Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Panetta’s Dangerous Mistake

by Elliott Abrams
December 3, 2011

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.

Post a Comment 19 Comments

  • Posted by Robin

    Once again, Mr Richardson with his pro-Israeli bias misses the point. Whatever the failings of either side, until they sit down together there can be no forward movement – hence Mr Panetta’s frustration. Actually, it makes a refreshing change for a senior official to tell us what he really thinks.

  • Posted by MFS

    What worried me more in his ‘speech’ when i read it yesterday was the fact that ‘they’ are more concerned about the ‘fallout’ damage to America than the actual survival of Israel.So go ahead bomb Israel as long as America doesn’t get ‘hurt’.

  • Posted by J

    “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.

    And this guy is your Senior fellow for MidEast Studies? Are you kidding me cfr?

  • Posted by Vineet

    This is classical disinformation. Even if it was difficult to strike the targets, it is follish if America to advertise the fact.

    They are lulling the Mullahs before decapitating them.

  • Posted by iqbal

    avoid confontrational language and confontration which lead extreme disaster for europr and usa in particular and the rest of the world in general considering current fragile economic conditions globally near collapse of capitalistic system based on interest and greed lacking outright ethics and values the humanbeings needs the most now whereever they are on our planet

  • Posted by iqbal

    avoid confontration

  • Posted by Garrard Glenn

    Yes, it was a dumb showing of our hole cards. Unless it was a clever ruse to put the Iranians to sleep via disinformation, but that is unlikely.

    I emailed Caroline Glick today, and urged her to encourage her fellow Israelis to in turn encourage AIPAC to back the current bill in the Senate to block any activity with the Bank of Iran. That seems to me to be the first and only sanction I have heard of that boasts a real set of teeth. Sadly, Mr. Obama is not the author of the bill. Our legislature is now forced to assume the duties of the executive branch vis-a-vis Iran.

    What do you think of the bill, and this tactic?

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    I’m very much in favor of sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran. They seem to me likely to have a serious impact, as would the other proposal by President Sarkozy: blocking Iran’s oil exports.

  • Posted by Jared

    Hey J,

    Have you remotely been following the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over the past few years? How is Mr. Abrams wrong here?

  • Posted by Matt

    The population thought that was an Israeli strike, there were no mass rallies, behind the regime.

    The region well as protestors in both Iran and Syria key resistance blocks had been and are on the streets shouting not for Jerusalem, not for Hizbullah, that regional support is doubtful at best.

    We know it takes Hizbullah and Hamas around 6 years to disarm after deconstruction, so at the least it would take Iran that amount of time to start again. And of course as when Qum was discovered in 2005 the IAF would fly once again after 6 years.

    While the regime is weak, so is the opposition, so any weakening of the IRGC, would only strengthen the opposition.

    They did try to start another front in Mexico, to keep the US on two fronts Afghanistan and Mexico as Iraq came to a close. Admiral Mullen no third front.

    The Straits of Hormuz is not a long term strategy, so it will be a spike. If they attack the US bases or US ships shoot back soldier.

    I say Israel bomb them and keep hitting them for months.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I don’t believe Panetta is speaking for himself but rather as a mouthpiece of the Obama Administration . He should be careful about that . Back when he was Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff during budgetary battles with congress he said to the news cameras , smilingly , while climbing the capitol steps ; “I’m going up there to kick some ass .” It was only a couple of hours later that he came back down those same steps with his tail-feathers on fire .

    There’s a big difference between being a “good soldier” and letting someone else make you look like a fool .

  • Posted by Dan Friedman

    Obama and his employees are most likely on the edge of insanity known as a panic attack. Any number of circumstances (which they set in motion) could force Israel into an offensive mode, so they’re trying to keep a lid on the pot. Must be nerve-racking. If there’s any occult going on here, Obama is collaborating with Israeli folks who are not in the coalition, and want it brought down. Sounds like Hillary and Panetta are channeling Livni, among others.

  • Posted by Laura

    Robin, alas you are whitewashing the clear bias AGAINST Israel in Panetta’s admonition. It is not Israel that refuses to sit down at the table without preconditions, yet it is Israel he chooses to berate for the lack of negotiations. That’s bias whether you can see it or not.

  • Posted by Sadat

    Its complicated.

  • Posted by H M S

    Rather than think “outside the box”, it would seem Panetta is urging us to climb into a box so we can reassure ourselves that whatever happens, it cannot be our fault.

  • Posted by Linsey Habrock

    Took me a moment to scan most the remarks on this post, but I genuinely liked the post. It proved to be Quite helpful to me and I am assured to almost all the commenters here! It’s continually nice when you’ll be able to not simply be educated, but additionally entertained!

  • Posted by abe silverman

    Hitler came to power in 1933 and set out to build what was at the time the largest and most powerful military and his neighbors stood by and watched him do it. What did the world think that Hitler was going to do with this huge arenal. How different things would have been if Germany’s neighbors had closed their borders to all materials needed to make war. Istead of the endless talking and signing useless treaties Hitler should not have been allowed anything but food and medicine. 40 million lost their lives. We are making the same mistake with Iran and this time it will be 400 million.

  • Posted by Muhammad NaIya

    Whatever gave the U.S. the “right” to bomb other Nations simply because they are suspected of pursuing a programme the U.S. does not like?
    2. I am still puzzled at the ‘power of Israel’ over U.S. policies, is it that the U.S. is so complicit on the Holocaust or what that America cannot get over it? Whatever Israel and the U.S. may have against Iran, there is yet no proof that Iran has ever attacked Israel nor indeed participated in the 9/11 attacks or is it just a case of MIGHT IS RIGHT?
    Whatever happens, a strike on Iran based on mere suspicion will have a far more propound wffcet on the aggressors and certainly the U.S. interests will be hurt far more than any other nations.

  • Posted by MethanP

    His masters voice.

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