Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came home with sweaty palms from his mid-February visit to Israel. Ever since, he has been worrying aloud that Israel might mousetrap the U.S. into war with Iran.

This is especially worrying, because Mullen has had considerable experience in putting the brakes on such Israeli plans in the past. This time, he appears convinced that the Israeli leaders did not take his earlier warnings seriously — notwithstanding the unusually strong language he put into play.
Upon arrival in Jerusalem on Feb. 14, Mullen wasted no time in making clear why he had come. He insisted publicly that an attack on Iran would be “a big, big, big problem for all of us, and I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences.”
After his return, at a Pentagon press conference on Feb. 22, Mullen drove home the same point — with some of the same language. After reciting the usual boilerplate about Iran being “on the path to achieve nuclear weaponization” and about its “desire to dominate its neighbours,” he included this in his prepared remarks:
“I worry a lot about the unintended consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and consistently pulled. No strike, however effective, will be, in and of itself, decisive.”
In answer to a question about the “efficacy” of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear program, Mullen said such strikes “would delay it for one to three years.” Underscoring the point, he added that this is what he meant “about a military strike not being decisive.”
Unlike younger generals, such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Adm. Mullen served in the Vietnam War. It seems likely that this experience prompted his philosophical aside about the war in Afghanistan:
“I would remind everyone of an essential truth: War is bloody and uneven. It’s messy and ugly and incredibly wasteful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the cost.”
Though the immediate context for that remark was Afghanistan, Mullen has underscored time and again that war with Iran would be a far larger disaster. Those with a modicum of familiarity with the military, strategic and economic equities at stake know he is right.
Firing ‘Fox’
Recall that one of Mullen’s Vietnam veteran contemporaries, Adm. William “Fox” Fallon was cashiered as CENTCOM commander in March 2008 for saying things like war with Iran "isn’t going to happen on my watch.”
Fallon openly encouraged negotiations with Iran as the only sensible approach, and harshly criticized the “constant drum beat” for war.
Fallon’s attitude appears to be shared by the more politically cautious – and less rhetorically blunt – Mullen, as the same war-with-Iran drumbeat reaches a new crescendo today.
Fallon abhorred the thought of being on the receiving end of an order inspired by the likes of then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams to send American troops into what would surely be – in Mullen’s words – a “bloody, uneven, messy, ugly and incredibly wasteful” war.
How strong the pressure was within the Bush administration to attack Iran – or to give Israel “a green light” to attack Iran – can be read between the lines in a Feb. 14 exchange between ABC News’ “This Week” host Jonathan Karl and former Vice President Cheney.
Karl: “How close did the Bush administration come to taking military action against Iran?”
Cheney: “Some of that I can’t talk about, obviously, still. I’m sure it’s still classified. We clearly never made the decision – we never crossed over that line of saying, ‘Now we’re going to mount a military operation to deal with the problem.’ …"
Karl: “David Sanger of the New York Times says that the Israelis came to you – came to the administration in the final months and asked for certain things, bunker-buster bombs, air-to-air refueling capability, over-flight rights, and that basically the administration dithered, did not give the Israelis a response. Was that a mistake?”
Cheney: “I can’t get into it still. I’m sure a lot of those discussions are still very sensitive.”
Karl: “Let me ask you: Did you advocate a harder line, including in the military area, in those final months?”
Cheney: “Usually.”
Karl: “And with respect to Iran?”
Cheney: “Well, I made public statements to the effect that I felt very strongly that we had to have the military option, that it had to be on the table, that it had to be a meaningful option, and that we might well have to resort to military force in order to deal with the threat that Iran represented. … [But] we never got to the point where the President had to make a decision one way or the other.”
Renewed Pressures
Clearly, those pressures have not disappeared during the first 13 months of the Obama administration. Today, it appears that Mullen has replaced Fallon as the principal military obstacle to exercising the war option against Iran.
From his recent demeanor, as well as his many statements since he became the country’s most senior officer, it is apparent that Mullen does not believe that a “preventive war” against Iran would be worth the horrendous cost.
Washington rhetoric, echoed by the many stenographers of the Fawning Corporate Media over the past eight years, has brought a veneer of respectability to the international crime of aggressive war, as long as done or sanctioned by the United States.
With nodding approval from the FCM, Bush and Cheney sold the notion that such attacks can be justified to “prevent” some future hypothetical threat to the United States or its allies, the supposed rationale for invading Iraq in 2003.
Clearly, the Obama administration has not fully backed away from such thinking.
While in Qatar on Feb. 14, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern over what she called “accumulating evidence” of an Iranian attempt to pursue a nuclear weapon, not because it “directly threaten[s] the United States, but [because] it directly threatens a lot of our friends” — read Israel.
Mullen, for his part, seems acutely aware that the Constitution he has sworn to defend makes no provision for the kind of war he might be sucked into to defend Israel. When he studied at the Naval Academy, his professors apparently were still teaching that the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause (Article VI, Clause 2) establishes that treaties ratified by the Senate become the “supreme law of the land.”
It would be, pure and simple, a flagrant violation of a supreme law of the land, the Senate-ratified United Nations Charter, for the United States to join in an unprovoked assault on Iran without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, which surely would not go along.
Adm. Mullen also appears to be one of the few Americans aware that there is no mutual defense treaty between the United States and Israel and, thus, the U.S. has no legal obligation to jump to Israel’s defense if it ignites war with Iran.
Now you may scoff. “Everyone knows,” you will say, that political realities in America dictate that the U.S. military must defend Israel no matter who started a conflict.
Still, there was a time – after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war when Israel first occupied the Palestinian territories – that the U.S. did take soundings regarding the possibility of a mutual defense treaty, in the expectation that this might introduce more calm into the area by giving the Israelis a greater sense of security.
But the Israelis turned the overture down cold. Such treaties, you see, require internationally recognized boundaries and Israel did not want any part of parting with the territories it had just seized militarily.
Besides, mutual defense treaties usually impose on both parties an obligation to inform the other if one decides to attack a third country. Israel wanted no part of that either.
This virtually unknown background helps to explain why the lack of a treaty of mutual defense is more than a picayune academic point.
Why Is Mullen Worried?
Yet, if Adm. Mullen is an old hand at reining in the Israelis, why is he so visibly worried at present? He’s had experience in reading the riot act to the Israelis. So what could be so different now?
Last time, in mid-2008, Cheney and Abrams were arguing for an aggressive military posture toward Iran but lost the argument to Mullen and his senior commanders, who – in the final days of the Bush administration – won the backing of President Bush.
When former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seemed intent on starting hostilities with Iran before Bush and Cheney left office, Bush ordered Adm. Mullen to Israel to tell the Israelis, in no uncertain terms, don’t do it. Mullen gladly rose to the occasion; actually, he outdid himself.
With Bush’s full support, Mullen told the Israelis to disabuse themselves of the notion that U.S. military support would be knee-jerk automatic if Israel somehow provoked open hostilities with Iran.
We also learned from the Israeli press that Mullen went so far as to warn the Israelis not to even think about another incident at sea like the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, which left 34 American crew killed and more than 170 wounded.
Never before had a senior U.S. official braced Israel so blatantly about the Liberty incident, which was covered up unconscionably by Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, the Congress, and by the Navy itself. [See’s “Navy Vet Honored, Foiled Israeli Attack.”]
The lesson the Israelis took away from the Liberty incident was that they could get away with murder, literally, and walk free because of political realities in the United States. Never again, said Mullen. He could not have raised a more neuralgic issue.
So, again, what’s different about today? How to account for Mullen’s decision to keep expressing his worries about “unintended consequences”?

