By DeWayne Wickham
You've got to wonder how the Obama administration will respond if sometime soon Iraq's air defense forces see Israeli jets streaking across the sky toward Iran.
That scenario didn't come up as the Obama administration struggled to clarify its position on a potential Israeli attack on Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to preemptively attack sites where Iran is believed to be developing nuclear weapons.
During a recent appearance on ABC's "This Week," Vice President Joe Biden seemed to say the administration wouldn't stand in the way of an Israeli attack.
"Look, Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else," he said.
Two days later, President Obama issued a clarification - of sorts - while attending a summit in Moscow he hoped would patch up relations with Russia. His administration has "absolutely not" given Israel a green light to attack Iran, he said.
"I think Vice President Biden stated a categorical fact, which is we can't dictate to other countries what their security interests are," Obama told CNN. " What is also true is that it is the policy of the United States to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capabilities in a peaceful way through diplomatic channels."
But that falls short of answering a critical question: How will the U.S. respond if Israel bombs Iran's nuclear facilities? Israeli planes would almost certainly have to cross Iraqi territory to get to Iran - and Iraq's airspace is effectively controlled by U.S. military aircraft.
If Israeli planes do penetrate Iraqi airspace, will U.S. military commanders order them to turn back? Will American fighters be scrambled to intercept them? Will we shoot them down, or will we allow them to continue on to their Iranian targets?
Biden's "categorical fact" comes with a great big caveat. The U.S. remains the army of occupation in Iraq and can deny Israel access to that country's airspace - or it can give Israeli planes safe passage to their Iranian targets.
Either way, this country's continuing role in Iraq puts our military squarely between Iran and invading Israeli jets. While the president is right to say the U.S. can't dictate other countries' security interests, he's wrong to suggest America can't keep Israel from attacking Iran.
Understandably, the U.S. and Israel - and most countries in the Middle East - don't want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Iran's leaders are fanatically obsessed with destroying Israel. And given Iran's longstanding riff with the U.S., it's not unreasonable to think it might allow nuclear materials to end up in the hands of al-Qaida or some other terrorist group.
Obama says he's committed to resolving this matter through diplomacy. If that works, and I hope it does, fine. If it doesn't, if Iran plays the game of brinkmanship too long, then it may invite a massive Israeli air strike on its nuclear facilities.
But those planes won't get to Iran without the approval of the Obama administration.