Obama warns Israel against Iran Strike, Cancels Joint Military Exercises

Here are two signs that the Obama administration is attempting to dial down tensions with Iran, sending powerful symbolic signals that Washington does not want to see the crisis with Iran militarized.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will hold talks this week with his Israeli counterparts. He appears to be warning them not to strike out at Iran unilaterally.

I’ve been having this debate with friends on email and am arguing that the Obama administration will not launch strikes against Iran in an election year, and nor would President Obama greenlight an Israeli strike. Hence Gen. Dempsey’s visit.

The reason for this 2012 time out is that a military strike is inherently unpredictable in its outcome. Politicians don’t like uncertainty, especially in the middle of a hard-fought campaign. If the strikes turned into any kind of war, conventional or uncoventional, that outcome could make Obama look foolhardy and cost him the election.

There is lots of historical precedent for my conclusion. Eisenhower was furious at Israel, Britain and France for launching the 1956 war just before the presidential election. Since they hadn’t informed him they would do this, it made him look like he wasn’t strong in the Middle East. Then, the hostage crisis in Iran, along with the failed helicopter rescue mission, Helped make Jimmy Carter a one-term president.

In addition, the planned joint US-Israeli war games, Austere Challenge 2012, have been cancelled or postponed. The reason for this move has not been made clear by the US. Some are saying that Israel’s budget situation made it impossible to hold the maneuvers now, while others say that Washington became alarmed at what such an exercise might look like at a time of high tensions with Iran in the Straits of Hormuz.

Austere Challenge 2012 was meant to reassure the Israelis about US missile shield technology. That capacity, in turn, was intended to reassure the Israelis that their future was not in doubt, and that they did not need to take desperate measures against Iran immediately

My guess is that the Obama administration decided that reassuring the Israelis about the US missile shield via these joint military drills might have been misinterpreted in the region an implied threat of a joint US-Israeli military attack on, say, the Natanz nuclear facilities.

The US Open Source Center paraphrases two Israeli Hebrew-language sources on the cancellation or postponement of the exercises:

Joint US-Israel Drill Put Off Due to ‘Wrong Timing’; Sources Disagree on Reasons
Israel — OSC Summary
Sunday, January 15, 2012

Israeli Defense Sources Disagree on Reasons for Military Drill’s Cancellation

Amir Buhbut reports in leading news website Walla! in Hebrew at 1500 GMT: “Reports saying the joint US-Israeli military exercise may not take place generated numerous theories as to the reason behind the change. ‘We learned last weekend that the air defense exercise was canceled, and we were stunned,’ a senior defense source said in a closed conversation today (Sunday). The source added that ‘budget problems were not the reason for the drill’s cancellation.’

“Various defense sources disagreed on whether the exercise had been postponed or cancelled, as well as for the reasons. For example, contrary to previously reported explanations, a senior defense source said that a joint Israeli-US statement was supposed to be issued this week, announcing the drill’s postponement. The senior source explained that the reasons for the decisions have not been announced as yet, but they apparently revolve around the IDF’s budget problems.”

Another source rejected the theory that it was a US decision made against the backdrop of the rising Israeli-Iranian tension. The Israeli side is yet to react to the reports.”

Drill Not Canceled, Merely Postponed Due to ‘Wrong Timing’

Amir Bar-Shalom reports on state-funded, independent Jerusalem Israel Television Channel 1 in Hebrew at 1900 GMT: “The postponement of the largest-ever joint US-Israeli military exercise seems to be the result of wrong timing. For the Americans, the exercise would have greatly exacerbated the tension in the region at the very time other moves — the sanctions — are starting to bear fruit. Israel too prefers to postpone the drill so as to be able to focus on other things. Thus the postponement suits both sides.

“Moreover, the whole world is watching the Israeli and the US moves in the matter of Iran. An exercise of this nature would undoubtedly give rise to speculation as to its objectives and would possibly cause Iran to misinterpret some facts. Both Israel and the United States are fully aware of this possibility. Therefore, a statement issued by the defense establishment tonight says that the exercise has not been canceled, merely postponed to the second part of 2012.”

26 Responses

  1. Interesting post. Thanks. The issue reminds me of the provocative, actually inciteful intrusion by war-criminal Sharon and his large band of thugs to the area around the Dome of the Rock mosque just prior to the post-Clinton election year. It seemed at the time a provocation as well to destabilize the Clinton administration and Gore’s chances for election, because the end result of Sharon’s cynical bullying intrusion was well-known to the provocateurs, a reaction by Palestinians.

  2. I watched David Martin do a segment on Iran via CBS’ Sunday Morning. It seems that the neocons have found their new Judith Miller in David Martin. There was no balance to the report, all one sided toward war.

    link to cbsnews.com

  3. Iran probably understands that it has Obama over a barrel in this election year. All they have to do is buzz our ships in the Straits to drive up oil prices and the American motorist notices. An actual outbreak of hostilities probably ruins what economic gains we have had.

  4. That’s a good point you make, Juan, about the upcoming election. Obama and his advisors certainly care more about a second term than about what Israel wants. At the same time, Democratic presidents do want to look strong on national defense, and of course the support for basically whatever Israel does is always a given in American politics.

