Are there rules in these games?
By Ira Sharkansky
Barack Obama has said that Syrian use of chemical weapons is a “game changer.”
According to the lead paragraphs in a New York Times article, the President said “…he would respond ‘prudently’ and ‘deliberately’ to evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons, tamping down any expectations that he would take swift action after an American intelligence assessment that the Syrian government had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale in the nation’s civil war...
He was seeking further proof of culpability for chemical weapons attacks. It is a laborious process that analysts say may never produce a definitive judgment. But Mr. Obama is also trying to preserve his credibility.”
For Israelis, the bigger issue is Iran. Its leaders seem intent on creating a nuclear weapon, and they have said time and again that Israel has no place in their world. We worry about an unstable Syria, perhaps being taken over by Muslim fanatics, with a sizable arsenal that might fall into the hands of Hezbollah fanatics. However, those concerns are more manageable than what may come out of Iran.
It is not in Israel’s interests that the United States take forceful action in Syria that may lessen its will or capacity to act against the greater threat of Iran.
Would Prime Minister Netanyahu act now against Iran, while the White House is pondering Syria?
Netanyahu would thereby preserve his reputation, staked on doing what was necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He would also turn U.S. attention to Israel’s greater problem, and might force the U.S. to act in concert with Israel.
The costs would not be light, and the benefits doubtful. Most likely there would be Iranian and maybe Hezbollah missile attacks against Israeli cities. An Israeli attack might do no more than delay Iran’s nuclear program, and serve to enrage the Iranians sufficiently to overcome their internal debates and set them on a firmer course to destroy Israel. It may not induce American or European cooperation, and even lead those governments to question Netanyahu’s wisdom or condemn Israeli acts that disturb their own independence of action.
An Israeli attack might be good for Netanyahu’s self image, his short range support within Israel, and—if it succeeds in destroying enough of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and dissuading its leadership from trying again—assure him a decent page in history.
What is most likely is that both Netanyahu and Obama will be pondering their options.
It is also possible that neither will act. Not Obama now or later against Syria or Iran, and not Netanyahu against Iran. Both can find the verbiage to wiggle out of previous commitments, rest with renewed condemnations of both Syria and Iran, and their threats of retaliation against Iran if it dares use nuclear weapons.
Already in the air is the U.S. finding that there has been a “small scale” use of chemical weapons. Not enough to justify U.S. action. A few dozen deaths due to chemicals may not weigh much against what may be 100,000 deaths due to conventional weapons.
While not acting in a big way, both the United States and Israel may continue what they already appear to be doing, i.e., low profile operations to frustrate any transfer of Syrian weapons to Hezbollah, and to delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The rules of this game prioritize a calculation of costs and benefits, and a recognition that no decision is likely to solve the problems associated with Syria or Iran once and for all times. Coping or problem management is the theme, like much else in politics.
Don’t make things worse is an important caveat.
North Korea is part of the story.
The United States and other powers dithered through North Korea’s development and testing of its nuclear capacity, with possibilities of its learning and teaching along with Pakistan and Iran. Now the North Korean regime qualifies for the category of untouchable, given what it can do to others.
There is another small country that benefits from the same status, even though it has wrapped its nuclear capacities in a porous blanket of ambiguity.
If the U.S. goes into Syria with force, the scenario is likely to repeat what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, with high costs in American lives and resources without an outcome that will be anything like a stable and enlightened Syria likely to cooperate with American interests.
Based upon the success of MAD (mutual assured destruction) in the cases of the U.S. and the USSR, India and Pakistan, Israeli leaders can find ample reason to desist rather than act forcefully. The Israeli Air Force, along with land-based missiles and those in submarines, provide the means to make a second strike against Iran, and deter the Iranians from a first strike against Israel.
Holding back from attacking Syria or Iran might be viewed as anti-heroic in both the U.S. and Israel, and lose their leaders the support of their more adventurous constituents.
An item headlined in a prominent Israeli news site begins, “50 shades of red: the blurred lines of Obama. The American president proclaimed clear limits to Iran and Syria, but the lines continue to move. Americans look for Chechnya on the map, and lose the solution of two countries.”
The two countries at issue here may be Russia and Chechnya, with their implications for Israel and Palestine. The article continues with ridicule against American claims of “not bluffing.”
The red on the faces of national leaders may be easier to explain than other damage. Bibi’s flexibility would lessen the prospect of missiles dropping on its people from distant Iran and closer Hezbollah, and Obama’s might lessen the incentives of Muslims to try another 9-11 or Boston Marathon.
The perpetrators of the Boston Marathon now appear to have been acting alone, outside the orbit of organized Islamic extremists.
This puts the U.S. in a situation like that of Israel, having to deal with enraged individuals or very small groups. Such attacks may not be a reasoned response to any obvious action and are difficult to uncover in advance. The Palestinian shooting at cars thought to be driven by Jews, or taking a kitchen knife and attacking the first person who looks to be a Jew met on the street, resembles that major at Fort Hood and two Chechen brothers in Boston.
The next target may be the Sharkanskys taking their evening stroll in French Hill, or a school yard in any American city.
Historians will debate when this Crusade, or war between civilizations began. Among the options are 9-11, the wars of 1948 or 1967, the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, or the Gulf War of 1991.
Readers looking for certainty at low risk should consider another pursuit. Perhaps growing roses, shopping for wine or discovering the ultimate spaghetti sauce.
Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.