The existential problem facing most of the Middle East today is the threat that radical Iran will become a nuclear-armed power. Unchecked, that threat will reach the United State tomorrow.
To recap, Iran under the ayatollahs has sponsored terrorism in the region for more than 30 years. Iran remains the principal sponsor of Hezbollah and Hamas, which rule southern Lebanon and Gaza with cruelty and devastation and regularly set up children to be human shields. Iran provides the main support for the vicious, thuggish Assad regime in Syria, and has paramilitary forces all over Syria today fighting the country’s civil war.
Iran supplies arms to insurgents in western Afghanistan. Iran’s paramilitary troops are now fighting in Iraq, where Iran has developed a client in the Shia-led governing coalition in Baghdad. Iran has just sponsored a coup by guerrilla fighters in Yemen. Iran has long had Sudan as a client state, helping the Islamist government of Omar al-Bashir inflict unspeakable brutality on the unhappy peoples of southern Sudan.
Iran has been fostering Islamist radicalism around the coast of Africa for nearly two decades, implanting “Islamic centers” and/or arming terrorist insurgents in locations from the Sinai Peninsula to Tanzania, from Nigeria to Morocco and Algeria.
Regionally, Iran’s navy has been expanding operations around the region for more than six years, bringing with it the threat of mines and submarines. The prospect of forward bases on the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Red Sea – in Yemen, perhaps Eritrea – brings coastal missiles and mini-submarines to one of the world’s most trafficked waterways, threatening not just the lifelines of commerce for billions of people, but the power relationships of all the nations at the junction of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
And in the Western hemisphere, Iran is embedded through both direct and client relationships (e.g., Hezbollah) in much of Latin America: embedded with the worst of socialist dictators, including the Castros in Cuba, and with the drug cartels.
Iran has demonstrated the capability to launch missiles into Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and the rocketry know-how to field ICBMs within 1-3 years.
This aggressive, destabilizing Iran is now perilously close to acquiring nuclear weapons. And the president of the United States is, objectively, doing nothing that could conceivably prevent that outcome. Even a number of his fellow Democrats in Congress are concerned that his policies are lenient and ineffective.
These are the conditions in which Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, is coming at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner to speak to a joint meeting of Congress.
There are two overriding considerations for this event, for both Americans and Israelis.
One is that Israel may have to take action against Iran, sooner rather than later. Israel is the only nation that still can.
The other is that the most important thing a leaderless America can do is show that we are united: in recognition of what the threat is, in support of Israel, and in support of what she may have to do.
A display of American unity has rarely if ever been more vital. In the best case, it could actually deter Iran from “crossing the nuclear Rubicon,” at least for the next couple of years. Where even congressional Democrats are lined up against him, Obama has frequently backed down, at least up to now.
A robust congressional unity doesn’t guarantee that Obama can’t get away with passive-aggressive hindrances against Israel: withholding the resupply of munitions, withholding air defense support by our Navy, making it harder for the IAF to get planes across Jordan and Saudi Arabia without alerting Iran. But it could at least give the Iranians reason to weight their calculations about such things pessimistically.
If Iran knows that Israel has the overwhelming support of the American people and the U.S. Congress, the mullahs will be less likely to attempt actions that Israel will be compelled to preempt. How much less likely is a good question – but it may be enough. Iran doesn’t want to blow up the region; Iran wants to keep acquiring territory. The mullahs will usually wait rather than push their luck.
The U.S. must not fritter away this possibility. The condition of American unity is the most important thing we can reinforce in the minds of Iran’s radical leaders right now.
The minority of Senate Democrats who have proposed a separate meeting with Netanyahu next week have proposed an event that would show exactly the opposite of American unity. It would show that there are wedges between Democrats and Republicans, even on the issues of the Iranian threat and Israel’s security. The Democrats-only session would not show bipartisan support – it would, quite explicitly, show that Democrats require special tending, and may not be onboard if they don’t get it.
Netanyahu’s speech to the joint houses of Congress is the bipartisan unity demonstration. Meetings with the joint committees on the Hill, at which both Democrats and Republicans would be present, would be a fine touch as well.
But it is unstatesmanlike of the small number of Democrats involved to demand a separate meeting at a time like this. It makes it look like a prime minister of Israel has to run around the Hill in a sweat marshalling support from America. It looks like America’s internal divisions are tiebreakers that may dilute our unity on what the threat is, and the meaning of Israel’s security.
The decisive question is this. Is that reality? If it’s not, then it is the worst form of pettiness and irresponsibility to create the impression that it is.
There’s no safe strategic “rear” for America to retreat into anymore, and indulge ourselves with foolish squabbles. Every decision we make about Iran, Islamic State, Russia, NATO, China – our national strategic posture in general – is being made on the front lines now.
I urge America’s Israel supporters to stop criticizing Netanyahu about things that don’t matter, and focus on what does. American unity is what matters here. Without a president to express our national resolve, it’s on us to man up and show it.