Obama Hearts Israel (and Bibi)

Watching President Obama’s three-day love-fest toward Israel left critics and even some supporters cringing at his excessive embrace of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and everything Israel has ever done. But Obama’s “game-change” metaphor on Syria may be the most troubling, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel has shaped up the way the White House probably hoped and expected it to, which is to say without surprises or major hiccups and with pre-programmed messages coming through strongly.

There have been three such messages in particular. One is that despite previous frictions, relations between the President and his friend Bibi are peachy. Conveying the image of peachiness has required the President to exude in tandem with the prime minister what has been Netanyahu’s number one preferred message, which is that Iran is a horrible threat.

President Barack Obama waves to the audience after delivering remarks at the Jerusalem Convention Center in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Thanks to persistent questioning by reporters at a joint press conference, however, Netanyahu did seem to accept the idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon isn’t something that anyone is going to see for at least the next year.

Another White House message was about how, despite general Israeli wariness and distrust of Obama, he really has great sympathy and empathy for the Israeli people. The first half of the president’s biggest speech of the visit, delivered in Jerusalem on Thursday, was a tour de force of such empathy and sympathy. The only conceivable reason any Israeli might wince is over how thickly the President’s speechwriters were laying it on.

The third message began abruptly about mid-way in that same speech. It concerned the need for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians, and the President’s belief that such an agreement is still feasible. That half of the speech was an eloquent explanation of why reaching such a peace agreement is very much in the interests of the Israeli people.

But beyond a gentle observation about how citizens sometimes have to push their politicians into action, Obama has said or done nothing else on this trip to help make an Israeli-Palestinian peace a reality. In particular, he has not gone beyond the usual feeble references to “unhelpfulness” in addressing the continuing Israeli colonization program that is making a two-state solution to the conflict less feasible with each passing year. So we can only hope and wait for some kind of follow-up action.

While hoping and waiting, we might take note of something else the President said in his appearance with Netanyahu, concerning the more immediate situation of Syria. Amid unconfirmed reports of use by the regime of chemical weapons, Obama remarked that any such use would be a “game changer.”

This evidently was not just an off-the-cuff comment; he said something similar in the Jerusalem speech. We should ask: exactly why would use of a particular category of weapons in the ongoing Syrian civil war be considered a “game changer”?

One of the real answers is that this is another manifestation of the public fascination with any kind of unconventional weapons. The fascination (and fear) has extended indiscriminately to all parts of the CBRN quartet that also has included biological, radiological and nuclear devices. The fascination repeatedly comes up in discussions of terrorism, in a way that has consistently outpaced what terrorists actually have been doing. And of course it was a centerpiece of the selling of the expedition whose ten-year anniversary we have been observing (or lamenting) this week.

Just as it was ten years ago, chemical weapons routinely get termed a “weapon of mass destruction.” But they are not really that, in the way that nuclear or biological weapons could be. Rather exacting, and not very common, conditions regarding the physical environment and the deployment of opposing forces have to be met for chemicals to inflict what could be considered mass casualties.

To be sure, chemical weapons can have very nasty effects, and it was that nastiness relative to their military utility that led to their use being legally banned through international agreement. But conventional means can be used to produce nasty and even hideous effects, too.

That’s true of the Syrian civil war. If one wants to indict the Syrian regime for inflicting much physical suffering on its people, one does not have to look for a deployment of chemical weapons. One doesn’t even have to look at the current civil war.

When Bashar Assad’s father was still in charge, for example, the regime carried out a massacre in Hama in 1982 in which the total casualties will never be known with accuracy but have produced estimates of 10,000-40,000 killed. No chemical weapons appear to have been used in that operation, but other tactics with effects just as grisly reportedly were, such as pouring fuel into underground tunnels and then igniting it to incinerate members of the resistance hiding there.

Another reason for some to seize on the possible use by the regime of chemical weapons is to use it as a hook for arguing anew for the United States to get involved more heavily in the Syrian civil war. So once again, as was the case ten years ago, a factual question with a presumed yes-or-no answer about a regime’s use or possession of a certain category of weapons gets treated as if the answer dictates a certain policy course, even though it doesn’t.

Speaking of that bad experience a decade ago, here’s one more way to think about the significance of chemical weapons. Suppose, as a counterfactual, that U.S. troops invading Iraq had come upon large stockpiles of chemical weapons. How would history have been different? The Bush administration, of course, would have been able to say: Yes, Iraqi WMD do exist! And much of the later commentary and criticism about the war would have had to take a different form from what it did.

If the Iraqis had used any of those weapons it would have complicated the invasion phase of the operation. But otherwise history would have been the same. There still would have been no alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The invasion still would not have saved Americans from some grave threat. The thousands of casualties and trillions of dollars still would have been needlessly spent. The heavy diplomatic and political damage to the United States still would have been incurred.

The war still would have been a big blunder. And the chemical weapons would not have changed any games.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “Obama Hearts Israel (and Bibi)

  1. Mary
    March 24, 2013 at 18:41

    We love Bibi because he’s us. He went to school here and has an American accent. Then he does something outrageous, like building more settlements on somebody else’s land. We say, “Leave the nice housing for the Palestinians when the peace comes.” And they say, “No! Look what happened to the greenhouses!” What happened to the greenhouses is that extremely poor people, living in ‘houses’ with dirt floors, went into the unguarded area and found glass and other useful construction materials and, of course, took them home. They didn’t know what a greenhouse was. Let’s hope Israel, such an American outpost, does better when peace is finally declared. They made the desert bloom; they can do anything! Even help the Palestinians to a better life.

  2. DanInAlabama
    March 23, 2013 at 01:32

    “Last October in a speech at the University of Alabama Gen. Wesley Clark again recounted his conversation with a general at the Pentagon in November 2001.

