It's hard to tell exactly what Joe Biden was trying to say this morning on "This Week" with George Stephanopolous. But his remarks are being widely interpreted as a green light for an Israeli strike on Iran. If that isn't the case, Biden needs to issue a strong clarification immediately. If it is, then he has just committed the worst foreign policy blunder of the Obama administration.
Here's what Biden said:
STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he's prepared to make matters into his own hands.
Is that the right approach?
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: Whether we agree or not?
BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.
What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.
If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.
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.
That sounds an awful lot like a green light -- especially when paired with the poorly sourced Times of London story suggesting that the Saudis had agreed to facilitate an Israeli airstrike (there doesn't seem to be anything to it beyond John Bolton's wishful thinking, but it helps fuel a crisis atmosphere). It's not obvious that it actually is such a green light -- but that's how it is being interpreted by Israelis across the spectrum and by the Arab media (few differences between the Saudi al-Arabiya and al-Sharq al-Awsat on the one hand, and al-Jazeera and al-Quds al-Arabi on the other side of the great Arab divide).
If that's the case, and Israel takes up the offer, then the politics of the Middle East are about to take a sudden, potentially disastrous turn for the worse. An Israeli strike on Iran would almost certainly fail to seriously set back its nuclear program, and almost certainly would not lead the Iranian people to rise up against the regime (although one has to pause... has John Bolton ever been wrong about such a thing before?). It would almost certainly terminate the efforts of the reformist camp to challenge the results of the election and rally the Iranian public around the flag -- as attacks by the most hated foreign enemy of any country generally do even during times of turbulent politics (see: Iran, 1980).
Does it really need to be said that such an attack would radicalize the region, and place a wide range of American interests at risk -- especially since Biden's comment will be cited forever as evidence that the attack had an American imprimatur? Even if the attack does not happen, Biden's comment will likely further inflame the regional atmosphere, while helping the Iranian hardliners, who will use it as evidence of malign American intentions, throwing away much of the value of Obama's carefully and appropriately nuanced response to the unfolding crisis.
Look (to use a Bidenism), nobody could really object to Biden's statement that any state has the sovereign right to act when it feels existentially threatened. In fact, he may have just been trying to say the opposite of how this is being read --- that sovereign states have the right to defend themselves, but that the U.S. would also define its own national interests. But he had to understand how such a statement would be received, with the ink not even dry on John Bolton's ham-handed agitation for just such an American permission slip for such an attack.
And he might have added to his entirely appropriate understanding of Israeli perceptions and concerns that the United States also has vital national interests at stake. An Israeli strike on Iran would likely throw all the progress in Iraq into grave danger, a reality of which American commanders in Iraq have routinely warned in public and private. That might not matter much to the Israeli government, but it matters a lot to the American government. The same for the negative impact it would have on efforts to achieve a two-state solution... something else which might suit Netanyahu just fine, but not the U.S.
Why would Biden have made a statement which so radically undermines Obama's policy towards Iran? Maybe it reflects bad new advice coming from a new NSC adviser of vague portfolio. Maybe it's a clumsy attempt to ratchet up some pressure on the Iranian regime without actually doing anything, without regard to the spiral dynamics it could kick into gear. Or maybe it is just a major Biden gaffe, not a dramatic departure in the Obama administration's policy. That would still be bad, but would be salvagable. Either way, the administration urgently needs to come forward quickly with a restatement of its policy -- and make sure the Israelis and others in the region understand it clearly -- or else it risks paying some extraordinarily serious costs.
UPDATE: a senior White House source tells me that this is being misreported, and points me to this from White House spokesman Tommy Vietor:
The Vice President refused to engage hypotheticals, and he made clear that our policy has not changed. Our friends and allies, including Israel, know that the President believes that now is the time to explore direct diplomatic options, as with the P5+1."
Good. This needs aggressive pushback though, because the regional media is overwhelmingly reporting the "green light" headline interpretation of Biden's remark. Time to flex those public diplomacy and strategic communications muscles, folks...
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...
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.