Consider the following five possible scenarios for the summary exchange between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama at their meeting in Washington last week:
Obama: “You had better not bomb Iran without our permission, you warmongering crazy S.O.B!”
Netanyahu: “We’ll do what we need to do, and cause you to lose the election too, you Muslim anti-Semite!”
Obama: “So we’re agreed. We bomb in a joint exercise next week, but in the meantime we go to the press and make it look like we’re still in disagreement about it.”
Netanyahu: “Absolutely. Mr. President, you are the best friend Israel has ever had.”
Obama: “OK, so we’re agreed: Bombing Iran would have devastating consequences for Israel and the world.”
Netanyahu: “We are in complete agreement, Mr. President. Israel knows how bad things could get if we attack Iran. We both know that we may have to live with mutually assured destruction deterrence, if sanctions can’t stop the Iranians from getting the bomb. It’s not ideal, but it’s not an ideal world. In the meantime, as we agreed, we’ll continue our ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, so that the Iranians will fear military action if they don’t back down from the sanctions.”
Obama: “We understand that Israel wants to bomb now, because if we give it another year, and they move all their installations underground, you will no longer have the capability of taking them out. I understand your concerns, but you have my commitment that the US does have that ability and will use it if necessary when the time comes.”
Netanyahu: “Mr. President, we appreciate your commitment, but with all due respect, we cannot be dependent on that when we don’t even know who will win your elections in the fall. I will have to take a decision with my cabinet in the coming weeks.”
Obama: “We have heard the full report from our joint clandestine special forces program to overthrow the Iranian regime after our successful takeout of their nuclear capability. Good thing no one believed that Wikileaks report! It looks good to go. Ahmedinijad and Khameini will be joining Hussein and Ghaddafi within the next two months.”
Netanyahu: “Sounds great. Now let’s go out there and tell the media what they want to hear!”
Now think about each scenario, and what would they mean in terms of the public statements the leaders would make after the meeting. In all five cases (and countless other variations on these themes) they would have said the same things — exactly what we heard. It is therefore ridiculous for all the pundits to be parsing the exact words of the leaders’ speeches to know what is really going on. There is no way to know if the disagreement is real or completely orchestrated in cooperation between the two sides.
We also can’t try and rationally analyze what their positions would be based on their interests and knowledge, because we have no idea what the Israeli and US intelligence agencies are saying individually and collectively about Iran’s capabilities and intentions. Netanyahu and Obama’s positions could radically change based on what they know, and how certain they are that what they know is right.
I have a general rule when trying to make sense of news coverage of security situations: Anyone who knows what is really going on is not telling, and anyone talking either has no idea, or is purposely manipulating the media — either as part of the plan, or just for political reasons. This is as it should be. It is hard as pundits and voters in a democracy to accept this, but it is necessitated by national security.
In 50 years, the protocols of these meetings will be made available to historians. In the meantime, we’re all just spouting a lot of hot air.