Deciphering Leon Panetta’s Iran press dancehttp://www.politico.com/news/
Washington runs on leaks — but the translation of the age-old game into high stakes Middle East military policy has amazed even seasoned D.C. observers.
Officials and strategists the world over are trying to parse Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’s bombshell revelation that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes Israel will attack Iran in the coming months and is pleading with the Israelis to put off any strike. Had Panetta, who’s developed a reputation for being gaffe-prone during his short time as defense secretary, possibly been a bit too candid in the presence of a fellow old Washington hand? Or was Panetta crazy like a fox, using an influential columnist to make the threat of an Israeli strike to strengthen the U.S.’s ability to rally its partners into putting tougher sanctions on Iran?
“The whole episode has been so strange — but every episode about this has been strange because there are so many layers, there is so much bluffing, there is so much anxiety,” said Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote about a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities for The Atlantic in 2010. “It’s the true wilderness of mirrors.”
Even lawmakers immersed in the issue can’t tell.
“I’m still trying to understand the calculus of ratcheting up the rhetoric right now, given that we were trying to have a dialogue with Israel to try to, at least, come to a place to allow these sanctions to work,” Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, told CNN soon after the column appeared. “I’m still trying to work my way through. Was this a calculated event or not? We haven’t quite figured that out yet. At any rate, we’re dealing with the rhetoric as it is.”
The dance began Feb. 2, when Ignatius reported that Panetta “believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June” and that the Obama administration “appears to favor staying out of the conflict unless Iran hits U.S. assets.”
There weren’t any quotes or hints of sources Ignatius had used to prop up his assertions. But it didn’t take long for people to notice that Ignatius’s column had a dateline in Brussels, where he’d flown on a military plane with Panetta to a NATO conference. After Panetta refused to shoot down the column, other news outlets confirmed the gist — and a firestorm was born.
Republicans hoping to take President Barack Obama’s job pounced on the news. Rick Santorum asked why the Obama administration was separating itself from Israel — a topic that’s been a political headache for Obama for years — over how to deal with Iran, which has emerged as the greatest global threat in the minds of many. Three days later, Obama assured Matt Lauer in a pre-Super Bowl interview that the U.S. and Israel are in “lockstep” on Iran.
Then last Tuesday, Panetta all but admitted he had been a source for the column in testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But the dance still wasn’t done: On Friday, Ignatius took to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to say that the timeline outlined in his column remained unchanged but emphasized the less-obsessed-over part of his original column. “Let me just say, Leon Panetta is somebody who clearly thinks that it would be a mistake from Israel’s standpoint and from the standpoint of the security interests of the United States for this [attack] to go forward, and he has said that very directly to Israelis,” the Post columnist declared.
Ignatius and Panetta have both spent decades moving in Washington’s most-connected political, military and CIA circles. When Obama made the surprising decision to appoint Panetta to the CIA post despite his general lack of intelligence experience, it was Ignatius who wrote a column laying out the case for the move.
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“They’ve both been around town forever,” said Mark Leibovich, the New York Times reporter whom Ignatius hired at the Post in 1997. “David is a bit of a throwback to the old Washington Post, the international force that a lot more people paid attention to and feared and speculated on than they do now.”
Plus, if what happened on the trip to Brussels was a purposeful leak, there’s reason why Panetta would have wanted to use a columnist rather than a reporter.
“Columnists have autonomy. They’re barely regulated, as it were. It’s a lot easier to know where a particular columnist is coming from than to try to guess what direction a press conference will head in, or how many ‘to be sure’ grafs or opposing voices a beat reporter will be compelled to include,” Leibovich said.
But there’s ample reason to believe that this was another case of Panetta’s already famous loose lips since taking over the Pentagon. During that same trip to Brussels, Panetta surprised U.S. allies by using a roundtable with reporters to suggest, for the first time, a 2013 deadline for the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. He and other Obama administration officials spent the next day clarifying that there had been no change in policy, just an admission that it would be “desirable,” as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney put it, to get out earlier than the previously discussed 2014 timeline.
Last summer, Panetta provided journalists traveling with him on his first trip to Iraq as defense secretary with all sorts of colorful quotes that later needed more explaining, such as his statement to soldiers in Iraq that “the reason you guys are here is because on 9/11, the United States got attacked.” (He later said he meant that they were fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq, not that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11.) In November, Pentagon press officials were left to clean up the mess after Panetta suggested that India, a U.S. ally, was a military threat on the order of China.
That Panetta reputation aside, there’s a smart strategy being read into his comments.
“I have to assume one of the reasons Israelis talk about this in public is to pressure the U.S., Europe [and others] into continuing and strengthening the sanctions against Iran,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. “From that point of view, I guess it helps the Israelis.”
Josh Block, a former American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesman, also saw strategy in Ignatius’s column.
“The talk about these things has an effect of sending a message to the Europeans and others that it’s time to dial up the seriousness of the sanctions,” he said. “Only the toughest sanctions possible, backed up by a credible threat of force, give the international community a chance to persuade Iran to end their dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.”
Ignatius declined to speculate on his sources’ intentions.
“I’m just going to let the column stand, and let others try to interpret what the sources may have intended,” Ignatius told POLITICO.
All this comes against the backdrop of multiple public signals feeding speculation that an Israeli attack on Iran could be drawing near. In late January, the chief of Israel’s storied intelligence service, the Mossad, traveled to Washington and met privately with various U.S. officials, including top lawmakers. And on Sunday, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon arrived in Israel to talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran.
Ignatius’s column came as part of a steady drumbeat of press accounts exploring Israel’s readiness to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, including a deeply reported New York Times Magazine story, based on interviews with Israeli officials, that reporter Ronen Bergman concluded by writing, “I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.”
Over the weekend, the drumbeat continued as The Associated Press reported, based on interviews with anonymous diplomats, that Iran had taken a major leap forward in its nuclear capabilities. And Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, in an interview with CNN, publicly confirmed Ignatius’s claim that the U.S. is trying to convince the Israelis to hold off on any attack on Iran.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator who is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, believes the press is now playing a role in the “psychodrama.”
“We are, and we’ve been now for several years, in a covert war [with Iran] and in a covert war all kinds of tactics and techniques are used to undermine our adversary — cyberattacks, assassinations, sanctions, but there’s also this kind of psychodrama that’s played out. The Israelis play it themselves but the Americans also facilitate and enable it. I would argue this is part of that,” Miller said.
Miller agrees that the attention to the issue that Ignatius’s column brought is probably good for the Israelis and likely deliberate.
“I’m not suggesting Panetta’s being duped or is a willful sort of participant in this, but how can this hurt? Iran has sucked the oxygen and air out of the political dialogue in Washington when it comes to foreign policy and the campaign. … Particularly if the Israelis believe their conception of the zone of immunity is about to be reached, the urgency, the alacrity, the visibility of this issue seems to become part of the strategy,” Miller said.
The White House, for its part, has been pretty quiet in response to the Ignatius column. Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said only, “Secretary Panetta has discussed this. I have nothing to add.”
In response to this article, Pentagon spokesman George Little said, “For anyone who’s been following the secretary’s public comments on Iran, he’s been crystal clear and consistent. No deciphering required. He’s said that Iran must not be able to possess nuclear weapons, and that the international community must continue to put diplomatic and economic pressure on the Iranian regime not to make the decision to develop them. Sanctions are working.”
“He’s talked about red lines the Iranians can’t cross, including nuclear weapons and closing the Strait of Hormuz,” added Little, who wasn’t contacted for comment before the story appeared. “And on Israel, he’s echoed what the President said: that we believe Israel hasn’t made a decision whether or not to strike Iran.”
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