Over the last few weeks, I have read with great curiosity statements by a parade of Israeli experts and former officials, all of whom assert with considerable confidence that at the end of the day, the United States is committed to denying Iran a nuclear capability, and that when the moment of truth arrives, Washington will act – unilaterally if necessary.
Having served in the previous White House – an administration generally accused of being too much the cowboy rather than being timid – and having been charged primarily with following Iran policy and even coordinating it with European capitals, I fear these Israeli officials are misguided. In the post I held, it became clear to me that the Bush administration would leave office in early 2009 having left the Iran portfolio open and unfinished, and that the following administration could in no way go where President Bush dared not venture.
Since 2003, the political opposition in Washington flatly rejected the very concept of preemptive war. Indeed, this rejection of preemption as legitimate became the eclipsing idea on foreign policy and battle cry for the opposition as it geared up for 2006 congressional and 2008 presidential elections. Along the way, rejection or preemption and unilateral action became the defining elements in the DNA of the democrats' foreign policy establishment. But if the views of the Democratic establishment were all that constituted opposition to preemptive action, I would have had more confidence leaving office that this was an issue which either my remaining colleagues, or the following administration, would take care of.
But it wasn’t so. There was just as determined opposition from just about every quarter. In virtually every negotiation in which I was involved, my interlocutors in European capitals were laser-focused on securing from us a commitment that any move by them to toughen their policies on Iran would not be understood, or manipulated, into eventually legitimizing a military action against Iran.
Even the 2005 turnabout on Libya and the following agreements on North Korea were aggressively pursued and then posited by certain European diplomats as evidence that diplomacy can solve such problems and that preemptive military actions do more harm than good. In the background lurked always the nervousness that the United States might again “go off the rails,” and preemptively strike Iran.
More disconcerting, however, were those moments when it could no longer be denied that Iran respected agreements and the diplomatic process which produced them about as much as it upheld the finer points of diplomatic immunity in 1979. Those moments occurred almost like clockwork leading up to every September’s IAEA Board of Governor’s meeting from 2002 to 2007, when Iran was “boxed in” or told its case would be referred to the United Nations Security Council. These were moments of truth: diplomacy and pressures, including sanctions, were either going to produce a change in Iranian policy, or the international community, in unity, would move to the next level of confrontation. But every August, when it was inescapable that Iran had no intention of budging, the international community faced a choice: escalate or acquiesce in Iran’s new level of atomic mastery.
Like clockwork, the diplomats punted, digested the new level of nuclear mastery in Iran, and focused not on answering the choice Iran had forced on them, but instead turned their attentions primarily on formulating a somewhat tougher position which, though utterly inadequate to stop Iran, was calibrated mostly to deflate any momentum building within the U.S. administration to a more robust policy. In short, the international community had a containment strategy; not of Iran, but of U.S. hardliners they feared would push the United States into a preemptive war to stop Iran’s nuclear power.
No appetite for preemption
Again, were the international diplomats only joined by the U.S. opposition party in opposing a more muscular response, it was my impression that a preemptive U.S. attack on Iran might still have been possible. But most unnerving was that most of the established bureaucracy within Washington, as well as half of the Republican establishment, was as determined as the opposition to prevent the United States from acting preemptively. Consistently, our diplomatic and security structures produced analysis after analysis “proving” that diplomacy was working, or that Iran had no intention of pursuing a nuclear option – the most famous incident of which was the infamous autumn 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, muchly revealed portions of which asserted Iran had abandoned a nuclear option, but less leaked portions of which were exposed by some in the press to have essentially concluded the opposite.
Some officials who had served in the Bush administration took to referring to this episode as a “soft coup” by leaders of the intelligence and diplomatic bureaucracy (though not by its rank and file intelligence officers, whose professionalism would have prevented them from asserting something so contradicted by indications) against the elected officials they did not trust. The 2007 NIE, however, served the same role as last-minute diplomatic initiatives did in so many of the previous rounds of potential escalation with Iran.
The period of September 2007 was another moment in which Iran had maneuvered itself into a moment of truth for the international community, and again that community – rather than force the choice on Iran – instead retreated into dedicating its full efforts to puncturing the momentum building within the Bush administration toward a more robust policy. In short, for the bureaucracy, and for many Republican officials within the administration, terminating the danger that “hardliners” would convince President Bush to act preemptively became the highest priority, not actually halting Iran.
For the opposition in Washington, the international community of diplomats, the Washington established bureaucracy, and even for half the Republican party, the end was always the same: prevent the hardliners from prevailing. The means were consistent: public press leaks about the “crazies” in the White House, leaks from within the intelligence community that Iran was not pursuing a bomb at this point, scholars and experts being mobilized to pronounce that “hardliners” in Iran were losing ground to “moderates” who were about to prevail and abandon the nuclear program, diplomats yielding to slightly tougher policies with promises of more to come to prove the moribund diplomatic process still had life, and so forth. And the message was the same to the targeted “hardliners” too: Hold your fire, give diplomacy a bit more time, because it is working, and Iran is budging, or its leadership is changing. And if it does not work in the end, then the whole world will be behind preemptive action. Trust us. But Iran never budged or changed, the international community never really rallied, and the West never acted. And Iran came to understand the nuclear program is not a genuine Western red-line.
No Plan B
Again, this was the history of the last five years of an administration accused of first shooting in a trigger-happy way, and only then gathering the facts. And even in that administration, it was clear to me as early as 2006 that the United States was not going to act to halt Iran. Simply, the political and bureaucratic establishments in Washington, the international community, and even many Republicans, viewed Iran’s nuclear program – as undesirable as it was – as a lower order of threat than the danger of preemptive action. And unless there was a president willing to act on a deep conviction to preempt and thus to buck the Washington establishment, the bureaucracy, the international community and even many in his own party, Washington would remain paralyzed.
Later in 2010, in an amicable chat with one of my successors in the new Obama administration, I listened to him explaining to me how the policy he was crafting – eerily identical to the ones pursued cyclically in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and so on by the administration I was in – was this time going to work, and would, this time bring even Moscow along (strangely forgetting that Moscow already had come along in UNSC resolutions in 2006 in order not to lose its role and influence on the matter). At the end, I asked simply: “if the policy doesn’t work, what is your backup plan?” There was no answer; while he noted the failure of sanctions and pressure were possible, and indeed admittedly even likely, no Plan B was fathomable to him. He could only contemplate more of the same since at some point, “some pressure must work.”
It was, as the great American baseball figure Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again.” In short, all the factors I witnessed from 2002-2007, when I was deeply involved in the Iran portfolio, had not changed. All but one, that is: In the new administration, there were no more “crazy” hardliners against whom to act. Nobody argued with conviction the imperative of preemption. Washington was at last unified — with the administration and the bureaucracy agreeing without internal dissent — and aligned with the international community that while it would be awful if Iran went nuclear, a preemptive action against Iran was still worse.
Thus, to the bandwagon of Israeli analysts who simply cannot believe that the United States would balk at stopping Iran when it became clear there was no alternative to preemptive action other than acquiescence, I can only say that I have all my life counted on the greatness of America and its tradition of doing the right thing, if even at the last moment. But right now, the cavalry is not going to ride to Israel’s side, even at the last moment. There is nobody of influence within the establishment or bureaucracy in Washington, let alone abroad, seriously arguing for preemptive action, nor are there any factors in the next half year – or even longer – which will change that. While America is not done as the great superpower, we have again become a sleeping giant, like the 1930s in terms of proactive foreign policy. Something much worse and more personally affecting will have to afflict the United States before it acts preemptively stop Iran or other extremely dangerous nations from building armies to threaten and pursuing the most destructive weapons. Until then, sadly, our allies are on their own.
David Wurmser served as Middle East adviser to former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, as special assistant to John R. Bolton at the State Department and as a research fellow on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute.