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What was Biden signaling in his pro-war comments on Iran to Israeli lobby?

Commentary: Is the vice president building his own hardline bona fides for 2016?
Biden aipac comments 3132013Enlarge
US Vice President Joe Biden addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2013, in Washington, DC. Biden boldly confirmed the political, historical and military ties between the two countries and emphasized President Barack Obama's support for Israel, a country the president will visit later this month. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

OWLS HEAD, Maine — Next week will mark the 10th anniversary of the United States' invasion of Iraq, the low point of many in George W. Bush's failed presidency.

What better way to celebrate it than the bipartisan resolution proposed last week by Senators Lindsey Graham and Robert Menendez, drafted by the right-wing Israeli lobby AIPAC. It reads that in the event Israel attacks Iran, the US would provide "diplomatic, military, and economic support." Not, if Iran attacks Israel. No, Graham and Menendez are proposing that if Israel, on its own, initiates an attack against Iran — quite conceivably egged on by Congress's support — the US would join in a war that would be an even worse mistake than Bush's Iraq fiasco.

What is it that has caused our collective memories — or at least those of some US leaders — to so quickly forget the lessons one would have thought Iraq had taught us. We left there barely a year ago, and with our Afghan folly winding up in 21 months, one could be forgiven for wondering why Washington wants to line up another war lest the rest of us find an America at peace a pleasant state of affairs.

It’s not the military, nor its civilian leadership, that is raising the battle cry. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously said that anyone proposing another war in Asia "should have his head examined." Congress pilloried the newly sworn-in Chuck Hagel for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel with regard to Iran, having dared to remind him that he was "an American senator, not an Israeli one."

The Graham-Menendez resolution, in contrast, gives Israel control of a key area of US foreign policy, the right to start a war that the US must then finish. Regrettably, war mongering over Iran is not limited to Congress.

Bidden to appear before AIPAC's annual meeting in Washington last week, Vice President Biden was full of pro-war chest thumping. He proclaimed the US and Israel have a "shared strategic commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” This bears repeating. Biden said "prevent” — not contain – “prevent." He concluded, "And President Obama is not bluffing. He is not bluffing."

Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu voiced his own anti-Iranian diatribe for the AIPAC audience in a call from Israel where he was trying to form a government in time for Obama's visit next week — where one hopes that Obama, against all evidence, will pull the plug on Netanyahu's warlike disposition.

No one, presumably, wants a war to break out between the US and Iran, but is setting red lines and threatening military action the most effective strategy just as we, and our European partners, are entering into serious negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions? The warning light is already blinking red across the Middle East, with the sectarianism that destroyed Lebanon again firming up and threatening to detonate a much wider, borderless Shiite-Sunni conflagration.

Jordan's King Abdullah famously decried "the Shiite crescent" that the US invasion of Iraq had created from Iran through Baghdad and Damascus to Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon.

That arc is now festering, and not just in Syria. A Christian-Jewish crusade against Iran could be just the spark to explode the whole area. Saudi Arabia's Shiite-dominated eastern province, where their oil is, could be sucked into chaos, along with Bahrain. Lebanon, already on edge because of Syria's expanding civil war, could again implode into warlordism. In Israel's other two neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, with their large Sunni majorities, sectarian strife would not be the problem, but pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel emotion could till fertile land for Al Qaeda and their Salafist cousins.

And all this comes without considering the effect an attack on Iran could have on oil shipments coming through the Straits of Hormuz. The US economy, finally gaining traction, would revert to 2009 levels, or worse, as oil prices soared, the austerity-challenged economies of Europe would reel back even faster with who knows what political consequences for Europe's southern tier.

Nor is it pessimistic fantasy to imagine North Korea's juvenile leader, Kim Jung Un, and his always-aggressive military taking advantage of such a chaotic moment in western Asia to initiate some form of military action; a few strikes across the DMZ or a few missiles against South Korean bases that would require a US response.

Vice President Biden has served Obama faithfully, obsequiously, his ambition in check. But his ambition is stirring. Pitting himself against hardliner Hillary Clinton — she supported the Iraq War, its surge and then the Afghan surge — his "no bluff" remarks at AIPAC were not just typical wooing of the right wing, pro-Israeli vote, it was as well an attempt to establish his hardline bona fides.

Meanwhile, Obama has his own legacy to think about. Two lost wars — that's how Iraq and Afghanistan, both wound down under his leadership, will appear to future generations — are not a platform for history's adulation. So a set-to with Iran, which he starts and finishes, under the misconception that it will be an easy victory, is perhaps not unappealing.

Meanwhile, Iran will be holding elections in June to find a replacement for President Ahmadinejad, adding a further element of uncertainty into the whole combustible mix. There are worse things than Iran developing a nuclear weapon. Let's hope Washington doesn't help us experience them.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine, and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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