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 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT