Preventive – a seemingly innocuous word has been getting a lot of play in recent publications and conferences sponsored by Washington think tanks – perhaps nowhere more than at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). Generally we don’t expect death, destruction and illegality to rest on the preventive side of the equation. Then again, after March 19, 2003, perhaps we should. When WINEP uses the word preventive they mean “preventive military action.” More precisely – a military attack on another country, in this case Iran that is neither in self-defense nor in response to an immediate threat of attack.
The likelihood of a military strike against Iran either by the United States or Israel has been debated for years waxing and waning with the geopolitical climate. What is not in question is the steady effort by some to lay the ground work for such an action.
The Washington Institute founded by Martin Indyk, a former research director for AIPAC, seeks to “bring scholarship to bear on the making of U.S. policy” in the Middle East. Among its programs is the Presidential Study Group “charged with drafting a blueprint for the next administration’s Middle East policy.” WINEP’s board of advisors includes noted figures such as Richard Perle, R. James Woolsey and until 2001 Paul Wolfowitz.
Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow and director of WINEP’s Military and Security Studies Program wrote a three-page article in September 2006 entitled “Iran: The Complex Calculus of Preventive Military Action.” Eisenstadt discussed the factors that would be in play if the U.S. took preventive military action to “thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”
He tackled first the matter of congressional authorization for a planned attack on Iran. He referred to it as “consulting Congress.” Quickly bypassing Congress’ constitutional power to declare war citing precedence, Eisenstadt laid out two options. 1. Inform a select group of members of Congress prior to launching a strike, but risk public disapproval. 2. Allow Congress to openly debate the “merits of military action” and seek a joint resolution, but risk defeat of a resolution.
Bearing in mind WINEP’s mission to use scholarship to assist in policy making, it is worth noting a glaring omission. Mr. Eisenstadt made no room for discussion of the UN Charter ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1945 thereby making it the law of our land. It requires that member nations refrain from the threat or use of force and that if a dispute is not settled it shall be referred to the Security Council which will make recommendations.
While the Charter allows for military action in self-defense and the issue of a preemptive attack in the face of “imminent danger” has been a point of contention in recent years, no strong case for an “imminent” attack was even put forth in the article. What Eisenstadt was considering was a preventive strike to “thwart ambitions.”
To minimize national backlash – a rally around the flag in Iran – Eisenstadt recommended that the U.S. engage in a “high-profile information campaign” to convince the Iranian people that an attack on their country is in their best interest. The article concluded that while seeking diplomacy, military prevention should be on the table.
In summer 2007, Eisenstadt published another article on preventive action “The Complex Calculus of Preventive Military Action.” Along with the title the article was, with a few exceptions, the same as the one he authored in 2006.
In 2006, his reason was “faltering diplomacy” over Iran’s nuclear program. In 2007, he pointed to Bush administration claims that Iran was supplying IED’s that were being used against U.S. forces in Iraq. This was a big news item at the time. What was not big news was that proof of those claims never fully materialized.
Both articles shared an important statement, “[One] should not dismiss the possibility that the intelligence picture concerning Iran’s nuclear program could change rapidly.” And change it did. In December 2007, the key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran were made public. Among the findings: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
Thus began the campaign to discredit the 2007 NIE on Iran.
Bending, conspiring, duping and ruining our day
The first to let his fingers fly was Norman Podhoretz. Writing for the Commentary, he penned an article in June 2007 entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran.” On September 11, his book World War IV: The Long Struggle against Islamofascism was released.
Hours after the key judgments of the NIE were made public, he accused the intelligence community of “bending over backward” to dispute what he claimed is universally believed – that Iran is “hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons.” He continued, “But, I entertain an even darker suspicion. It is that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again.” Patrick Clawson, WINEP’s deputy director for research offered his own spin. He asked “how much does weaponization matter?” and claimed that the findings only suggest a change in sequence by Tehran. For good measure, Clawson lamented about the U.S. intelligence community’s “poor track record.”
Next up: Kenneth Timmerman. Writing for Newsmax, Timmerman cited the publication’s alleged sources in Tehran and claimed that “Washington has fallen for ‘a deliberate disinformation campaign’ cooked up by the Revolutionary Guards.”
