A senior Obama administration official recently went on the record with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in calling Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickenshit.” A second senior official also went on the record calling Netanyahu a “coward” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear threat.
If these reports are accurate, the following question must be asked: did the Obama administration—indeed perhaps President Obama himself—authorize two senior officials to issue these highly provocative and challenging statements? The White House has now tried to distance itself from the views expressed by these individuals, but it seems unlikely that two senior administration officials would go on the record using such explosive words without White House approval.
The author of the report, Jeffrey Goldberg, tells us that this is the way American and Israeli officials now talk about each other “behind closed doors.” But these statements were not made behind closed doors. They were made to a prominent journalist, with the intention of having them published and read not only by American and Israeli officials, but also by Iranian officials.
That question becomes particularly important in light of another quotation attributed to one of the senior officials:
“It’s too late for him to do anything [regarding a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities]. Two three years ago, this was a possibility. But ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. It was a combination of our pressure and his own unwillingness to do anything dramatic. Now it’s too late.”
That official added:
“The feeling now is that Bibi’s bluffing…he’s not Begin at Osirak.”
This disclosure of such classified administration assessments—whether true or false—will certainly be welcomed in Tehran. It strengthens the Iranian bargaining position, and weakens the power of the United States to demand more of Iran in the ongoing nuclear negotiations, and to demand more of our allies in the event these negotiations break down and additional sanctions are needed.
Goldberg acknowledges that “the Obama administration used the threat of an Israeli strike in a calculated way to convince its allies (and some of its adversaries) to line up behind what turned out to be an effective sanctions regime.” By now revealing its belief that there is no longer a real threat of an Israeli strike—again whether their assessment is correct or incorrect—these senior officials have done considerable damage to security of the United States and to the possibility of striking an effective deal with Iran.
The bottom line result of these disclosures by two senior Obama officials is to make it more likely that Iran will develop nuclear weapons. Revealing intelligence assessments that suggests that Netanyahu is bluffing can only encourage the Iranians to move forward more quickly with their nuclear weapons program. It also encourages them to believe that the United States will no longer be able to use the threat of an Israeli military strike to shore up support among reluctant allies to increase or even maintain sanctions. Why then were these officials sent out to talk to Jeffrey Goldberg? By whom were they sent? And why now?
If they were not authorized to make these statements and took it upon themselves to do so, they should be fired. That is the only way to send a powerful message to foe and friends alike that the views they expressed do not represent those of the President. If they are not fired, then Congress should ask why two senior Obama administration officials have endangered American national security by increasing the likelihood that Iran will develop nuclear weapons. President Obama has himself acknowledged that a nuclear armed Iran would be a “game changer” that would directly endanger our national security.
Congress has an obligation to get to the bottom of this foreign policy mess. It need not subpoena the journalist, who will surely invoke reportorial privilege. But it can subpoena the handful of senior Obama administration officials who might have made these disclosures. Once Congress establishes who the two senior officials are, they can be asked whether the disclosures were authorized, and if so, by whom? The president may well invoke executive privilege, but Congress’ need to know who is undercutting American foreign policy and why, should trump any claim of privilege. No administration should have the right to leak damaging information to America’s enemies and then hide behind privilege to prevent Congress from learning the source of the leaks and the reasoning, if any, behind the decision to disclose such damaging information.
Beyond the damage done with regard to Iran, is the damage done to United States-Israel relations by the insulting and demeaning words used by senior Obama administration officials to describe the Prime Minister of a close ally. Benjamin Netanyahu fought bravely for his country in one of Israel’s most elite and dangerous military units. He has rescued hostages, defended his country against terrorists and lost a brother at Entebbe. To call him a “chickenshit” or a “coward” is beneath contempt. Having seen the heavy cost of warfare, he has always been cautious and prudent about committing Israeli troops to battle. For this he should be praised rather than condemned.
Netanyahu may soon have to make an existential decision about whether to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons that might be used against Israeli citizens or to authorize a dangerous military attack designed to destroy and delay Iran’s capacity to develop such weapons of mass destruction. This decision would be difficult for any leader, and it is even more difficult for a leader of a tiny country surrounded by enemies and isolated by much of the international community. To trivialize and reduce this decision to name-calling words like “chickenshit” and “coward” demonstrates extraordinary bad judgment on the part of those who used the words and those who may have authorized their use.
There are legitimate and important differences between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations over issues such as building in Jerusalem and the stalled peace negotiations. Each side has criticized the others position on their merits and demerits. But scatological name-calling on the record has no place in an alliance between friends. Those responsible for these provocative and dangerous ad hominems and for the unwarranted disclosure of classified intelligence assessments must be held accountable by the American public and by all those who care about peace in the Middle East.