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Iran: Did Joe Biden Just "Green Light" an Israeli Air Strike?

UPDATED Iran: Joe Biden’s “Green Light” and an Israeli Airstrike
Transcript: Vice President Biden on Iraq, Iran, Economy on “This Week” (5 July)
Video: “An Iranian Atomic Bomb Can Wipe Israel off the Map in a Matter of Seconds”

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BIDEN2On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden was granting ABC News a showpiece interview during his stay in Iraq. He began with comments on this country, insisting the US would hope to its timetable of withdrawal of combat forces by 2011, and then turned to neighbouring Iran. Initially, he held the Obama line keeping engagement with Tehran open while condemining the post-election violence.

Then, however, Biden ventured into uncharted political waters:
HOST GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he’s prepared to make matters into his own hands.

Is that the right approach?

BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?

BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They’re entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.

What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.

If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You say we can’t dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.

BIDEN: I’m not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.

So did the US Vice President just say that Washington would stand aside in the event of an Israeli attack on Iranian facilities? The Jerusalem Post certainly thinks so: within minutes of the interview, it was headlining, "Biden: US will not stand in Israel's way on Iranian issue." So does Ha'aretz: "Biden: U.S. won't stop Israeli strike on Iran."

Biden has been known to speak carelessly --- indeed, he's a Daily Show favourite for going verbally off the rails. So maybe he meant to say that Israel would have to make its own determination, and then the US would have to decide whether it would approve of Tel Aviv's action. However, his line that "we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do...if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened" seems to be a de facto bow-down to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rhetoric, if not an actual green light for Israeli operations.

And that in turn means that Biden has just bought into Israel's Iran-first strategy, which was precisely what his President had been trying to avoid through recent months and in the midst of the Israeli settlements issue.

So, if Joe misspoke, the White House better un-misspoke pretty quickly. Otherwise, it gets the worst of all worlds. Its Middle East strategy stalls, and Israel is emboldened to think of the military course of action. Oh, yes, and Iran's regime gets the perfect soundbite to say that the "foreign enemies" are workening together for regime change.

Reader Comments (2)

I don't think he misspoke. Look at this:

"They take directions from no one. That they are able to handle their own internal affairs. And the fact — my guess is, if the spokesman said that — which surprises me, if the spokesman said that, I’d imagine they’re worried about an upcoming election, making it look like the United States is going to continue to try to direct things here.

We are not. That is not why I’m here."

He's not in Iraq, he's in the ABC studio. That's called "teleporting" and it's a sign of either massive jet lag or coaching. Now, this is only in reference to Iraq, but if he is being coached at all, it's coming from the White House, likely the NSC. We've seen the same sort of coaching/talking points-speak out of Secretary Clinton. The indication is that policy is being exclusively run out of the White House, period. No Cheney's "here."

If it's true the White House is running things, it's highly unlikely, even a bit ludicrous, that the Vice President would go on a headline Sunday program for a foreign policy interview and NOT have prepared points on Iran, Israel, and sundry other nuclear-file paraphernalia.

So, what was he actually saying? I think it's actually a pretty savvy move, as it manages to call the bluffs of both Iran and Israel.

1. US to Israeli Military: What Biden did was acknowledge the pure facts that Israel has the self-determination to make its own choices on national security. What he did not say was that the US would support anything Israel does. Saying that Israel has the right to do what it wants does not imply that the US will give the IDF radar codes and flight lanes through Iraq, refueling and electronic warfare assistance, or even a guarantee that they wouldn't be knocked out of the sky by an itchy American (or Saudi or Turkish) missile operator. (See my post on the Israeli strike on Sudan - fighter jets are hot, fast, and loud - not invisible. Remember how President Clinton always liked to use cruise missiles instead of airstrikes? Tada! That's why.)

2. US to Israeli politicians: It's obvious that Biden's comments would be splashed across the Israeli front pages. What this does is make Israeli right wingers believe they have the upper hand. They've got a "green light," or so they think. Netanyahu knows that the US won't have his back, he knows it will dramatically inflame, not subdue, Israel's national security situation, not to mention the consequences for everyone else in the region. This is inline with the apparent Obama administration policy of weakening the sitting Israeli government, either in hopes of forcing in someone more amenable or keeping them off-balance enough to be compliant.

3. US to Iranian military: The IRGC is already stretched pretty thin. With a sizable uprising to quell which is itself causing severe divided loyalties both on the ground and within the leadership, the IRGC is in no position to defend Iran against an Israeli, or US or British, attack on its nuclear program. The Iranians even vacated Hamas and Hizb'allah troops from the country in order to devote all available resources to the uprising. To be fair, the Iranians were able to beat Iraq to a stalemate when they were previously in the middle or a revolution, but even the once-mighty Iraqi army is nothing compared to the "full-spectrum dominance" of an Israeli or American attack force. The message from America is "you'd better worry more about our jet planes than the slogans of your own people."

4. US to Iranian politicians: The American policy of engagement is not set in stone. It is a simple product of the unpopularity and failures of the previous administration. If Iran wants to snuggle in the warmth of its "Great Satan" conventional wisdom, well, the US can play that game as well. And unlike the meanie comments of the Iranians, American conventional wisdom on the region is far more horrific and violent. If the US is the Great Satan, if they're supposedly inciting revolutions and planning secret attacks, well, why not? Obama has made himself crystal clear: he will offer a hand to his enemies, but only if they unclench their fist. If they don't, they will quickly, and acutely, suffer the consequences. If Iran wants to start a fight, maybe the US will let Israel finish it. We saw the same tactic during the 2008 general election. The McCain campaign attacked pretty low on Obama about Ayers and terrorism, and the Obama campaign struck back within hours(!!!) with a devastating attack ad on McCain's involvement with the Keating 5 scandal. The message is that the US is sophisticated, and yes subtle, but certainly not weak or feckless.

Those are just a few examples of the message Biden sent if, that is, he was not misspeaking. I would also add in his favor that I personally don't really buy the "big mouth Biden" narrative as the Vice President has shown countless times over many years that he is quite lucid about policy and generally says exactly what he means. His reputation, however, is standard media narrative, meaning every time he makes the slightest mistake it is amplified while his positives are jettisoned for not fitting the desired storyline.

The proof will be if and when the Obama administration "un-misspeaks." If they back pedal, I'm willing to give in and say that yes Biden gaffed. If the administration stays quiet, or even better defends Biden, then I think my reading will be in the neighborhood of accurate.

July 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Mull
July 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDave

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