Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama's Iran problem and the Bush doctrine

By Michael V. Hayden, CNN Contributor
March 20, 2012 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT