, then why is it still anathema to talk with Iran?

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