WASHINGTON — There were three key passages to President Barack Obama’s speech to AIPAC on Sunday morning here in Washington, DC. The section where he made clear to Iran that he was bent on stopping its drive to the bomb. The section where he criticized premature “loose talk of war.” And the section that he dealt with rather more briefly about Israel having the right to protect itself as it sees fit.
The message to Iran was unmistakable. The president does not think containment is an option, and he will resort to force if all else fails. “I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said flatly. “And as I’ve made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.” No fudging there. The question is whether Tehran will take him seriously.
The passage about “loose talk of war” was poignant and sounded heartfelt. This was the commander in chief who knows full well the consequences, for real people, real lives, of the orders he gives from the sanctuary of the White House. “As president and commander in chief,” he said slowly, “I have a deeply held preference for peace over war. I have sent men and women into harm’s way. I have seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who have come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home.”
Elaborating to extinguish any chance of gung-ho sensibility out there among the thousands in the audience, he went on: “Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency. For this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I only use force when the time and circumstances demand it.”
And he graciously, and correctly, embraced Israel and its leaders in the sentiment. I realize how deeply you too have known the pain of war, how deeply you wish to avoid it, he indicated. “I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country.”
Slipped into that same key section of the speech, however, was also the third major passage, the recognition that where Israel’s future is concerned, it is Israel’s leaders — not the president of the United States — who must take ultimate responsibility. “Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States,” he said, “just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.”
Overall, Obama’s speech broke little new ground — especially given that he had set out a very similar agenda in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg just days ago. Its tone and content augur well for the coming days of top-level diplomacy, and would not have been jarring to very many Israeli ears.
American and Israeli leaders can only hope it was deeply jarring, however, for the leadership in Tehran. Hope, that is, without too much expectation.