By John J. Mearsheimer
There is abundant speculation these days about whether Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. It is widely believed in both Israel and the United States that this would be a remarkably foolish move. I share that sentiment.
Yet Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, seem to disagree and keep talking like an Israeli attack is in the offing.
Some people think these Israeli leaders are bluffing and they will not authorize an attack on Iran. I hope they are right, and indeed I do not think Israel will strike Iran in the end. Still, I believe there is a non-trivial chance that Netanyahu and Barak will launch a war. Let me spell out the calculations that could underpin a decision by them to turn the dogs of war loose.
Netanyahu and Barak might reason as follows:
1. There is all this talk about how an attack will threaten our relations with the United States, but there is every reason to think our American supporters can control events there and guarantee a favorable outcome; they always do. Furthermore, who in the United States is going to stand up and criticize us? These people are basically wussies. In fact, the Americans will probably come in on our side if we go to war before the election.
2. The Europeans are wussies too. They constantly carp about our treatment of the Palestinians, but they still upgrade their relations with us. They won’t cause us any serious problems, and if they try to, we can silence them by reminding them of the Holocaust. That always works.
3. Clausewitz taught us that war is the realm of unintended consequences, which is usually interpreted to mean that war leads to unexpected trouble. But it can also lead to unforeseen positive consequences, and who knows, a war with Iran may work to our advantage in the end. You just never know. Of course, it is a leap in the dark, but it beats sitting and waiting while Iran develops nuclear weapons, which would be a dreadful outcome. After all, there is good reason to think the Iranians might use those weapons against us.
4. Iranian nuclear weapons are an important issue for sure, but it is even more important that we be able to continue expanding settlements in Judea and Samaria and prevent a two-state solution. Threatening a war with Iran has done much to take the Palestinian issue off the front burner in recent months. An actual war – especially since it will be protracted – will insulate us from meaningful criticism for at least a few years. By then, the two-state solution will be dead and buried. All of this is very important if Obama wins a second term, because then he will start leaning on us again to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own.
5. Other than relying on the lobby, the best way to maintain firm America and European support in the years ahead is to get the West even more deeply embroiled in the Middle East, maybe even create a clash of civilizations. A war with Iran would go a long way toward achieving that goal. It would do wonders for poisoning relations between the United States and the Arab and Islamic world, which would cause the Americans and the Europeans to have even friendlier relations with us.
6. All of this talk about a “pivot to Asia” has us worried. There is no better way to thwart that proposed strategic shift than to get the Americans involved in another war in the Middle East.
7. If the election looks close in the fall, we strike Iran because that will help tip the balance in Romney’s favor. And if Obama looks like he is going to win, we attack before the election because he will be free to stop us after he wins a second term, just as George Bush refused to give us a green light in 2008, when we wanted to solve the problem once and for all.
Again, I do not think Netanyahu and Barak will go to war against Iran, but they could plausibly concoct a story along the lines described above and convince themselves that it makes sense to attack Iran before the November election. Of course, they would be wrong.
(John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and the co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, where he has taught since 1982. He is the co-author with Stephen Walt of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign PolicyThis article originally appeared at Mondoweiss.net)