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Obama: His Words and His Deeds

Netanyahu made the “existential threat” of Iran a major part of his appeal to Congress, as was to be expected. And this is probably the final terrain on which, in the next two years, Obama will have to confront the difference between the reformist intentions he cherishes and the conventional signals he has been sending. In 2007, there were many signs that the neoconservative policy elite, and the Office of the Vice President, wanted the US to back Israel or combine with Israel in an attack on Iran. They were thwarted by Admiral William Fallon, the commander of CentCom, and a letter from the Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to President Bush, and a few other acts of resistance from persons in authority. Most of all, the case for attacking Iran was defeated by the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which declared that no evidence existed of an Iranian nuclear program that could yield a weapon.

The 2011 NIE has now appeared, and it says much the same. But it has been kept under wraps by the Obama administration, in a manner reminiscent of the way the 2007 NIE was suppressed, as far as possible, by Cheney and Bush. According to Seymour Hersh, writing in the June 6 New Yorker, American intelligence has found “no conclusive evidence” that an Iranian weapons program exists. A June 3 New York Times article by Ethan Bronner backs up the Hersh report with testimony from Israeli sources. Meir Dagan, the recently retired head of Mossad, and other senior members of the Israeli intelligence establishment are now warning Israel, and by implication warning America, not to fall in with the adventurism of Netanyahu—the war fever he is drumming up in two countries with no foundation in an actual threat.

Yet Obama’s national security advisers have disparaged Hersh’s findings as warmly as if they were still seeking a pretext to attack Iran. And the tight inner circle around Obama has denied a visit with the President to informed dissenters on Iran policy like Thomas Pickering. As a Times editorial pointed out on June 13, the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency cites new reasons for calling on Iran to disclose the possible “military dimensions” of its nuclear program. Plainly the answers to such questions will form a necessary part of any negotiations between Iran and the US. Meanwhile, the attempt to isolate the President from views such as Pickering’s seems full of hazard; though presidents who are said to be victims of isolation, from Johnson to Reagan to Obama, have become so by staying close to persons who shield them from unwelcome stimuli. In the same way, one recalls, on Afghanistan Obama declined offers of help by dissenters from the Petraeus-McChrystal escalation policy, even when they came from officials as well placed as Karl Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke.

In appointing a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama passed over the person who was said to have been his first choice, General James Cartwright, the former vice-chairman of JCOS: a skeptic on Afghanistan who had become a trusted adviser of the President. He has appointed instead General Martin Dempsey, who had served as head of Tradoc (Training and Doctrine Command for American ground forces). The Israeli newspaper Haaretz devoted a June 1 article to the appointment of Dempsey under the headline: “Obama’s New Security Staff May Approve Attack on Iran.” The author of the article, the military correspondent Amir Oren, finds it significant that Dempsey has studied closely the operations of the Israeli Defense Forces, and that he worked at Tradoc with an IDF liaison officer. This appointment can stand as the first of many footnotes to the encounter, in late May 2011, between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.

June 16, 2011

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