Iran obscures Syrian menace
President Barack Obama recently struck a rhetorically aggressive posture when he told the Atlantic Magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg, "I don't bluff. ... When the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say." And last week, the president told the American-Israel Public Affair Committee (AIPAC), "I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary." He offered similar assurances to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the next day.
Posturing aside, though, a better measure of the president's commitment to peace in the Middle East is what he is actually doing about the ongoing civil war in Syria, and it is not much. Despite his rhetoric favoring change in Damascus, the president has failed to exercise any useful influence over the outcome.
Instead of providing leadership and acting as a catalyst for a regional plan to oust Syria's President Bashar Assad, the president's policies have made the U.S. a bystander.
President Obama ended the American military presence in Iraq. Now Iran's allies in Iraq are helping President Assad put down the Syrian uprising, and Iran is pouring aid and arms into the melee to help its longtime ally preserve what may be described as Iran's "forward strategy" against Israel.
The overthrow of Assad would be a major defeat for Iran's Mideast ambitions for the militantly anti-Israel armed groups it has fostered, using Syria as their base of operations and supply. Cut off from that base, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the militant Palestinians who reject any peace treaty with Israel would be severely weakened. So would Iran's influence in the region -- even if it eventually gets nuclear weapons.
But if Assad prevails and Iran also acquires nuclear weapons, Israel's peril will be extreme. It is in America's national interest for the Assad regime to be replaced by a government that is not allied with Iran -- and that is in some degree dependent on U.S. support.
While America's regional Turkish and Arab friends -- and former friends like Egypt -- are not happy with Assad, they are also not friendly to Israel's government. That's all the more reason for an active U.S. role in fostering and helping a coalition to defeat Assad that does not pose an imminent threat to Israel.
If Assad survives the current challenge to his rule, Iran's aggressive posture in the Middle East will become more dangerous. Iraq, under Iranian influence, could even openly align itself with Syria to provide a Shia highway to Israel's border. That would make Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons even more dangerous than it already is.
The president talks about his commitment to use force in hypothetical situations. But what really counts is his willingness to get involved in real, ongoing situations that could deeply affect U.S. and allied interests in which force is the ultimate arbiter.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in Wednesday testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, rejected Arizona Sen. John McCain's call for American air strikes against the Syrian regime. Secretary Panetta pointed out that there is no international support for such intervention. He also said that last year's U.S. air strikes, which helped topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, were not a valid model because Syria has "five times the air defense of Libya covering one-fifth of the terrain."
Mr. Panetta did say that the Obama administration is considering supplying the Syrian rebels with communications and other non-lethal aid.
Why not also give the rebels the weapons they need?
An effective U.S. effort to help oust Assad and his Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Hezbollah allies could be decisive. If, on the other hand, Syria's rebels are defeated with Iranian help, an extremely dangerous period will inevitably follow.
The president's recent attempts to persuade American Jews that he is a friend of Israel have focused on his ultimate aims in dealing with the future Iranian nuclear threat. But that is a distraction from the real risks facing the president, and the Jewish state, in the Mideast today.
Will he rise to the critical occasion?