US President Barack Obama struck a defensive tone in his speech on Sunday to the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC, citing his administration’s record of support for Israel in the security and diplomatic arena as proof of his “unprecedented” friendship with the Jewish state.
The President focused on two main themes in his speech – his record of support for Israel and the intensifying showdown with Iran over its nuclear program. He appeared to be in full campaign-mode, telling the audience – and the American Jewish demographic in general – to “examine my commitment…look at my words and deeds. I have kept my commitments to the State of Israel. At every crucial juncture, at every fork in the road, we have been there for Israel every single time…my administration’s support for israel has been unprecedented.”
“When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” he said emphatically, to loud applause. And in a nod to election season, he warned his Jewish constituents: “Don’t trust the distortions of partisan politics.”
Shifting to Iran, he started by saying, “lets begin with a basic truth – no Israeli government can tolerate a government that denies the Holocaust, seeks to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terror groups committed to Israel’s destruction.” He went on to express his understanding for “the profound historical obligation that rests on Bibi’s shoulders,” using the nickname Israeli Prime Netanyahu is often referred to as in Israel.
In a direct reference to the potential for a military strike, he reiterated what has become a mantra for his administration: “I will take no options off the table. And I mean what I say. A military effort must be prepared for any contingency.” He also said that Iran’s leaders “should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make decisions regarding what is required to meet its security needs,” understood by many to mean that Israel will not ask the US government for permission if it chooses to strike Iran.
Perhaps his strongest statement came when he said: “I do not have a policy of containment, I have a policy of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”
Still, Obama reverted to his internationalist tendencies by expressing his continued faith in the five-year old sanctions regime imposed on Iran, and striking a conciliatory tone: “I have a deeply held preference for peace over war…Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision.” He also lamented that there was “already too much loose talk of war. Now is not the time for bluster.”
President Obama’s speech is likely to be received like many of his previous “historic” speeches: everyone acknowledges his soaring rhetoric, his supporters will find remarks that prove his leadership and resolve, while his detractors will find comments that support their narrative of Obama as an appeaser. But the fact that his remarks can be interpreted so ambiguously is not only a sign of good political speech-making, but also a worrying indication that his Iran strategy is incoherent.
The President ended his speech by invoking ex-President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous diplomatic adage “speak softly, carry a big stick,” as his policy going forward. The question remains whether these are just more sweet-sounding words from the President, designed to postpone a tough decision in a tough election campaign season.