    I said, “Are we still going to invade Iraq?” “Yes, Sir,” he said, “but it’s worse than that.” I said, “How do you mean?” He held up this piece of paper. He said, “I just got this memo today or yesterday from the office of the Secretary of Defense upstairs. It’s a, it’s a five-year plan. We’re going to take down seven countries in five years. We’re going to start with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, then Libya, Somalia, Sudan, we’re going to come back and get Iran in five years. I said, “Is that classified, that paper?” He said, “Yes Sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me, because I want to be able to talk about it….”

    Do you see where we are and where we are going?
    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
    Slow motion wipe-out, just like what our friend in the ME does everyday.
    Evil can take it’s time.

  3. rosemerry
    March 22, 2013 at 17:51

    The POTUS “lacks real judgment and common sense”, as is apparent by his choice of advisers and appointments. Every one has been bad, except those who were unable to remain because of his refusal to enact any decent policy of value to the US public.

  4. Frances in California
    March 22, 2013 at 17:09

    So, back in November, we honestly believed (I did, anyway) that if we got stuck with Romney we’d go to war instantly in Iran, Syria and probably Venezuela. I don’t know if this slow-motion deterioration isn’t worse somehow . . .

  5. gregorylkruse
    March 22, 2013 at 14:42

    What a lovely device for a politician to excuse himself from accomplishing anything of moral value: “You have to make me do that.” Whereas any action to benefit the immoral is pretty much voluntary.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    March 22, 2013 at 12:52

    I find the “Goldwater gift” analogy quite cogent. Pat Buchanan, much maligned as a right wing nut job, falls into the same category. As he points out, the gullibility of Americans and the ease with which they are apparently taken to war cannot be underestimated. With Senate Resolution 65, it would appear that the proverbial “fix” is in. Incessantly talking up chemical weapons as a “game changer” in conjunction with the redefinition of nuclear weapons “capability” as an extant threat in the absence of any actual weapon appears to be the ruse of choice. Americans in general won’t catch on to the “distinction without a difference”, and the same wordsmiths that gave us the “Axis of Evil” are likely to have their way. I don’t think we need a crystal ball to realize there will be no Middle East peace, no negotiated settlement with Iran, and no outcome in Syria that is any different from Libya. Destabilization and demoralization is the plan, short and sweet.

  7. Robert Schwartz
    March 22, 2013 at 12:22

    The fascination (and fear) has extended indiscriminately to all parts of the CBRN quartet that also has included biological, radiological and nuclear devices. – Paul Pillar

    I find the inclusion of “radiological” devices interesting, as the U.S., Britain, et al., have been using D.U. weapons with little regard to the consequences of their use. The birth defects reports coming out of Fallujah are horrific. Then again, the U.S. hasn’t admitted to using D.U. in Fallujah, perhaps the rise in birth defects is due to lead and mercury toxicity also from munitions. This then falls into the chemical toxicity category rather than radiological, yet no less toxic, just the same.

    Iraq records huge rise in birth defects http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/iraq-records-huge-rise-in-birth-defects-8210444.html

  8. incontinent reader
    March 22, 2013 at 11:50

    The Administration bears primary responsibility for the destruction of Syria and the devastation being suffered by its people, and the buck stops with Obama, though every one of his deputies past and present that have been involved must also be held responsible, including Hillary Clinton, Jeffrey Feltman, Robert Ford, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Tom Donilon, Leon Panetta, Vice President Biden, and all of the planners at the Pentagon, etc. It is the same with a Congress that wants the U.S. to participate more openly in the feeding frenzy.

    Obama’s modus operandi has been to let others, i.e., proxies- e.g., NATO (including Turkey), Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the GCC, U.S. trained mercenary jihadists….and the mainstream media- all do his dirty work, but every citizen butchered or plundered by a foreign mercenary must be laid at his doorstep. He could have stopped this a long time ago, but he and his advisors thought they could steal the country easily, like Bush thought with Iraq, and that he believed he had done in Libya, but so little did he know. If Syria is permanently destroyed, it won’t even be a pyrrhic victory for the U.S., since the only winners will be the military contractors and oil companies, the banks that finance them, and the Israelis and Saudis/GCC that are able to pad their profits and consolidate their political power at the expense of the rest of us. And this is the inherent contradiction that negates every domestic social program (and there are not many) that he has advocated.

    Obama, despite his own culturally diverse background, has shown an appalling ignorance of the Middle East and the Muslim world and, despite his pretty speeches, an shameful a lack of empathy for their peoples, and maybe, for diplomacy in general. For all of his mental facility and education, he not only lacks a moral grounding (we saw that early on), he lacks real judgment and common sense, and that has left him to fall back the old cold war psychology and the military as the tools of choice.

    Obama was given a “Goldwater” gift by the Republicans (though Goldwater himself was later revealed to the public as a person of real character). So, for all of his faults, we re-elected him. Now we will reap the harvest. If, after he succeeds in demolishing Syria, he embarks on the same with Iran, and he floods Africa with troops and bases, and rings Russia and China with ballistic missile systems and an engorged navy, while our own country continues to crumble, when will it all end, and what will we have to look forward to?

    • incontinent reader
      March 22, 2013 at 11:54

      Obama, despite his own culturally diverse background, has shown an appalling ignorance of the Middle East and the Muslim world and, despite his pretty speeches, a shameful lack of empathy for their peoples, and maybe, for diplomacy in general. For all of his mental facility and education, he is not only without a moral grounding (we saw that early on), he lacks real judgment and common sense, and that has left him to fall back on the old cold war psychology and the military as his tools of choice.

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