    I don’t think too many Americans themselves realize the danger and the possibly catastrophic consequences that could result from a war with Iran. Hopefully our government understands the consequences, particularly to the economy. Oil prices would soar, the stock market could end up crashing. There could be terrorism in American cities. I don’t think the Obama administration is going to think that by getting into a war, the country will rally around the flag and send him into a second term based on a patriotic surge, yet you never know what the Machiavellian minds in Washington are thinking. The scary thing is the level of tension in the Persian Gulf, over the Strait of Hormuz, as well as the possibility of Israel bombing the nuclear sites without getting a green light from the US. We would then be involved whether we liked it or not.

    World War Three could be coming, and that’s not an exaggeration. America, through the sanctions, is already at war with Iran. It’s a tinder box right now. Any flare up could set off an apocalyptic conflagration. Let’s just pray that reason prevails and there’s not another war.

  5. But wouldn’t it fit the history (considering AIPAC’s power) for Israel to strike Iran far enough before the election that Obama would either have to “help out” (like it or not) or refuse to help out and suffer the withdrawal of funds from AIPAC and of (some) Jewish votes [I expect that Evangelical votes will go republican anyhow] for his “anti-Zionism”?

    I foresee a wonderful game of chicken between Bibi and Obama, with Bibi perhaps cementing/protecting his own position by an earlier election in Israel.

    Would Obama rather get into a stupid war rather than say out loud to the American people, “I will not be railroaded into a war that does USA no good by Israel and its allies — AIPAC — in the USA.” {I fear it.}

  6. Obama needs to get control of Panetta’s mouth. First he has Panetta out there bleating about how badly spending cuts would damage the military, while Obama is calling for spending cuts, then he has Panetta out there drawing “red lines” with Iran and bleating about what we “will not tolerate” and he is having to draw back the nation’s position on war with Iran. Obama has never had very good control of the mouths in his cabinet, but Panetta is particularly pernicious.

    • “Romney will be the one who will want to began a war.”

      What is your evidence, Debbie?

  7. But suppose Netanyahu is listening to his Republican friends in Congress who want to unseat Obama. An attack on Iran would weaken Obama in an election year, as you point out. Wouldn’t that be just what the Likud and the Republican militarist neo-cons want? This is a dangerous situation for the US. Let us hope there is some sanity left in the Pentagon.

  8. Juan write: “In addition, the planned joint US-Israeli war games, Austere Challenge 2012, have been cancelled or postponed. The reason for this move has not been made clear by the US. Some are saying that Israel’s budget situation made it impossible to hold the maneuvers now, while others say that Washington became alarmed at what such an exercise might look like at a time of high tensions with Iran in the Straits of Hormuz.”

    “Israel’s budget situation”? Are you kidding me. This is all paid for by the US anyways, and Congress would instantly appropriate the necessary funds if Bibi were to make the call. (Recall those standing ovations “bought and paid for by the Israeli Lobby”.) Fear of further heightening tension is also unlikely to be the reason, as ratcheting up the pressure on Iran has always been part of the game.

    The cancelation is more likely because Israel refuses to give assurances that it won’t strike Iran, and Obama is trying to show Bibi that he still got half a testicle left, and, by golly, he is determined to use it while it is still attached. Bibi is in for the kill and is playing Obama for the fool he is.

    Israel probably thinks that this is the best time for regime change in the US — yes the US — and the way to do it is to strike Iran and test Obama’s 3 A.M. reflexes. (You will recall that Gingrich, who is aspiring to depose Obama and who is beholden to uber- zionist billionare Adelson, talked about this precise scenario, which makes one wonders if he is not in on the plot for regime change here in the good old U.S. of A.) They (Israel and their allies here in the US) are counting on Obama to blunder big time so they can get their dream team: a Republican President beholden to them on top of a Congress that has long been “bought and paid for by Israeli Lobby”. If Obama joins in the fight, the economy will tank. If he does not, the economy will still tank as a result of hightened hostilities and he will, in addition, be painted as an incompetent wimp. Either way, Obama will be finished. Two birds with one stone. Mission Accomplished.

  9. My guess is that the Obama administration decided that reassuring the Israelis about the US missile shield via these joint military drills might have been misinterpreted in the region an implied threat of a joint US-Israeli military attack on, say, the Natanz nuclear facilities.

    There’s also the possibility that the Obama administration is doing to punish Israel for the assassination campaign of Iranian scientists, and to visibly distance itself from the Israelis.

    My guess is that he is not at all pleased that the United States gets blowback for Israeli actions, and doesn’t like it when Israel does something inflammatory.

  10. Instead of sending Dempsey to Israel, Obama should be talking to Iran directly to defuse the tension. The Israelis want the U.S. to attack Iran and do the work for them. Obama is feeling pressure to do something about Iran, and he may calculate that taking some sort of action will make him look strong on foreign policy and distract attention from the economy. With the Iraq war over and the Afghanistan war winding down, Iran is the next target. Iran is making it difficult for the U.S. though because they’re smart, but U.S. frustration at not being able to bring Iran to heel may reach the tipping point.

