Samuel Johnson's celebrated observation that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of hanging applies to nations, too. Benjamin Netanyahu reminded the delegates to the United Nations this week that Israel, surrounded by threats to its survival, pays close attention to both enemies and friends, particularly to friends of suspect reliability in the clutch.
"Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons," he said. "If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone, but in standing alone, Israel will know that we will be defending many, many others."
This was the diplomatic needle to Barack Obama, a world-class smooth talker of empty words. Mr. Netanyahu, who has been to some big towns and heard some big Obama talk, knows better than to take the big talk without a grain or two of salt. The Israelis can't afford to trust anyone but themselves, because the first war they lose to their militant Muslim neighbors will be their last.
He reminded the U.N. delegates that their countries, too, would pay an enormous price if Iran achieves its long-sought goal of building nuclear weapons to terrorize its neighbors. Once nuclear-armed, Iran would have "a chokehold" on the world's major supply of oil. This, he said, "would trigger nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, turning the most unstable part of the planet into a nuclear tinderbox. And for the first time in history it would make the specter of nuclear terrorism a clear and present danger."
President Obama, always eager to believe the best of his adversaries (unless they're Republican neighbors), sent a White House spokesman out to reassure everybody that the president, lately trying to start a romance with the new president of Iran, is continuing to lead bravely from behind. Mr. Netanyahu's skepticism is "entirely justifiable" and the president shares the goal of preventing Iran from going nuclear, from building the first Islamist bomb. The world might well think that, but the president would never say that.
Mr. Netanyahu is particularly not impressed by Iranian President Hasan Rouhani's charm offensive, though swooning has been the order of the day in certain diplomatic and media precincts in America and the West. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the big-talking previous president, "was a wolf in wolf's clothing," Mr. Netanyahu said, "and Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing, who thinks he can pull the wool over the eyes of the international community."
Mr. Rouhani, after all, is a loyal servant of the ayatollahs who actually pull all the strings in Tehran, and his smiles and soft words mean no more than the puppet master wants them to mean. Within the past three years, Iran has ordered, planned and carried out terrorist attacks in 25 nations on five continents.
Diplomacy is nice, and sometimes it works, but to work, the words, which can never hurt, must be backed up by the threat of sticks and stones. Sometimes sanctions will do it, as we have begun to see in Iran. But the West must not be tempted to ease the pressure until Iran dismantles its nuclear-weapons program. This is the message that should have been delivered by Mr. Obama, with the bark on. Mr. Netanyahu must be wary of the big talk he has heard in the big towns. Singing the blues in the night is no fun.