Timmerman viciously attacked Thomas Fingar, chair of the National Intelligence Council, and others involved in preparing the NIE all the while quoting himself from the book he authored that was released a few weeks earlier entitled Shadow Warriors: The Untold Story of Traitors, Saboteurs, and the Party of Surrender. It’s unclear whether he was suggesting Dr. Fingar was a traitor, a saboteur or just a wimp.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation urged readers not to be misled by the NIE. Despite the NIE’s high confidence that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program, Phillips warned of the danger of “disinformation or misinformation.” His answer was that it was “Time for Team B.” He said the president should establish an independent panel of experts to examine the evidence assembled in the NIE. Either the U.S. intelligence agencies’ experts were not expert enough for Mr. Phillips’ liking or their findings were not to his liking.
Podhoretz, Timmerman and Phillips are all members of The Committee on the Present Danger co-chaired by WINEP’s advisory board member, R. James Woolsey.
When committed to your hand – double down.
With the November 2007 NIE in mind would Michael Eisenstadt, for the third year, reintroduce the Complex Calculus? In June 2008, it resurfaced. This time primarily as an annex to a 45-page publication called Agenda: Iran. The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Action against Iran coauthored with colleague Patrick Clawson.
The authors assert that the study does not advocate military action – the time is not right and they don’t know the level of target intelligence available to the U.S. The Last Resort does lay out the “prerequisites for a successful policy of preventive action should the United States decide to go this route.” A precursory look finds they favor prevention over deterrence while only feigning interest in diplomacy. Undoubtedly what it does is provide that all important blueprint for a preventive strike not only militarily, but politically.
There is no hiding the resentment the authors have for the release of the NIE findings. They blame lack of support for preventive action by allies and even Iranians on the intelligence community “seemingly soft-pedaling Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”
The article speaks to the proper conditions both in the U.S. and Iran for a preventive strike to be accepted and successful. One scenario they describe is if Iran were to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In January 2007 John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN and perennial cheerleader for bombing Iran, in a conference call reportedly with members of AIPAC, expressed disappointment that Iran had not withdrawn from the NPT in response to the UN Security Council Resolution passed the month before. “I actually hoped they would. That kind of reaction,” he told them “would produce a counter-reaction that actually would be more beneficial to us.”
Smoking-gun evidence presents a dilemma for the authors. Striking in the absence of it would create a challenge militarily in terms of target intelligence and could evoke sympathy for Iran. Attacking Iran in the presence of smoking-gun proof, they report, could be “tantamount to going to war with a nuclear Iran.” And, waiting for it “may amount to de facto acquiescence in a nuclear-armed Iran.” The language is familiar.
“The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Condoleezza Rice, September 8, 2002.
“Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Pres. George W. Bush, October 7, 2002.
Nuclear facilities are not the only targets Eisenstadt and Clawson consider worthy of bombing. They also eye Iran’s oil infrastructure. They admit it may result in soaring oil prices and poor economic growth, but quickly add those problems are “not clearly the greater evil.”
They also suggest coupling strikes on nuclear facilities with strikes on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the Ministry of Intelligence. This combined with the prospect that repeated strikes may be required, preventive military action begins to emerge as a widespread military campaign.
Also discussed is an Israeli strike versus U.S. strike. While Israel may be more disposed to taking preventive action, they say, it will likely engender more international criticism. They question the effectiveness of an Israeli-led strike versus one led by the U.S. military. Given that many will conclude that the U.S. at the very least gave the green light, they offer a few suggestions including the U.S. preempting a strike by Israel or proposing a joint U.S.-Israel action.
Prevention, they say, would involve a significant risk of retaliation by the Iranians and may only delay the nuclear program most likely requiring future military action. Not mentioned are casualties or financial burdens. When discussing deterrence they employ phrases like “catastrophic failure” and the “deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions.” What is clearly not acceptable in connection to a policy of deterrence is a resultant “ambiguous nuclear weapons capability.”
Taking the Show on the Road
Eisenstadt’s call for a high-profile information campaign was not limited to targeting Iranians. On July 3, 2008, he participated in a conference call with reporters held simultaneously in Washington, D.C., London, Brussels and Jerusalem.
Sponsoring the call was The Israel Project (TIP). According to its website, TIP “provides journalists, leaders and opinion-makers accurate information about Israel” influencing “hundreds of millions of people around the world.” Its board of advisors includes 22 members of the U.S. Congress (12 Senators and 10 Representatives).
He said that he was somewhat pessimistic about the prospects of successful diplomacy. He then repeated to the 100-plus reporters the fear-eliciting conclusion from the Last Resort that not acting militarily could result in catastrophe and the deaths of millions of people.
Mark Summers, a reporter based in Bahrain, asked whether talk of preventive measures was premature given the findings of the U.S. intelligence community. Eisenstadt responded, “To be honest, to be fair, I think that the NIE was carefully couched.”
A Former CIA Analyst Weighs in on the Last Resort
Ray McGovern, who during his 27-years in the CIA had the opportunity to chair NIE’s, had strong words about Eisenstadt’s approach.
“One way to look at the Eisenstadt paper [the Last Resort] and briefing is as a surrogate NIE. They fulfill the function of an Estimate nicely for administration’s purposes not unlike the Office of Special Plans setup by Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith in the Pentagon to come up with the “correct” answers before and during Iraq. It’s an old stratagem; one of the best examples was Team B which played up the Soviet threat starting in the ‘70s.”
McGovern who has advocated for a “Memorandum to Holders” of the previous estimate – an update to the 2007 NIE – added sharply “If you can’t get the answers you want from the $50 billion intelligence bureaucracy, make sure they do nothing and create something off on the side to provide what you want.”
On preventive military action, McGovern doesn’t hold back. “Preventive military action is a war crime. It’s a war of aggression defined by Nuremberg as the supreme international crime.” Referring to the Last Resort he said “I’m sure it’s being shown to whomever will digest it into words for the president as ‘this is probably the considered view of the experts’ on Iran.”
Next Stop on the Preventive Action Tour: Christians United for Israel (CUFI)
In late July 2008, WINEP’s Patrick Clawson joined controversial pastor John Hagee’s CUFI for their Washington-Israel Summit. Ali Gharib, a Washington-based journalist, discussed Clawson’s role in an article he wrote. Clawson sat on the panel “Iran: Eye of the Storm.” This panel was closed to the press so Gharib attended instead with a participant’s pass.
He reported “Clawson elicited laughter from the crowd with his statement that Some Iranian leaders are quite happy to be suicidal. Many of them are not rational.” He also claimed “Iran is spending at least $200 million a year financing, training, and arming every terror group that is killing Israelis in the pursuit of eliminating the state of Israel.”
However, during the Q&A session when questioned about possible Iranian retaliation to a U.S. strike, Gharib writes that Clawson responded by saying, “The history, so far, is of blood-curdling threats, and [then] nothing happens.”
It seems in a brassy attempt to sell the preventive action product, Clawson points to heinous actions by an irrational regime and then when asked about Iranian retaliation, he claims that same group might not respond at all to an attack on its homeland.
Shifting Focus to Arabs and Americans
For years, the focus on preventing a “nuclear Iran” was based on the perceived threat to the state of Israel as demonstrated in Patrick Clawson’s presentation at the Christians United for Israel conference. But in September, a noticeable shift began to emerge from the thinkers at the Washington Institute.
On September 11, 2008, Clawson wrote “Don’t Make Iran an Israeli Issue” published in The Jewish Daily Forward. After reminding readers of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he wrote “Lately, however, the public discussion has been focused too much on the specific threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel.” He reasserted that claim, but then added how it would also be a “menace” to its “Arab neighbors and to American and Western interests.”
Seeking no cover, he explains “[If] we want to figure out how to move Russia and China to do more, we are more likely to persuade these governments by emphasizing the risk of proliferation rather than the threat to Israel.”
To Bomb or Not to Bomb
Two weeks later, Clawson and Eisenstadt hosted a panel at The Washington Institute called “Bombing Iran or Living with Iran’s Bomb.” It was based on a publication of the same title written by Kassem Ja’afar for the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, an organization established in 2004 by the American Jewish Committee.
Isaac Ben-Israel, a member of the Knesset and retired major general in the Israeli Defense Forces spoke directly to the question of prevention versus deterrence and concluded that the “chosen strategy” would be prevention. “The reason” he said “is not only because I am speaking as an Israeli and we all know the policy of Iran towards Israel calling to destroy Israel or to wipe it out of the map every two days or so, it’s not that reason by itself. It is much deeper than this.”
Ben-Israel then shifted to Clawson’s new call to action. He stated that because Iran is neither Arab nor Sunni a nuclear weapon in the hands of Iran is “frightening not only Israel but those Arab leaders, what we call the moderate Arab states in the Middle East.” He spoke of proliferation and Iran exporting the Shi’a revolution.
He predicted in the face of a military conflict, despite heavy losses, “Israel will survive and Iran will go back to the Stone Ages.” He warned that Iranian nuclear capability is the main concern because once they have that it’s just “a few months away” from having a bomb and that “I think will depend only on their good will, if you believe they have a good will.”
Kassem Ja’afar, former diplomatic advisor to the government of Qatar, turned the attention to a regional issue. What Ja’afar said is perhaps more reflective of the concerns of the U.S. and Israel governments than a fear of attack. According to Ja’afar “[Very] simply Iran wants to be recognized as a regional super power…because it wants to have a dominant effect on the policies of the region, on the wealth of the region, and the strategic position of the region vis-à-vis the world.”
This is unacceptable, he said, because of the ideological and strategic dimensions. Strategic dimensions like “oil and the Gulf and the maritime routes throughout the Middle East.” In his publication he describes in great detail the military assets that Israel and the U.S. would bring to the table if there were a preventive attack – writing U.S. involvement into the picture as a given.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst brought some cold reality to the discussion. Because of the absence of unclassified intelligence, he has seen “people coming out with strike plans” in Op-Ed’s that “range from rubbish to irresponsible,” casting a disapproving look at one or more of the panelists which included in addition to Kassem Ja’afar and Isaac Ben-Israel, Michael Eisenstadt and Patrick Clawson.
He continued “The fact is that these are extraordinarily complex and they involve far more than simply counting targets…This is much more of a chainsaw than a scalpel.” He did offer “What we have and what Israel does not have is the ability to persist. We have the ability to do the damage assessment. We have the ability to do re-strikes.”
During the Q&A, Clawson and Eisenstadt focused on the issue of a preventive attack on Iran. Clawson asked Isaac Ben-Israel “What do you think the international community and Israel would do in the aftermath of this strike to prevent Iran from rebuilding?”
Ben-Israel responded nonchalantly “If we fail we have to come back five years later and do the same again…The alternative is, do we want for Iran to have a bomb?” Answering his own question, he closed with “the alternative is worse.”
Michael Eisenstadt asked Kassem Ja’afar, “What might the Arabs be willing to do to help either the United States or Israel with preventive military action?” Ja’afar’s answer in a nutshell, “I frankly don’t think the Arabs can do much at all.”
Deputy Director of National Intel Gives WINEP a Presidents Daily Brief – Say What?!
Ray McGovern was on to something when he spoke about WINEP and the Last Resort serving as a surrogate NIE. Seems the Washington Institute for Near East Policy may have the best seat in town when it comes to access to U.S. intelligence.
McGovern said it was “bizarre that McConnell’s [Mike McConnell, Director of National Intelligence] principal deputy Donald Kerr briefed WINEP some 5 or 6 months ago….and a CIA nuclear weapons expert also briefed WINEP.”
That CIA analyst may have been Michael Leiter, Acting Director of the National Counterterrorism Center who paid WINEP a visit in February 2008 to discuss the “looming challenges in the war on terror.” Ray believes that this level of interaction by the agency with WINEP is “Very irregular.”
On May 29, 2008, Donald Kerr, the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence delivered a remarkable presentation to WINEP.
Speaking at a program entitled Emerging Threats, Challenges, and Opportunities in the Middle East, Kerr explained that the Presidents Daily Brief (PDB) was one of their most privileged documents read by only a handful of people and delivered to the president by either the Director of National Intelligence or himself. He added “They are based on some of our best collection capabilities, coupled with our most exacting analysis.”
Then Donald Kerr announced “This evening, I’m going to give you a notional view of some of the issues that will be raised in the Oval Office PDB on January 21, 2009.”
“We’ll give you a snapshot of where things stand now and some of the overarching thoughts as to potential future developments…Iran, for example, continues to provide weapons, funding, and training support to certain Iraqi Shi’a militants designed to increase Tehran’s influence over Iraq and ensure the United States suffers setbacks.”
