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Israel Air Force F-16 fighter jet. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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U.S. President Barack Obama is capable of ordering a military attack on Iran, but the U.S. would probably prefer to yield to Israel if it was convinced that it “could get the job done” – this is the assessment of Walter Russell Mead, a renowned expert on American foreign policy.

“The U.S. has a lot of things to think about in a lot of places and I’m sure Obama feels that he has enough wars in the Middle East already,” Mead said in a conversation with Haaretz.

But he said that if America became convinced that an attack on Iran is necessary and that only the U.S. is capable of carrying it out successfully, then Obama “would not hesitate to pull the trigger.”

Mead said that it is probably the Republicans themselves, and not Israel, that has turned Iran into a partisan issue in American politics, though it is unwise for Israel “to collaborate” with this Republican agenda, which is harmful to Israel’s short and long term interests.

At the same time, Mead said that he believes both Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realized this year that they need a “more correct relationship” than the confrontational mode in which they found themselves during the 2011 AIPAC Conference, when Obama spoke of the 1967 borders.

“After spending the first half of his Administration having Prime Minister Netanyahu regular beat him at the game of American politics,” Mead said, “Obama has gotten tired of that and he has a better sense of what he needs to do so as not to keep losing control of the policy process in the U.S.”

Mead, whom the New York Times once described as “one of the country's liveliest thinkers about America's role in the world," said that Israel needs a leader who is a “Tony Blair type” who can work well with both parties; but he also said that, as far as he can see, it was Obama, and not Netanyahu, who was mainly responsible for the initial friction in the relationship between the two.

Mead said that AIPAC’s fortunes rise and fall in accordance with Israel’s position in American public opinion. He added, though, that if he was heading AIPAC he would be thinking about how to sustain this support because “if a lobby group starts to think that it is the tail that wags the dog it will find out sooner or later that that dog isn’t so cooperative anymore.”

On Syria, Mead said that while he is not privy to the secret information on which the White House bases its policy, “I think the line that Assad is on the way out soon has been a little bit overplayed.”

Mead, who has authored several widely-acclaimed books on American foreign policy, said that until now, the confrontation with Iran has “benefitted from a certain sense of clarity” because of Tehran’s refusal to negotiate. But with Iran showing signs that it may soon “start to offer U.S. compromises” - things will become murkier. Tehran, he believes will be trying to drive a diplomatic wedge between both the U.S. and Israel and between the U.S. and Europe.

Mead, who was fiercely critical of Obama’s foreign policy during the first part of his term, said that the president had changed and is now “a much more skilled and experienced leader who is much more comfortable with the use of force. More than once, he has not hesitated to pull the trigger.”

Mead said that Obama has become “more aware of the need for a forward presence for the U.S. and less convinced that a lower U.S. presence would solve all the world’s problems.”

Mead said that Obama is resolute about denying Iran nuclear weapons, adding “people often underestimate the degree to which Obama sees nuclear nonproliferation as a cornerstone of American security strategy and of the kind of legacy that he would like to leave. And my impression is that the Administration accepts the analysis that an Iranian nuclear bomb pretty well ends any likely prospects for successful non-proliferation activities.”

Mead said that it was hard to gauge in advance how long the American public would sustain its support for a military attack against Iran. "If Israel attacks Iran, and Iran attacks American targets, you might bet a 'Pearl Harbor' response against an unprovoked attack by a vicious enemy. There is a tremendous amount of residual ill-will toward Iran in America,” he added.

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