  11. I am glad to see the cancellation or postponement of this outrageous exercise, which was hardly needed to assure the Israelis about their future given our extensive military assistance and their death grip on our political system. I’d like to hope that we are not just postponing the war until after the election, when Obama won’t have to worry about what the voters want.

  12. I’m going out on a limb (and I’m going to check back to this post in 6 months or a year to see if I was right) and labeling this cancellation literally a crack in the side of the US/Israel pleasure boat bigger than the one in the Costa Concordia.

    A disaster.

    It follows too suspiciously upon the recent revelation that the murder of the Iranian scientist was a ‘false flag’ operation by Israel falsely incriminating the CIA as the perpetrators.

    America does not take kindly to their country and spies being threatened. You know the history.

    And it’s tied to America’s crawl-down from threatening Iran lately. Including withdrawing an aircraft carrier from Hormuz right out from under the skirts of the last Iranian military exercise.

    Therefore I’m putting all of my chips on a withdrawal of any US support for attacking Iran. And other military ventures the Israeli government has set out for them.

    That includes the US telling Israel straight that an attack on Iran will get a complete goose egg of support from the US. Enough to deflate even the puffery of a few Ayalons over there.

    So. If Israel attacks Iran, or if the US re-arms and threatens Iran more, I’m going to look like that goose. And if not, remember, you saw it first here on JC’s great site.

    • “And it’s tied to America’s crawl-down from threatening Iran lately. Including withdrawing an aircraft carrier from Hormuz right out from under the skirts of the last Iranian military exercise.”

      The carrier battle group to which you refer, AA, was scheduled to depart at the time it did so. Iran’s military exercise had nothing to do with it; it was not a “crawl-down.”

  13. 1. Who would our military alliance protect Israel from?
    2. How much more damage would these exercises damage the already poor reputation the US has in the Islamic world?

  14. The worm’s turning sooner then expected.

    Though the majority of Israelis don’t know it yet, their Netanyahu is in every respect like our Bush 44, the Shrub. The day will come when they’ll condemn their goof as viscerally as Americans came to despise theirs.

  15. Obama is more concerned now about the economic and political effects of higher oil prices than about seeming to be soft on Iran.

  16. George Bush started a war in his first term, and he was re-elected during the war. But, I don’t think Obama wants to follow the Bush playbook here. After the last nuclear scientist was killed, Hillary said, ” we had nothing to do with this”. It sounded like she was saying to Iran, “maybe it was the Israelis, but we do not in any way accept this.” After that, Iran stated that it was still interested in a new round of talks about its nuclear program.

  17. Can I just point out that e.v.e.r.y.b.o.d.y. is making an unwarranted assumption i.e. they are all assuming that nobody will come to Iran’s assistance.

    As in: the equation is always…
    1) Can Israel beat Iran, or
    2) will it need the USA to help beat Iran?

    What if Dempsey is conveying a very different message to Israel e.g. you might *start* a war with Iran, but end up in a war against Iran *and* Russia *and* China.

    After all, the Americans have made that same mistake before i.e. in 1950, when GI’s were powering their way up towards the Yalu River in the safe “knowledge” that the Chinese would never intervene.

    Until, of course, the Chinese did intervene.

    If the USA has had any hints that this could happen again then they will be getting very cold feet, very fast.

    • Or even soft-power punishment by China, like a cutoff in purchases of US Treasuries, which would send the dollar off the cliff and raise the price of oil in US $ even if it remained steady in yuan.

      One day, I think China will simply deal with these annoyances by sending a few million laborers, “advisors”, and aid workers to every embattled ally to simply stand around and act as a tripwire. With a population of 1,300,000,000, it’s not much of a sacrifice.

  18. I’m surprised you haven’t noted and commented on the news story, “Netanyahu deputy ‘disappointed’ with Obama on Iran.”
    link to news.yahoo.com
    Netanyahu is surely not above making comments, if not taking actions, to promote the election of a president more supportive of his (Netanyahu’s) policies and goals.

  19. I do not see Iran wasting military capabilities on a futile attempt to close the strait of Hormuz. A more realistic course of action for Iran to retaliate for damaging economic sanctions or a military attack on its nuclear sites would probably include an attack on Saudi and other oil terminals in the area. This would require only limited military assets and could be done in a short time frame maybe even hours without much defensive measures possible.
    This scenario could eliminate a couple of million barrels per day of world oil production and throw the US and Israel’s economy into a death spiral. Funny thing is that the Armageddon hopefuls of the Christian Right like Ron Rhodes just salivate to see ‘The Oil Storm’ happen.
    I wonder if the GOP’s pandering to these lunatics has already had a detrimental effect on their national security views.

  20. I wonder what would happen if Obama simply admitted, with evidence, that Israel already has hundreds of nuclear weapons, and therefore has all the deterrence it needs against a paltry Iranian attack? Sort of cuts the balls off the Lobby. The Arabs and Iran all know the bombs are there, so you can’t say the revelation would change anybody’s behavior. Our missile shield is simply irrelevant.

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