He offered a taste of intelligence analysis on the state of Iran when the next president takes office. The level of authenticity or sincerity is not clear. Was what he provided his own personal conclusion or based on combined intelligence and analysis? Certainly, it would be improper for someone in his capacity to fabricate information about such a sensitive matter. No heavily guarded secrets were shared it seems, but the presentation did appear to be tailored to his audience. With Congress fighting for more access to intelligence information it does seem “very irregular” that a think tank with a clearly pro-Israel viewpoint that regularly discusses a military attack on Iran would be hand-fed information of any level directly from the ODNI.
What follows are highlights, including a jab at the NIE, from Kerr’s prepared speech on his mock PDB on Iran:
“The regime has become more authoritarian …Despite rising oil income, Iran’s economy is plagued by high inflation and unemployment…Iran’s foreign activities constitute a direct and immediate threat to American interests.
Iran is pursuing a range of efforts to undermine U.S. influence…The U.S. military continues to find caches of Iranian-made weapons in Iraq, including rockets, small arms, and explosively formed penetrator devices, including some manufactured in the past year.
We must also talk about the nuclear issue. Over the past year, we have gained important new insights into Iran’s activities related to nuclear weapons, and in November 2007, the Intelligence Community published a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iranian intentions and capabilities in this area. In our NIE…we also judged that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities…But given that the halted activities were part of an unannounced secret program that Iran attempted to hide, we do not know whether it has been restarted since our last assessment…A number of countries in the region have recently expressed renewed interest in nuclear power.”
These remarks fit like a glove to WINEP’s Last Resort hand.
A Q&A followed with at least one member of WINEP pretending he was the president, pushing the envelope in his questions to Donald Kerr to the great amusement of the audience. But, there was no joke about the information he was trying to elicit – target intelligence on Iran.
Michael Stein asked “Do you know exactly where those production facilities are and how we can target them or what kind of weaponry will produce the result we want? I would hope also that you have some boots on the ground and you’ve done some mapping for us and can give us precise directions of where to go and what to do. And, finally, at what point would you suggest to me that the Iranians have gone too far in this development and that I better do something about it before we pass the point of no return? [Laughter, applause.]
You can read Donald Kerr’s response to those questions here as well as questions posed by R. James Woolsey, Martin Gross and others.
Priming the Incoming President
Mentioned earlier was WINEP’s Presidential Study Group that “drafts a blueprint for the next administration’s Middle East policy.” One of the task forces is the “Future of the U.S.-Israeli Relations.” This group convened several times throughout 2007 and 2008 including a retreat with ten Israeli counterparts.
Their final product is a Statement on “How to Deepen U.S.-Israel Cooperation on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge.” It states that Iran’s nuclear weapons capability “hovers above all other items on the U.S.-Israel agenda.”
Among the declarations of this Statement:
“We have an abiding commitment to the survival and security of Israel, so the potential threat to Israel of an Iranian nuclear bomb is a major concern of ours as well.”
“Americans should recognize that deterrence is, in Israeli eyes, an unattractive alternative to prevention, because, if deterrence fails, Israel would suffer terribly.”
“[The] U.S.-Israel relationship has come under unprecedented attack. Some of these critics argue that Israel has manipulated the U.S. government to act counter to the American national interest, which – if properly understood – would see Israel as a liability… We reject that critique.”
The Task Force recommends that the new president’s policy options should include coercive options and preventive military action against Iran. They ask the president to use his position to convey directly to the American people that Iran’s “nuclear ambitions are likely to trigger a surge of nuclear proliferation…The central argument is that preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability is not special pleading for America’s ally Israel – it is vital to America’s own security.”
Included among the signatories to this Statement are advisors to Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. They include Dennis Ross, Obama’s senior advisor on Middle East affairs. Ross served as co-convenor of this task force and is a consultant to WINEP. Other foreign policy advisors to Sen. Obama who signed in support of this Statement are Richard Clarke, Susan Rice and Anthony Lake. R. James Woolse, advisor to Sen. McCain and advisor to WINEP signed as well. Worth noting is the cover of the publication that displays a photograph with U.S. and Israeli flags waving behind a line of uniformed men and women armed with what I am told are AR-15’s, M-16’s and AK-47’s.
Considering the working relationship with advisors to both presidential candidates, the exchange of information with members of the intelligence community and even a special visit in October 2007 by Vice President Dick Cheney, there is little doubt that the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will continue to live up to its mission to draft and shape U.S. policy in the Middle East – a policy that assigns a high priority to a preventive military attack on Iran.