Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Twenty one years ago, in January 1991, President George H.W. Bush sent several hundred thousand troops to the Persian Gulf to force Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, to abandon his brutal invasion and occupation of neighboring Kuwait.

Nine years ago, in March 2003, George W. Bush launched an invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein‘s regime and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Now, Barack Obama faces a new, but different Persian Gulf crisis: Should he acquiesce in, or try to prevent, Israel from launching a preemptive attack on Iran in order to stop its nuclear arms program?

If Iran refuses to negotiate an arrangement that resolves the nuclear weapons issue, should Obama launch a preventive war? Such action would resemble the course pursued by George W. Bush in Iraq in the 2003, which Obama strongly criticized

Israel's view

Two weeks ago, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, told a group of top military and intelligence officials that air strikes against Iran's nuclear sites were likely, because time was running out for stopping its nuclear progress. "Whoever says 'later' may find that later is too late," he warned. ("Israel: Iran must be stopped soon:" Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2012). Leon Panetta, U.S. defense secretary, commented that Israel may attack Iran in the next few months.

Why is the Middle East again churning toward military confrontation?

From Israel's point of view, the U.S. election opens an opportunity to inject the Iran nuclear threat into the campaign and persuade Obama to make a decision on using force. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was loudly cheered in a joint session of Congress last May, may think he can generate enough political pressure to get an OK from Obama to support Israel's bombing of Iran's nuclear plants. He plans to visit the United States again next month.

Newt Gingrich, the most pro-Israel of the Republican presidential candidates, is a case in point. His political action committee received $10 million in campaign contributions from one Las Vegas casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson, who is a strong supporter of Israel. Gingrich has long urged military action against Iran, as he did against Iraq during the Bush administration.

Obama's quandary

Here is one of several scenarios now facing Obama's national security team:

"Israel bombs Iran's nuclear facilities without Obama's blessing, and Iran retaliates by using its navy to mine the Strait of Hormuz, effectively closing the key waterway to international shipping. The U.S. Navy uses minesweepers and other means to clear a pathway through the mines, and one of them is hit by an Iranian missile and sunk. Iran claims its territorial waters were violated. Suddenly, the price of crude oil skyrockets on world markets."

Question: Should Obama call for urgent negotiations to avoid war, or authorize the Navy to bomb not only Iran's ships but also its shore installations? That choice has echoes of the 1964 Tonkin Gulf crisis in Vietnam, which started a war in Southeast Asia.

Although the U.S. government cannot instruct Israel on how to protect its vital national interests, it does have a responsibility to the American people to consider U.S. vital interests and avoid being led into another Gulf War if there is a possibility of avoiding it through non-military means. Obama and leading Republicans should choose that course.

File last modified on Thursday, 16-FEB-2012 10:43 PM EST

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