NSC's McDonough: 'I'm Really Pissed Off That There Are People Out There Who Doubt Our Resolve to Stop Iran'

Last week, just before the White House's (early bird) Hannukah party, the deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, met with a group of Jewish leaders and told them, "I'm really pissed off that there are people out there who doubt our resolve to stop Iran."

McDonough may be upset about the doubters, but there is a reason these doubters exist. I am not referring to the usual suspects, who believe that Obama, against all evidence, is incapable of deploying force against any of America's Muslim adversaries. I'm referring to people who look at the message on Iran delivered from the White House -- "all options are on the table" --  and compare it to the message delivered by the secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, a couple of weeks ago at the Saban Forum, and wonder who is speaking for the Administration on this issue.

At the forum, Panetta delivered a standard pro-Israel speech, but went out of his way to state publicly the many reasons he feels an attack on Iran would be disastrous. Here is part of Panetta's answer to the question, posed by the Saban Center's Kenneth Pollack, about how effective he thought an attack would be in thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions:

Part of the problem here is the concern that at best, I think - talking to my friends - the indication is that at best it might postpone it maybe one, possibly two years. It depends on the ability to truly get the targets that they're after. Frankly, some of those targets are very difficult to get at. That kind of, that kind of shot would only, I think, ultimately not destroy their ability to produce an atomic weapon, but simply delay it - number one.  Of greater concern to me are the unintended consequences, which would be that ultimately it would have a backlash and the regime that is weak now, a regime that is isolated would suddenly be able to reestablish itself, suddenly be able to get support in the region, and suddenly instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah. 

Thirdly, the United States would obviously be blamed and we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases.  Fourthly - there are economic consequences to that attack - severe economic consequences that could impact a very fragile economy in Europe and a fragile economy here in the United States. 

And lastly I think that the consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.

My own criticism of Panetta's comments has less to do with the comments themselves -- there are, indeed, many excellent reasons an attack could be a catastrophe --  than with their very public delivery.  This is a message that should be delivered privately, not publicly. If Panetta fears that the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, are about to bring disaster down on their own heads, and on America as well, then he should threaten them in any way he sees fit. But privately. To say the things he says in public is to signal to the Iranians that they have no reason to fear a military attack aimed at postponing their nuclear program. Panetta's public statements in this regard were inexplicable. Why tell your enemy what you're not going to do? It made no sense. And one upshot of Panetta's commentary is that he has created doubt in the minds of people predisposed to believing Obama on this matter

As Goldblog readers know, I believe for various reasons that President Obama would seriously contemplate the use of force to stop progress on Iran's nuclear program, or to keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Many of his critics (and many critical readers of this blog) argue otherwise. But I generally agree with the view -- expressed to me yesterday by  NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor -- that "a fair reading of everything the President has said and done is that he does what he says." I still believe this to be true. Though I now have my doubts.

One more thing: The by-now traditional Goldblog explanatory note --  I, too, am opposed to either an Israeli or an American strike against Iran, especially at this moment. But I'm all for creating the impression in Iran that Israel or America is preparing to strike. 

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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