National Journal’s National Security Insiders, polled in advance of Monday's summit, overwhelmingly agree that President Obama is right to try to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone any plans he may have to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“Israel cannot delay Iran for more than a couple of years, but an attack will enable Iran to rally the world behind it and break out of its isolation,” one Insider said. “An attack would also implicate and cause serious problems for the U.S. Israel should see if the new round of sanctions [will] work before considering other options.” Another Insider added that Washington should not undermine sanctions because they’re showing signs of progress.
Obama told The Atlantic last week he would make the case to Netanyahu during a Monday summit at the White House that sanctions are putting Iran in “a world of hurt.” However, if economic pressure fails, Obama said he’d order the military to take out Iran’s facilities. Polled ahead of the meeting, 81 percent of Insiders said Obama should pressure its ally to hold off on military action -- for now.
Still, some Insiders worry that the Israelis will interpret the Obama administration’s tough stance as a tacit approval of military action. “Since [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta has said publicly on several occasions that Iran's obtaining nuclear weapons would be unacceptable, or would be ‘stopped,’ paranoid Iran will presume that America supported the attack, even if only secretly,” one Insider said.
If Israel launches a major attack on Iran, it is likely to retaliate against U.S. forces or other U.S. targets in the region, the Insider said. “In this circumstance, President Obama would come under strong criticism if he had not previously pressured Israel to eschew an attack.”
Still, 19 percent of Insiders said Obama shouldn’t interfere if Israel wants to strike Iran’s nuclear sites. “It is no longer clear that the downsides of a military strike on Iran outweigh the risk of Iran becoming a nuclear power,” one Insider said. “The kinds of sanctions now being imposed should have been imposed years ago; they may now be too late to affect the trajectory of Iran's nuclear program.”
Insiders were split down the middle over whether the violence sparked by the U.S. military's accidental burning of Korans would force the Obama administration to speed up the ongoing troop withdrawals in Afghanistan. A narrow majority of 51 percent said the U.S. will continue on pace to draw down forces by 2014. "We should and will hold the line," one Insider said. Another added: "The issues are unrelated as a policy/strategy matter."
Another Insider said the protests that resulted in the deaths of several American service members should theoretically force the U.S. to speed up its draw-down in the country. "In practice, the timetable for withdrawal is pretty accelerated already," the Insider said. "Anything faster would be a logistical problem as much as a tactical challenge. What this violence might affect, though, is the composition and mission of any stay-behind forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014."
But 49 percent of Insiders said the latest escalation in violence would prompt the U.S. to pull out quicker. "It should not speed up withdrawals, but the pressure to do so may become too great," one Insider said.
1. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House, should President Obama pressure Israel to hold off on a military strike against Iran?
- Yes: 81 percent
- No: 19 percent
"Yes 1,000 times. We should not tolerate a close ally creating such a liability for the United States. A strike will not 'work,' and we -- no matter what we say or do -- will own the mess."
"In a better world, the United States would not be viewed by much of the world as complicit in any Israeli decision and accordingly could tell the Israelis that they should do what they think is right. In a different better world, the United States could credibly threaten to impose costs on Israel if it damages U.S. interests by starting a war with Iran. Unfortunately, we don't live in either of those better worlds."
"He should tell Netanyahu that if Israel launches a strike against Iran, thus destabilizing the Middle East and putting hundreds if not thousands of American lives at risk, it's time to replace the billions of taxpayers' dollars in aid with harsh sanctions."
"President Obama should put Netanyahu in his place and reject any request that the U.S. back Israeli aggression against Iran. He should underscore the destabilizing security and economic effects Netanyahu's bellicose rhetoric is having. Tensions with Iran are raising oil and gas prices. Americans don't want another war and don't want to pay over $5/gallon for gas."
"Status of Iran's capabilities and intentions are not known. No red lines have yet been crossed."
"If $3 billion annually in material aid and years of blank-check diplomatic support do not buy influence in heading off something as damaging to U.S. interests as a military clash with Iran would be, then what do they buy?"
"Such an attack is not in Israel's interest or that of the U.S. It could fundamentally alter American perceptions of Israel in a way that undermines relations."
"A U.S. strike on Iran would be a strategic blunder of historic proportions, but an Israeli strike would also be a strategic and political disaster demonstrating that U.S. interests are of no concern to Israel -- that the partnership runs only one way."
"It is no longer clear that the downsides of a military strike on Iran outweigh the risk of Iran becoming a nuclear power. The kinds of sanctions now being imposed should have been imposed years ago; they may now be too late to affect the trajectory of Iran's nuclear program."
"But, Obama should make it clear that if the Israelis want the U.S. there when the plane crashes, they need to make sure we are aboard when it takes off."
"Not sure an Israeli military strike is imminent. Should explore all options and scenarios, including military, and most importantly get a clear sense of what their current calculus is under various circumstances."
2. Will the violence sparked by the U.S. military's accidental burning of Korans force the Obama administration to speed up the ongoing troop withdrawals in Afghanistan?
- No: 51 percent
- Yes: 49 percent
"We should and will hold the line."
"In theory, yes. In practice, the timetable for withdrawal is pretty accelerated already. Anything faster would be a logistical problem as much as a tactical challenge. What this violence might affect, though, is the composition and mission of any stay-behind forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014."
"The issues are unrelated as a policy/strategy matter."
"It doesn't force a change, but the violence demonstrates one reason a speed-up of the withdrawal would be advisable."
"And it should. The time we could have an impact there has long since passed. Time to go."
"This sad incident is just an excuse for the Taliban and Afghans sympathetic to them to use violence against U.S./ISAF forces. The risks to our personnel, especially regarding insider threats, may not be worth staying any longer to prop up a corrupt and incompetent government headed up by [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai."
"The strong reaction to the Koran burning is not asymptomatic, but consistent with other signs that most Afghans want U.S. and NATO forces to withdraw. Moreover, the Karzai government has made far too little progress in creating national-level governance to justify a further substantial and long-term U.S. and NATO military commitment. A decade of expensive intervention has yielded far less result than anyone expected even five years ago."
"It should not speed up withdrawals, but the pressure to do so may become too great."
"Taliban effectively changed the subject from using the Koran for terrorist purposes to bad Americans for burning the Koran. We are losing messaging, meaning we will need to leave sooner."
"The event is convenient for those who support withdrawal, but this is not a strategic issue that should alter long-term goals. That said, it is forcing long-term goals on the table sooner."
"Regrettably, the president will probably use this tragic incident as an excuse to cut and run."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts. They are:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Kit Bond, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Richard Danzig, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Donald Kerrick, Lawrence Korb, Andrew Krepinevich, Rachel Kleinfeld, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Trent Lott, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Kevin Nealer, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Dov Zakheim.
This article appears in the March 6, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.