Did Biden Threaten Iran?
A lot of buzz about Joe Biden's strange construction of an answer about Israel's potential airstrike to take out suspected Iranian nuclear facilities:
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: 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.
It's just not the same as how the Administration has answered this question in the past. Robert Farley thinks this is an effort by the Administration to distance the United States from Israeli actions, while Kevin Drum thinks it was a warning to Iran. I tend to follow the latter. There's no way Israeli and American actions could truly be divorced in this case, not only because of US foreign military aid to Israel, not only because of historical precedent, but because Israel would have to fly over Iraqi airspace and get American go-aheads to carry this off. I agree that an assertion of Israeli soveriegnty is UN Charter biolerplate, and certainly Biden insisted that engagement with Iran would continue, but one statement can send two messages. Here's Drum's take:
Rhetorically, though, this amps things up. Biden is basically saying that Israel really might launch an attack, and the best way to avoid that is for Tehran to start dealing seriously with the United States. "If the Iranians respond to the offer of engagement, we will engage," he said carrotishly — and if they don't, well, there's not much we can do to stop our crazy cousin. You know how he is. You're better off dealing with us.
Hard to say if this will work. But that seems to be what's going on. This isn't distancing, it's pressure to quit screwing around and instead sit down and talk.
The good news is that Admiral Mullen, at the same time on CBS, announced that military action on Iran would be destabilizing. But an awkward statement like this could have the same destabilizing impact in the Muslim world.
LAST UPDATE (Monday morning): a variety of comments from assorted well-placed worthies have come my way over the last day, some online and others privately. Most suggest that Biden's comments were not meant to change U.S. policy, and that if anything he meant to distance the U.S. from any Israeli strike (though a few speculate that it was actually meant to strengthen the U.S. bargaining position ahead of the Moscow talks). If that's the case, then it is only that much more important to repeat that his comments are being nigh-universally presented in the Middle Eastern media (Israeli and Arab, at least) as a "green light." If that wasn't the intended signal, then the administration needs to recognize that its signaling has gone awry and clear it up before it's too late...
The White House has prided itself on engagement through Arab media, so if they truly didn't mean for this to be the message, they need to explain themselves publicly to that constituency.