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When I was young, the Philadelphia Bulletin ran cartoon ads that usually featured a man in trouble—dangling by his fingers, say, from an outdoor clock. There would always be people all around him, but far too engrossed in the daily paper to notice. The tagline was: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.”
Those ads came to mind recently when President Obama commented forcefully on war, American-style, in ways that were remarkably radical. Although he was trying to ward off a threatened Israeli preemptive air strike against Iran, his comments should have shocked Americans—but just about nobody noticed.
I don’t mean, of course, that nobody noticed the president’s statements. Quite the contrary: they were headlined, chewed over in the press and by pundits. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich attacked them. Fox News highlighted their restraint. (“Obama calls for containing Iran, says ‘too much loose talk of war.’”) The Huffington Post highlighted the support for Israel they represented. (“Obama Defends Policies Toward Israel, Fends Off Partisan Critiques.”) Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed back against them in a potentially deadly US-Israeli dance that might bring new chaos to the Middle East. But somehow, amid all the headlines, commentary and analysis, few seemed to notice just what had really changed in our world.
The president had offered a new definition of “aggression” against this country and a new war doctrine to go with it. He would, he insisted, take the United States to war not to stop another nation from attacking us or even threatening to do so, but simply to stop it from building a nuclear weapon—and he would act even if that country were incapable of targeting the United States. That should have been news.
Consider the most startling of his statements: just before the arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington, the president gave a forty-five minute Oval Office interview to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. A prominent pro-Israeli writer, Goldberg had produced an article in the September issue of that magazine headlined “The Point of No Return.” In it, based on interviews with "roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike," he had given an Israeli air attack on Iran a 50 percent chance of happening by this July. From the recent interview, here are Obama’s key lines:
“I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff. I also don’t, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”