from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Panetta’s Dangerous Mistake

December 3, 2011

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Secretary of Defense Panetta addressed the Saban Forum, the annual meeting of Israeli and American journalists, officials, and former officials, on Friday evening. What he said is no mystery; why he said it is a considerable one. The transcript is here.

What he said was that Israel is largely to blame for its troubles. No doubt he and other Obama administration officials and spokesmen would deny that, but the journalists present had it right. The Washington Post headline was “Panetta Chides Israel Over Stalled Peace Process.”

The New York Times reported that “Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta spoke sternly on Friday to America’s closest ally in the Middle East, telling Israel that it is partly responsible for its increasing isolation and that it now must take “bold action” — diplomatic, not military — to mend ties with its Arab neighbors and settle previously intractable territorial disputes with the Palestinians."

“Get to the damn table,” Mr. Panetta shouted, as if it were Israel rather than the PLO that has been refusing to come to the table.

But there was worse.

Secretary Panetta repeatedly said Israel should trust the United States to stop Iran from getting a bomb and said again, in the old mantra, that all options are on the table. Then he was asked how long a military attack might postpone Iran from getting a bomb. Here was the reply:

SEC.PANETTA: Part of the problem here is the concern that at best, I think – talking to my friends – the indication is that at best it might postpone it maybe one, possibly two years. It depends on the ability to truly get the targets that they’re after. Frankly, some of those targets are very difficult to get at. That kind of, that kind of shot would only, I think, ultimately not destroy their ability to produce an atomic weapon, but simply delay it – number one.

Of greater concern to me are the unintended consequences, which would be that ultimately it would have a backlash and the regime that is weak now, a regime that is isolated would suddenly be able to reestablish itself, suddenly be able to get support in the region, and suddenly instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah.

Thirdly, the United States would obviously be blamed and we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases.

Fourthly – there are economic consequences to that attack – severe economic consequences that could impact a very fragile economy in Europe and a fragile economy here in the United States. And lastly I think that the consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret. So we have to be careful about the unintended consequences of that kind of an attack.

Now, if that is the secretary’s view he is duty bound to say it secretly to the president in the Oval Office. But it is astonishing that he would say this on the record, for consumption in Tehran as well as in Jerusalem and all Arab capitals. For who, reading those words, really can believe that “all options are on the table?” Who can believe Panetta hasn’t already made up his mind and will fight any decision to use force? Note his comment that how long a strike would delay Iran’s program “depends on the ability to truly get at the targets that they’re after. Frankly, some of those targets are very difficult to get at.” In plain English, what he was saying--as news stories put it--was that "US says strike on Iran could miss nuclear sites." How reassuring for the Iranian regime.

How can such comments possibly help the president’s declared policy of pressuring Iran to slow down or abandon its nuclear program? The ayatollahs must gauge the impact of sanctions and the prospect of a military strike, so is it not obviously useful to keep them afraid of such a strike? Should not the secretary be saying, on the record, something like this:

Look, use of force is always a last resort. But the United States is a superpower, and Iran is not, and I have no doubt whatsoever of our ability to complete any mission regarding Iran upon which the President may decide. I hope the regime there knows that. We are not afraid of Iran but they ought to be very afraid of the United States.

Or words to that effect. How can it be the role of the secretary of defense to undermine the declared policy toward Iran? One wonders if the White House cleared this speech. If not, one hopes there will be hell to pay. If there is not, or if it was indeed cleared, we are learning something anew: that the declared policy that “all options are on the table” is simply not credible. Not here, not in Jerusalem, not in Gulf capitals, and alas not in Tehran.

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