From the Department of Supreme Ironies: President Barack Obama, who seeks to punish an Arab state for violating international norms on the use of weapons of mass destruction, is relying on the hawkish Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, along with Aipac, the main pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, to get his message across to Congress.
I have to assume that George W. Bush is laughing today.
There is so much to be said about the complicated Syria crisis, but let me limit myself, for the moment, to Israel’s unlikely role in this drama.
On the one hand, it isn’t at all unlikely -- Israel always manages to be at the center of any story sitting at the intersection of American politics and Middle East catastrophe. But Obama’s "red line" -- his warning to the dictator Bashar al-Assad that put the U.S. on a path to direct involvement in the Syrian civil war -- didn’t have anything to do with Israel or its defense. The red line was articulated (and then ignored, and then, finally, not ignored, but not acted upon yet, either) in order preserve the international taboo against the use of chemical weapons.
Now it is true, of course, that Syria could theoretically use its chemical weapons against Israel, but the Assad regime knows that it would be obliterated in a flash by Israel should it use sarin or VX against the Jewish state (small quantity, large quantity, no matter -- there would be, for obvious historical reasons, a disproportionate Israeli response to the use of gas on Jewish civilians).
So, Assad’s use of poison gas, and not Israel’s security, is the predicate cause of the current crisis. Yet there is an Israeli national security component to Obama’s request to Congress, albeit a second-order component.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel would prefer that Obama enforce his red line on chemical weapons use, because he would like to see proof that Obama believes in the red lines he draws. From Netanyahu’s perspective, Israel isn’t unduly threatened by Assad. Syria constitutes a dangerous, but ultimately manageable, threat.
Netanyahu believes, of course, that Iran, Syria’s primary sponsor, poses an existential threat to his country, and so would like the Iranians to understand very clearly that Obama’s red lines are, in fact, very red. As Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me last night, the formula is simple: “If the Iranians do not fear Obama, then the Israelis will lose confidence in Obama.”
So Netanyahu is in a bind: He does not want to be seen as an agitator for an American military strike. Netanyahu and his aides, including and especially the incoming Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, are acute readers of American polling, and they know that Syria intervention is a widely unpopular cause. They also know that there is a portion of the American foreign policy elite that would blame Israel for global warming, leprosy and the middling performance of the Washington Nationals if it could.
But here comes the exquisite dilemma: Obama, who has had a difficult relationship with Netanyahu, needs Netanyahu’s friends on the Hill, and at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, to help advance the message that an American intervention in Syria would also represent a reminder to Iran that the president enforces his red lines.
From what I’ve been told, Aipac has decided to do what is in the president’s best interests. Its lobbyists are calling their friends on the Hill, to tell them that a strike on Syria would be not only in America’s best interest but also in Israel’s.
This is one of the reasons (note to conspiracy-mongers: just one) I think the president will get his resolution through.
If you told me four years ago that Aipac, an organization that has no particular affection for Obama (who likewise has little affection for Aipac), would play an important role in the president’s effort to get congressional approval to bomb Syria, I would have accused you of smoking Sinai hash.
But welcome to the Middle East, where the only constant is sudden and revolutionary change.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)