“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Bomb

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This post first appeared at the TomDispatch website.

And you thought “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a U.S. law on gays in the military that Barack Obama has promised to change. As it turns out, the same phrase plays quite a different role in the Middle East, where Obama seems to have no intention of changing it at all. Successive administrations have adhered to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to Israel’s sizeable arsenal of nuclear weapons. That country has never acknowledged their existence, adhering instead to another arcane formula: “We will not introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.” Jonathan Schell has described this strange situation: “Evidently, in some abstruse way, possessing [nuclear weapons] is not introducing them. You’d have to do something more to introduce them. You’d have to brandish one or make a threat with one, or maybe just acknowledge that you had them. As long as they keep them in the basement and don’t make any introductions, then it’s alright.”

In May, the Obama administration evidently agreed not to break step with the fictions of previous administrations by acknowledging, or attempting to force Israel to publicly acknowledge, its estimated 100-200 nuclear weapons, including city-busters and cruise missiles adapted to be nuclear-armed and put on subs in the Mediterranean. His administration seems also to have agreed not to pressure the Israelis to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) under which nuclear arms are theoretically managed on our planet.

This, of course, leads to bizarre Middle Eastern policy anomalies rarely acknowledged in this country. In the midst of all the screaming headlines about an Iranian bomb which does not yet (and may never) exist, none of the acts the administration is demanding of the Iranians (and around which it is threatening to impose even stronger sanctions), including allowing International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into its nuclear sites and providing greater transparency about the state of its nuclear program, have been put into practice by Israel, despite its perfectly real—in fact, staggeringly large—program. And no penalties have been imposed.

When Israel was in Iran’s present situation back in the 1950s and early 1960s, and secretly developing a nuclear weapons program, U.S. administrations simply looked the other way. Ever since, presidents have preferred not to look at all, not publicly anyway. According to Eli Lake of the Washington Times, despite President Obama’s stated policy of wanting to strengthen the NPT and lead the world toward nuclear disarmament, he recently “reaffirmed” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a 4-decade-old secret understanding that has allowed Israel to keep a nuclear arsenal without opening it to international inspections.”

One irony of the Obama push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, even while working to bring Iran to heel, has been this: despite all efforts in Israel and here, the Israeli nuclear arsenal has begun creeping towards the light of day. Soon enough, to everyone’s surprise, it may become part of the conversation even in the United States. So here’s a final irony: it’s just possible that “don’t ask, don’t tell” will lose its meaning in the Middle East before it does in the U.S. military.

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