I believe the admiral fears that things are about to spin out of control. Whether there will be war does not depend on Mullen — or even Obama. It depends on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And Mullen does well to be worried.

Netanyahu’s Impression of Obama
It is altogether likely that Netanyahu has concluded that Barack Obama is — in the vernacular — a wuss. Why, for example, does the President keep sending an endless procession of the most senior U.S. officials to Tel Aviv to plead with their Israeli counterparts: Please, pretty please, don’t start a war with Iran.
Loose-cannon Vice President Joe Biden arrives on Monday, hopefully with clearer instructions than when he blithely told ABC on July 4, 2009, that Israel is a “sovereign nation” and thus “entitled” to launch a military strike against Iran, adding that Washington would make no effort to dissuade the Israeli government.
Will Biden manage to keep his foot out of his mouth this time, or will his nearly four decades of experience in the U.S. Senate – learning how to position himself politically in regards to Israel – again reassert itself?

It is a safe bet that Netanyahu is wryly amused at such obsequious buffoonery. But his impression of Obama’s backbone – or lack thereof – is key.

The Israeli Prime Minister must be drawing some lessons from Obama’s aversion to leveraging the $3 billion a year the U.S. gives to Israel. Why doesn’t he simply pick up the phone and warn me himself, Netanyahu might be asking himself.
Is Obama so deathly afraid of the powerful Likud Lobby that he cannot bring himself to call me? Is the President afraid his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, might listen in and leak it to neoconservative pundits like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank?
Netanyahu has had ample time to size up the President. Their initial encounter in May 2009 reminded me very much of the disastrous meeting in Vienna between another young American president and Nikita Khrushchev in early June 1961.
The Soviets took the measure of President John Kennedy, and a result was the Cuban missile crisis which brought the world as close as it has ever come, before or since, to nuclear destruction.
The Israeli Prime Minister has found it possible to thumb his nose at Obama’s repeated pleas for a halt in illegal construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories — without consequence. Moreover, Netanyahu has watched Obama cave in time after time — on domestic, as well as international issues.
Netanyahu styles himself as sitting in the catbird’s seat of the relationship, largely because of the Likud Lobby’s unparalleled influence with U.S. lawmakers and opinion makers — not to mention the entrée the Israelis enjoy to the chief executive himself by having one of their staunchest allies, Rahm Emanuel, in position as White House chief of staff. In the intelligence business, we might call that an “agent of influence.”