Obama’s Disingenuousness on Iran: A Postscript

This blog has regularly thrown doubt on the sincerity of President Obama’s past vows about being prepared to resort to military force in order to prevent Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  So it’s worth noting a New York Times article the other week surveying the various factors that could have pushed Tehran toward the just-implemented nuclear agreement with the United States.

The newspaper credits the inducements held out by Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic engagement, as well as the coercive effects of economic sanctions and covert programs aimed at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear weapons effort.  Another factor, according to the Times, was the threat of preventative military action – though by Israel but not the United States.

The Israeli factor was tangible enough.  Ehud Barak, who served as defense minister in Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s government from 2009-2013, revealed last year that Israel came close on several occasions to launching unilateral military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

According to an October 2014 report in The Atlantic, U.S. officials were convinced in 2010 and again in 2012, that “Netanyahu and his then-defense minister, the cowboyish ex-commando Ehud Barak, were readying a strike on Iran….the fear inside the White House of a preemptive attack (or preventative attack, to put it more accurately) was real and palpable.”

Referring to these occasions, the New York Times piece quotes Michael Morell, who recently retired as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as saying “Before the negotiations for the nuclear deal began [in 2013] we were closer to war with the Islamic Republic than at any time since 1979.”  The newspaper also notes:

Mr. Obama had little doubt that if Israel started a conflict, the United States would be unable to stay out. That was the conclusion of a series of classified war-gaming exercises conducted at the National War College, at the Pentagon and inside American intelligence agencies.

It is difficult to discern what effect the fear of Israeli action had on Tehran’s calculus.  But its impact on Washington is already known.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations two years ago, President Obama announced that the U.S. would no longer intercept the communications of allied leaders.  But a secret exception was made for Mr. Netanyahu, since the White House was convinced he would attack Iran without first bothering to consult with Washington.

Satellite surveillance of Israeli military bases was also stepped up after the U.S. concluded that Israeli aircraft had probed Iranian air defenses in preparation for a commando raid on Iran’s most heavily guarded nuclear facility.  And the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military forces in the Middle East, began monitoring weather patterns and the phases of the moon over Iran, trying to predict the exact night of the coming Israeli attack.

All of this evidence further reinforces my earlier conclusion that Obama’s threat to pick up the cudgel of military action was a rhetorical device aimed more at restraining the Israeli government than pressuring the Iranian one.

This post is jointly published at International Policy Digest.

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Connecting the Dots in Obama’s Intelligence Scandal

According to the Daily Beast (here and here) and the New York Times, some 50 intelligence analysts posted with the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, have formally complained that their superiors altered assessments about the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in order to adhere more closely with the Obama administration’s public line that the military campaign against these groups is progressing well.

There is, of course, a sad irony that a White House filled with people who frequently charge the George W. Bush administration with manipulating intelligence on the region now stand accused of the same thing.  Beyond this, however, the emerging scandal exemplifies a long-running critique about Mr. Obama’s approach to foreign policy – that his national security inner team is excessively focused on the dictates of domestic politics and is not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news.

Instead of tearing down the walls of the echo chamber in Washington, the default tendency with Mr. Obama and his administration has been to build them up higher, to the detriment of this nation’s foreign policy.

Read the rest of the essay at The Diplomat.

It’s worth noting that retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who formerly served as director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (2012-2014) and the CENTCOM intelligence chief (2007-2008), has corroborated the views of the Obama administration’s critics on these points.  Speaking earlier this month to CNN’s Jake Tapper, he stated that the White House ignored intelligence reports about the global jihadist revival in 2011 and 2012 because they contradicted the president’s re-election narrative.

UPDATE, February 15, 2016: The Daily Beast reports today that Central Command intelligence analysts complained of altered assessments not just to the Defense Department inspector general but also to the Office of the National Director of Intelligence.

On the broader topic of the White House’s politicization of national security, it’s worth noting that, according to one report, President Obama pressured the FBI to downplay the terrorism angle of last December’s shootings in San Bernardino.

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The Desi Factor in U.S.-India Relations

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit last month to the San Francisco area highlighted a signal immigration story: The great prominence of Indian-born entrepreneurs and executives in Silicon Valley and the key role they play in America’s technological dynamism.  But an equally important, if under-noticed, tale was also at play: How the increasing stature of Indians in U.S. society has changed the way all Americans think about India and the resulting impact on U.S. foreign policy.

Read the full essay at Foreign Policy‘s website.

This piece is cross-posted at Chanakya’s Notebook, my blog on South Asian affairs.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

Obama’s Disingenuousness on Iran: An Update

My last post claimed vindication for my long-standing position that President Obama was being disingenuous when in the run-up to the Iranian nuclear negotiations he insisted he was prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran’s atomic ambitions.  In my view, the tough talk was a show intended more to restrain the prospect of Israeli military action rather than coerce Iranian behavior, especially in the key 2012-2013 period.

As I noted in a series of posts back then (see hereherehere and here), a chorus of distinguished Middle East experts had lined up on the other side of the argument.  Among them was Dennis Ross, who oversaw White House policy toward Tehran for a good part of Mr. Obama’s first term.  Three years back, he asserted that “I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails [to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons] — to use force.”

Mr. Ross elaborates on this point in his just-published book, excerpts of which appear in Politico.  He reports that President Obama early in his administration directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and that measures were taken to strengthen the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.

Yet the evidence Ross proffers cuts both ways, as when he acknowledges that the additional deployments of missile defenses and naval forces were motivated in part by a desire to be ready for Iranian retaliation in the event Israel undertook its own military action against Tehran, a contingency that much worried the Obama White House.  He notes too that the Israeli government regularly suspected that the Obama administration had gone wobbly on Iran.  In fact, by late 2013 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded (wrongly, Ross insists) that Mr. Obama had lost the personal will to keep up the military and economic pressure on Tehran.

Ross also outlines the sharp lack of consensus within the Obama administration over the ultimate aim of U.S. policy – that is, whether Washington should be prepared to back up its rhetoric with military force in the event Iran did develop nuclear weapons or acquiesce to this event and work to contain the regional military consequences.  As he puts it …

… there was debate over whether we should use force to prevent the Iranians from crossing the threshold if crippling economic sanctions, isolation and diplomatic pressure and negotiations failed to do so. [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, made it clear that we were in two wars in the region and that was quite enough. They were not soft on Iran, but they were not in favor of the use of force if all other means failed to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit.

(By the way, this debate found public expression in a May 2013 report on the challenges of containing a nuclear-armed Iran, which was put out by a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. It argued that a policy of containment “may eventually become the only path left.” Significantly, the report’s co-author was Colin H. Kahl, who had served as the Defense Department’s point person on the Middle East for much of the administration’s first term.  Noteworthy too is that Kahl rejoined the administration a year ago as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor.)

Where Mr. Obama came down in this internal debate is unclear.  Ross contends he urged the president in early 2010 to jettison the vague statement that Iran nuclear proliferation was “unacceptable” in favor of a stiffer formulation along the lines that the U.S. was “determined to prevent” this outcome.  Obama finally accepted the more definitive language but only after thinking about it overnight.  It is striking though that even this formulation is not as robust as the bold redline the president drew in mid-2012 regarding Syrian chemical weapons use and then ultimately abandoned when his bluff was called.

Indeed, looking at the contours of Mr. Obama’s current policy on Syria – especially the conspicuous doubts about the efficacy of U.S. military power and the obvious desire for strategic retrenchment from the Greater Middle East – it remains difficult to pay any credence to Mr. Obama’s earlier words on Iran.

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Obama’s Disingenuousness on Iran

Depending on one’s perspective, President Obama’s address at American University earlier this month was either a rousing defense of the Iran nuclear agreement or an egregious instance of political demagoguery. But one thing the speech underscores with certainty is that Mr. Obama’s earlier vows that he was prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran’s atomic ambitions were disingenuous.

Now that the Iranian nuclear agreement is complete, Mr. Obama’s lack of sincerity is equally apparent in his insistence that the deal’s rejection would put America on the path toward another major conflict in the Middle East.

Read the rest of the essay at The Diplomat.

In a series of posts in 2012 and 2013 (see here, here, here and here), I voiced my skepticism about the credibility of the Obama administration’s tough talk.  As I noted then, a chorus of distinguished Middle East experts insisted I had it wrong.  Dennis Ross, who oversaw White House policy toward Tehran for a good part of Mr. Obama’s first term, commented that “I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails [to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons] — to use force.”  Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, concurred, as did James F. Jeffrey, who oversaw Iran policy in the Bush White House before serving as the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad from 2010-2012.  And Michael Crowley at Time magazine took the same line, describing Obama as “entirely prepared for war with Iran.”

But in light of events over the past few years, I claim vindication on this point.

UPDATE, August 26: Writing today in Real Clear World, Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, argues that President Obama’s policy in the region is characterized by “high-flying rhetoric” and “making commitments upon which he cannot deliver.”  He notes:

When you do not or will not act, words become substitutes for deeds. Part of the problem may be that the administration sees the world the way it wants it to be, not the way it really is. Perhaps part of the issue is a desire to deflect pressure by the use of bold words. Whatever the explanation, to have credibility in foreign policy you must say what you mean, and mean what you say. Sadly, far too many times, the Obama administration has done exactly the opposite.

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Obama’s NATO Snub is a Familiar Story

This month’s headlines chronicling the breakdown in U.S.-Israeli affairs and the personal disdain between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have overshadowed the continuing dysfunctions in Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in Europe.

Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View reports that Mr. Obama has delivered what can only be regarded as an extraordinary snub to Jens Stoltenberg, who became the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization six months ago.  Obama is one of the few Western leaders not yet to have met with Stoltenberg and has deliberately passed up a chance to see him this week when Stoltenberg is in Washington.  Rogin notes that the NATO chief was able to arrange a last-minute meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, though he requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

The upshot is that Obama is missing a good opportunity to firm up NATO solidarity in the face of Moscow’s on-going predations against Ukraine.  As Rogin concludes, “the message Russian President Vladimir Putin will take away is that the White House-NATO relationship is rocky, and he will be right.”  Moreover, given that Stoltenberg is a two-time prime minister of Norway, a meeting would have sent a powerful message to Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark that are facing increased Russian provocations (here, here and here).

As I noted in an earlier post, Mr. Obama’s disinterest in America’s European allies is a long-standing story.  Beyond the foreign policy consequences of how the president has mismanaged relations with the continent, a surfeit of irony is also at work.  His promise to repair the damaged ties caused by the acrimony over the Iraq war guaranteed him euphoric welcomes in Berlin in July 2008 and in Prague the following spring.  Speaking before a massive crowd assembled in Berlin’s “Tiergarten” (speech text here; video here), he grandly vowed to “remake the world once again,” this time in a way that allies would “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.”  That pledge is now so yesterday that some European leaders are reportedly longing for the days of George W. Bush.

[UPDATE, April 1: A more detailed version of this post is now up on The National Interest‘s website.]

[UPDATE, February 15, 2016: According to a new Bloomberg View report, the consensus among European officials and experts attending this year’s Munich Security Conference is that the Obama administration is prepared to continue sitting on the sidelines as the continent grapples with a series of critical issues.

Also worth noting is last week’s column in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, the newspaper’s former foreign editor.  He quotes a senior European diplomat as saying that Mr. Obama “is not interested in Europe.”  Cohen adds “That is a fair assessment of the first postwar American leader for whom the core trans-Atlantic alliance was something to be dutifully upheld rather than emotionally embraced.”]

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Obama’s National Security Orphans

Even before he arrived at the White House, much was made about President Obama’s readiness to seek out wide-ranging opinions and employ a “Team of Rivals” for his decision-making.  But as my last two posts (here and here) argue, his reliance once in the Oval Office on an ever-tighter circle of advisers has actually stifled the flow of creative ideas and alternative perspectives that are vital to a well-functioning policy apparatus in the White House.  Two recent news items further underscore this point.

The first is a cover story in The Atlantic’s January/February issue.  It relates that in the spring of 2011 Mr. Obama asked Gary Hart, the former U.S. Senator and military reform expert, to bring together a small working group to generate proposals on reshaping the Pentagon in the event he won re-election.  Among other experts whom Hart roped in was Norman R. Augustine, the widely-respected former chairman & CEO of Lockheed Martin who earlier in his career served as acting Secretary of the Army.  The group produced its report and then never heard back from Obama.

This is a regular theme for Obama.  Ahmed Rashid, a distinguished Pakistani journalist, recounts that Obama’s first presidential campaign recruited a strong expert team on AfPak issues (including Rashid) and then all but ignored it.  He did even not bother to consult it prior to his July 2008 trip to Afghanistan during which he made the amateurish mistake of meeting first with one of Hamid Karzai’s political rivals, needlessly antagonizing the insecure Afghan leader and setting the tone for his administration’s deeply strained ties with its wartime partner in Kabul.

A few weeks following his November 2008 election, Obama announced the formation of a high-level panel of private citizens, chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, to advise him on economic policy.  Explaining the group’s mission, the president-elect declared:

The reality is that sometimes policymaking in Washington can become too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking–and those who serve in Washington don’t always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working for people, and which aren’t.

But once the board started work, Volcker became disillusioned with the White House’s propensity to use it as a public relations exercise rather than a mechanism for policy ideas.  In early 2011, the board was reconfigured.  Volcker was not consulted on this step and he was unceremoniously replaced as chairman by General Electric’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt.  The new group, however, was not especially active – a condition the White House press secretary said was due to the fact that Mr. Obama was too busy to meet with it.  In the end, the administration decided not to renew its charter and its existence came to an unheralded end once the president was re-elected.

The second news item worthy of note is a post on The National Interest’s website by Lawrence J. Korb, who very early signed on to the first Obama presidential campaign and helped lead its military policy advisory team.  He notes that the 300 national security experts who served on a volunteer basis with the campaign took a considerable career risk since the Hillary Clinton campaign threatened to marginalize them if she ended up in the Oval Office.  Yet for all of their troubles, almost none of them were subsequently drafted into the Obama administration.  Instead, the new president opted to fill the national security bureaucracy with Clinton supporters and Bush holdovers.  A media account back then reported that Korb wrote the president to encourage him to look toward his own bench but never heard back.

Instead of tearing down the walls of the echo chamber, as Mr. Obama once pledged, his administration’s instinct has been to build them up higher.  Domestic affairs and foreign policy have suffered alike as a result.  Unfortunately, the problem is only becoming worse, since the president has now stopped interacting with all but his most loyal staffers.

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