Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama's Iran problem and the Bush doctrine

By Michael V. Hayden, CNN Contributor
updated 12:33 PM EDT, Tue March 20, 2012
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils a sample centrifuge for uranium enrichment in Tehran on April 9, 2010.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveils a sample centrifuge for uranium enrichment in Tehran on April 9, 2010.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Hayden: U.S. policy on Iran implies pre-emption idea from Bush administration
  • He says Israelis want to know if U.S. would act on Iran nuclear sites in time
  • Hayden says a decision to stop Iran's nuclear program requires strong intelligence
  • He says it's a high bar to prove that Iran decided on developing nuclear program

Editor's note: Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was appointed by President George W. Bush as CIA director in 2006 and served until February 2009, is a principal with the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm. He serves on the boards of several defense firms and is a distinguished visiting professor at George Mason University. Hayden is an adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. He held senior staff positions at the Pentagon and, from 1999 to 2005, was director of the National Security Agency.

(CNN) -- It's a rare thing for the threads of an ongoing crisis to be pulled so closely together in a discrete event, compressed in time and space as if they were part of a dramatization, as they were when President Obama met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month in the Oval Office.

This session had it all: primal Israeli, Iranian, American and even Arab interests; nuclear proliferation and global energy supplies; existential dangers; war and peace.

The meeting was no doubt made more difficult by the strained relations between the two leaders, but in truth, this one needed little personal antipathy to make it hard. Even though both men had announced that Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon was unacceptable, there was no final agreement on how to prevent that from happening. In many ways, I suspect, the two men talked past one another.

Michael V. Hayden
Michael V. Hayden

Recall high school math and being forced to solve algebraic equations? Something like that may have taken place in the Oval, with Obama pointing out how hard we were working to solve for "y" where "y" represented Iranian intentions. Unfortunately, in the prime minister's equation, "y" had already been defined as a constant. Israel believes that it knows where the Iranians are going. In its equation, the unknown is "x." What does the United States intend to do about it?

Clearly, the president was aware of this. Comments about having Israel's back, rejecting containment, even a little tough talk about not being one to bluff -- all this was calibrated to convince Netanyahu that this president would act.

Iran: Not 'pursuing nuclear weapons'
Is U.S. language signaling a threat?
Iran's window of opportunity 'shrinking'

But when? On the long flight back to Jerusalem, Netanyahu was surely asking himself that question.

Israel's window of opportunity to attack Iran's nuclear network is closing. Even allowing for Israeli ingenuity and courage, this was never going to be easy, and it's getting harder by the day, as much of the target is being moved into a fortified mountain near Qom. If Israel defers the attack much longer, its military option will simply cease to exist as the Iranian program gets more hardened, more dispersed and more advanced.

The American window, of course, will remain open longer, a reflection of the raw numbers, weapons, mobility, range and proximate basing that the United States can bring to bear.

But will America move? Can Israel afford to give up its own place in the lineup in the belief that the United States, hitting lower in the order, will actually go up to the plate and take its swings?

And so Netanyahu will ask himself, what are their red lines? What will convince them to act?

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta probably gave the clearest administration statement when he said that if "we get intelligence that they're proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it."

That, combined with the president's repeated statements that Iran getting a nuclear weapon is "unacceptable," surprisingly aligns this administration with the George W. Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emption. That doctrine famously described it as a duty to "anticipate and counter threats, using all elements of national power, before the threats can do grave damage."

Combining "unacceptable" with "whatever steps are necessary" seems to put Iran's possession of a weapon -- or, more accurately, an Iranian decision to pursue a weapon -- in that doctrine's category of "hostile acts by our adversaries."

And that imposes quite a burden on American intelligence. I recall thinking with the announcement of the pre-emption approach in 2001-02 (while I was director of the National Security Agency) of how good American intelligence would have to be to identify such threats and to identify them at the confidence level that would be needed to justify America shooting first.

How tall an order that could be was evident in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. There the intelligence community not only got most of it wrong -- there was no active nuclear program, nor were there chemical or biological weapons stockpiles -- we compounded the mistake with overconfident language that invited others to use intelligence as evidence.

Intelligence is designed to inform policy-making even in the face of doubt, to allow officials to judge potential action while ambiguity still exists. It rarely reaches the level of evidence required in a court of law to prove matters beyond a reasonable doubt.

We may have gotten it a little better in 2007, when we informed the president that Syria had built a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance. However, we cautioned him that we had low confidence that it was part of a nuclear weapons program, not because there was an alternative explanation that made much sense but simply because our body of knowledge on the other parts needed for such a program (like a reprocessing facility or weaponization work) was pretty thin. In that instance, the president rejected pre-emption. (The site was bombed by Israeli aircraft.)

And now with Iran, intelligence judgments remain anchored to a controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that in 2003, Tehran had "halted" its nuclear weapon design and weaponization work. That estimate was based not on the absence of evidence that such work was ongoing but rather on evidence that it was not. And despite some suspicious and troubling Iranian activity since then, the estimate has survived largely intact, under three subsequent heads of national intelligence and of the CIA.

So there we are. The challenge for American intelligence now is to inform the president of an Iranian decision to weaponize its nuclear stockpile with sufficient confidence and in sufficient time for him to decide to launch a pre-emptive war in one of the world's most sensitive and volatile regions.

It's hard to imagine a higher bar, especially since building the "sufficient confidence" will almost certainly eat into the "sufficient time." And especially since, when that last situation room meeting is held, the intelligence will probably not be at that courtroom evidentiary standard of beyond all reasonable doubt.

The president showed that he could act in the face of ambiguity when he launched the Abbottabad raid to kill Osama bin Laden. This one will be even more difficult.

For Netanyahu, we can identify this as "x." For the importance of "x," see above.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael V. Hayden.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT