Is the Senate trying to force Obama to go to war?

In pushing for war with Iran, some senators are putting Netanyahu’s priorities ahead of the United States.

Senators Hold Press Conference On Iran And Nuclear Weapons
US senators such as Joe Lieberman argue that 'all options must be on the table' with Iran [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – No one knows if President Obama intends to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, give Israel the go-ahead to do it, continue to rely on sanctions or turn to comprehensive negotiations to resolve the escalating conflict.

The decision to go to war is the most difficult one a president can make because it is impossible to foresee the outcome of a war. Even if it is Israel that attacks rather than the United States, the consequences for us are likely to be the same. That is because the entire world knows that the United States and Israel are linked by means of strategic cooperation agreements which prevent Israel from acting without, at least, tacit US approval. If Israel is “in”, so are we.


It is safe to assume that Obama wants to avoid war. Having just come out of the disastrous Iraq experience, which cost 4,500 American lives and severely damaged our interests and credibility in the Middle East (and beyond), the president wants to keep his options open. If he can prevent war (i.e., Americans dying and other vital US interests being attacked), he will.

But while the president needs his options open, the United States Congress, under intense pressure from pro-war lobbyists, is determined to shut down all but one of them.

That is the meaning of the legislation introduced this month by senators Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut).

The legislation:

“rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran; and urges the President to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear weapons-capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.”

The legislation’s intent was made clear by Lieberman: “All options must be on the table when it comes to Iran – except for one, and that is containment.” He added that “the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran cannot be ‘contained’ like the threat of the Soviet Union” – or China, or North Korea, or Pakistan.

The senators are telling the president that if Iran develops a “nuclear weapons capability”, we must go to war.

Imagine if President Kennedy had been told by the Congress back in 1962 that if the Soviet Union placed missiles in Cuba, he would have no choice but to attack the USSR. If it had, I wouldn’t be here writing this column today and you wouldn’t be reading it.

Presidents need latitude to make decisions affecting matters of national security and, until now, all presidents have been afforded it, as provided for in the United States Constitution. But, in the case of Iran, the rules are changing.

Here is more evidence.

On Sunday, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told interviewer Fareed Zakaria that he does not think the US should rush to war. He was speaking after a visit to Israel and long consultations with its leaders.

Dempsey said that it was not “prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran” and that “a strike at this time would be destabilising and wouldn’t achieve [Israel’s] long-term objectives”. He also said that he did not believe that the Iranian regime was insane but was rather a “rational actor” not likely to commit national suicide.

Dempsey’s remarks outraged Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose office put out a statement saying that Dempsey, and other US officials who questioned the rationale for war, were “serving Iran’s interests.”

Had another foreign leader implied that the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a four-star general, was some kind of Iranian agent, he would have been smacked down. But that is not how it works with Netanyahu.

It turns out that senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Graham were in Israel at the time Netanyahu attacked Dempsey. Rather than defend the American general as these uber-nationalists would do in any other similar situation, they joined the Israeli government in bashing the general – and decorated war hero. (The long-held custom of government officials not criticising US policies when in a foreign country has not applied to Israel for years.)

Check out this Jerusalem Post story on McCain’s reaction, which the paper correctly characterised as “siding with Jerusalem in the debate” over how to deal with Iran.

As for Graham, he said, “I admire General Dempsey,” but added that “people are giving Israel a lot of advice here lately from America. I just want to tell our Israeli friends that my advice to you is never lose control of your destiny. Never allow a situation to develop that would destroy the Jewish state.”

In other words, American advice to think long and hard about the consequences of war with Iran is tantamount to allowing “a situation to develop that would destroy the Jewish state”.

The most appalling aspect of the senators’ remarks is that their zeal to please Netanyahu and his backers in the US has overridden their constitutional responsibility to put the security of the United States above all other considerations. An Israeli decision to attack Iran affects Americans, including their constituents in uniform and even ordinary Americans walking down the streets of New York, Washington, or Arizona and South Carolina.

As noble as their professed concern for Israel may be, the United States is supposed to come first for United States senators. McCain and Graham ought to be ashamed for standing in a foreign country and blatantly placing its government’s interests before ours.

But, hey, it’s politics, and what could be more important than nailing down support for the next election?

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJayRosenberg