Date: Mon Dec 08 2008 - 21:30:50 EST
Are Key Obama Advisors in Tune with Neocon Hawks Who Want to Attack Iran?
By Robert Dreyfuss, Tomdispatch.com
Posted on December 3, 2008, Printed on December 8, 2008
A familiar coalition of hawks, hardliners, and neoconservatives expects
Barack Obama's proposed talks with Iran to fail -- and they're already
proposing an escalating set of measures instead. Some are meant to occur
alongside any future talks. These include steps to enhance coordination
with Israel, tougher sanctions against Iran, and a region-wide military
buildup of U.S. strike forces, including the prepositioning of military
supplies within striking distance of that country.
Once the future negotiations break down, as they are convinced will happen,
they propose that Washington quickly escalate to war-like measures,
including a U.S. Navy-enforced embargo on Iranian fuel imports and a
blockade of that country's oil exports. Finally, of course, comes the
strategic military attack against the Islamic Republic of Iran that so many
of them have wanted for so long.
It's tempting to dismiss the hawks now as twice-removed from power: first,
figures like John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith were purged
from top posts in the Bush administration after 2004; then the election of
Barack Obama and the announcement Monday of his centrist, realist-minded
team of establishment foreign policy gurus seemed to nail the doors to
power shut for the neocons, who have bitterly criticized the
president-elect's plans to talk with Iran, withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq,
and abandon the reckless Global War on Terrorism rhetoric of the Bush era.
"Kinetic Action" Against Iran
When it comes to Iran, however, it's far too early to dismiss the hawks. To
be sure, they are now plying their trade from outside the corridors of
power, but they have more friends inside the Obama camp than most people
realize. Several top advisers to Obama -- including Tony Lake, UN
Ambassador-designate Susan Rice, Tom Daschle, and Dennis Ross, along with
leading Democratic hawks like Richard Holbrooke, close to
Vice-President-elect Joe Biden or Secretary of State-designate Hillary
Clinton -- have made common cause with war-minded think-tank hawks at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the American Enterprise
Institute (AEI), and other hardline institutes.
Last spring, Tony Lake and Susan Rice, for example, took part in a WINEP
"2008 Presidential Task Force" study which resulted in a report entitled,
"Strengthening the Partnership: How to Deepen U.S.-Israel Cooperation on
the Iranian Nuclear Challenge." The Institute, part of the Washington-based
Israel lobby, was founded in coordination with the American-Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and has been vigorously supporting a
confrontation with Iran. The task force report, issued in June, was
overseen by four WINEP heavyweights: Robert Satloff, WINEP's executive
director, Patrick Clawson, its chief Iran analyst, David Makovsky, a senior
fellow, and Dennis Ross, an adviser to Obama who is also a WINEP fellow.
Endorsed by both Lake and Rice, the report opted for an alarmist view of
Iran's nuclear program and proposed that the next president set up a formal
U.S.-Israeli mechanism for coordinating policy toward Iran (including any
future need for "preventive military action"). It drew attention to Israeli
fears that "the United States may be reconciling itself to the idea of
'living with an Iranian nuclear bomb,'" and it raised the spurious fear
that Iran plans to arm terrorist groups with nuclear weapons.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with consultations between the United
States and Israel. But the WINEP report is clearly predisposed to the idea
that the United States ought to give undue weight to Israel's inflated
concerns about Iran. And it ignores or dismisses a number of facts: that
Iran has no nuclear weapon, that Iran has not enriched uranium to weapons
grade, that Iran may not have the know-how to actually construct a weapon
even if, sometime in the future, it does manage to acquire bomb-grade
material, and that Iran has no known mechanism for delivering such a
WINEP is correct that the United States must communicate closely with
Israel about Iran. Practically speaking, however, a U.S.-Israeli dialogue
over Iran's "nuclear challenge" will have to focus on matters entirely
different from those in WINEP's agenda. First, the United States must make
it crystal clear to Israel that under no circumstances will it tolerate or
support a unilateral Israeli attack against Iran. Second, Washington must
make it clear that if Israel were indeed to carry out such an attack, the
United States would condemn it, refuse to widen the war by coming to
Israel's aid, and suspend all military aid to the Jewish state. And third,
Israel must get the message that, even given the extreme and unlikely
possibility that the United States deems it necessary to go to war with
Iran, there would be no role for Israel.
Just as in the wars against Iraq in 1990-1991 and 2003-2008, the United
States hardly needs Israeli aid, which would be both superfluous and
inflammatory. Dennis Ross and others at WINEP, however, would strongly
disagree that Israel is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Ross, who served as Middle East envoy for George H.W. Bush and then Bill
Clinton, was also a key participant in a September 2008 task force chaired
by two former senators, Daniel Coats (R.-Ind.) and Chuck Robb (D.-Va.), and
led by Michael Makovsky, brother of WINEP's David Makovsky, who served in
the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the heyday of the Pentagon
neocons from 2002-2006. Robb, incidentally, had already served as the
neocons' channel into the 2006 Iraq Study Group, chaired by former
Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton.
According to Bob Woodward's latest book, The War Within: A Secret White
House History 2006-2008, it was Robb who insisted that the Baker-Hamilton
task force include an option for a "surge" in Iraq.
The report of the Coats-Robb task force -- "Meeting the Challenge: U.S.
Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development" -- went far beyond the WINEP
task force report that Lake and Rice signed off on. It concluded that any
negotiations with Iran were unlikely to succeed and should, in any case, be
short-lived. As the report put the matter, "It must be clear that any
U.S.-Iranian talks will not be open-ended, but will be limited to a
pre-determined time period so that Tehran does not try to 'run out the
Anticipating the failure of the talks, the task force (including Ross)
urged "prepositioning military assets," coupled with a "show of force" in
the region. This would be followed almost immediately by a blockade of
Iranian gasoline imports and oil exports, meant to paralyze Iran's economy,
followed by what they call, vaguely, "kinetic action."
That "kinetic action" -- a U.S. assault on Iran -- should, in fact, be
massive, suggested the Coats-Robb report. Besides hitting dozens of sites
alleged to be part of Iran's nuclear research program, the attacks would
target Iranian air defense and missile sites, communications systems,
Revolutionary Guard facilities, key parts of Iran's military-industrial
complex, munitions storage facilities, airfields, aircraft facilities, and
all of Iran's naval facilities. Eventually, they say, the United States
would also have to attack Iran's ground forces, electric power plants and
electrical grids, bridges, and "manufacturing plants, including steel,
autos, buses, etc."
This is, of course, a hair-raising scenario. Such an attack on a country
that had committed no act of war against the United States or any of its
allies would cause countless casualties, virtually destroy Iran's economy
and infrastructure, and wreak havoc throughout the region. That such a
high-level group of luminaries should even propose steps like these -- and
mean it -- can only be described as lunacy. That an important adviser to
President-elect Obama would sign on to such a report should be shocking,
though it has received next to no attention.
Palling Around with the Neocons
At a November 6 forum at WINEP, Patrick Clawson, the erudite,
neoconservative strategist who serves as the organization's deputy director
for research, laid out the institute's view of how to talk to Iran in the
Obama era. Doing so, he said, is critically important, but only to show the
rest of the world that the United States has taken the last step for peace
-- before, of course, attacking. Then, and only then, will the United
States have the legitimacy it needs to launch military action against Iran.
"What we've got to do is to show the world that we're making a big deal of
engaging the Iranians," he said, tossing a bone to the new administration.
"I'd throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into it." He advocates
this approach only because he believes it won't work. "The principal target
with these offers [to Iran] is not Iran," he adds. "The principal target of
these offers is American public opinion and world public opinion."
The Coats-Robb report, Meeting the Challenge," was written by one of the
hardest of Washington's neoconservative hardliners, Michael Rubin of the
American Enterprise Institute. Rubin, who spent most of the years since
9/11 either working for AEI or, before and during the war in Iraq, for the
Wolfowitz-Feith team at the Pentagon, recently penned a report for the
Institute entitled: "Can A Nuclear Iran Be Deterred or Contained?" Not
surprisingly, he believes the answer to be a resounding "no," although he
does suggest that any effort to contain a nuclear Iran would certainly
require permanent U.S. bases spread widely in the region, including in
"If U.S. forces are to contain the Islamic Republic, they will require
basing not only in GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, but also in
Afghanistan, Iraq, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Without a sizeable
regional presence, the Pentagon will not be able to maintain the
predeployed resources and equipment necessary to contain Iran, and
Washington will signal its lack of commitment to every ally in the region.
Because containment is as much psychological as physical, basing will be
The Coats-Robb report was issued by a little-known group called the
Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). That organization, too, turns out to be
interwoven with WINEP, not least because its foreign policy director is
Michael Makovsky. Perhaps the most troubling participant in the Bipartisan
Policy Center is Barack Obama's minence grise and one of his most important
advisers during the campaign, Tom Daschle, who is slated to be his
secretary of health and human services. So far, Daschle has not repudiated
BPC's provocative report.
Ross, along with Richard Holbrooke, recently made appearances amid another
collection of superhawks who came together to found a new organization,
United Against Nuclear Iran. UANI is led by Mark Wallace, the husband of
Nicole Wallace, a key member of Senator John McCain's campaign team. Among
UANI's leadership team are Ross and Holbrooke, along with such hardliners
as Jim Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and
Fouad Ajami, the Arab-American scholar who is a principal theorist on
Middle East policy for the neoconservative movement.
UANI is primarily a propaganda outfit. Its mission, it says, is to "inform
the public about the nature of the Iranian regime, including its desire and
intent to possess nuclear weapons, as well as Iran's role as a state
sponsor of global terrorism, and a major violator of human rights at home
and abroad" and to "heighten awareness nationally and internationally about
the danger that a nuclear-armed Iran poses to the region and the world."
Barack Obama has, of course, repeatedly declared his intention to embark on
a different path by opening talks with Iran. He's insisted that diplomacy,
not military action, will be at the core of his approach to Tehran. During
the election campaign, however, he also stated no less repeatedly that he
will not take the threat of military action "off the table."
Organizations like WINEP, AIPAC, AEI, BPC, and UANI see it as their mission
to push the United States toward a showdown with Iran. Don't sell them
short. Those who believe that such a confrontation would be inconceivable
under President Obama ought to ask Tony Lake, Susan Rice, Dennis Ross, Tom
Daschle, and Richard Holbrooke whether they agree -- and, if so, why
they're still palling around with neoconservative hardliners.
Robert Dreyfuss, an independent journalist in Alexandria, Virginia, is a
contributing editor at the Nation magazine, whose website hosts his The
Dreyfuss Report, and has written frequently for Rolling Stone, The American
Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Washington Monthly. He is the author of
Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.
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