Martin Indyk: Israel “cried wolf”

Having pulled all the stops to avert an Israeli attack against Iran last spring that never happened, has the Obama administration given all that it has to Israel’s hawkish leaders only to learn that it has been played? If so, how might this affect the US response to Israeli warnings that it will attack Iran before the 2012 presidential election?

Martin Indyk, a former US Ambassador to Israel during the Clinton years who now heads foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, is reported by the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom to have told Israel Army Radio on August 23 that:

The administration was convinced that Israel was going to attack in the spring. That was the official assessment, everyone ran to battle stations, mobilized, engaged with the Israelis, did whatever they could to calm them down and make it clear that the President [Barack Obama] was absolutely committed to Israel’s security and to ensuring that Iran would not get nuclear weapons. That seemed to work fine. But after that, the administration concluded that Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and Defense Minister [Ehud] Barak were engaged in a complete bluff, and having succeeded in bluffing them, I think they were wary of being bluffed again.

When Obama met with Netanyahu in March, according to Indyk, the president came away convinced that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities was about to occur. He did everything possible to reassure Israel’s leader that the US would do whatever was necessary to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. “Apparently, Israel complied, as no attack has yet taken place,” according to the religious nationalist news site, Arutz Sheva.

A diplomatic success story? Hardly, according to The Jerusalem Post:

After no Israeli strike took place, Indyk said that the US officials felt as though they had been duped by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s ruse. The former ambassador added that there is a sense within the US government that Washington is once again being misled by Israeli declarations and leaks.

It’s not clear whether Indyk is working for or against the President in suggesting that the Obama administration feels it was played by Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Or, by stating that after having been misled about Israel’s intentions, the administration remains committed to preventing Iran from developing  nuclear weapons but views Israel as “the boy who cried wolf” and is therefore taking less seriously the hyperbolic hints that Israel will attack Iran prior to the US election. It’s possible that Indyk’s current message intentionally contrasts with the recent recommendation of fellow Clinton adviser Dennis Ross that Obama try to avert an Israeli military strike on Iran by promising Netanyahu even more armaments and military support.

The author of the Clinton administration’s “dual containment” policy that simultaneously targeted Iran and Iraq (instead of playing the two Persian Gulf powers off against one another as traditional “balance of power ” strategic logic would have suggested), Indyk has served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, Special Assistant to the President, and the US National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and South Asia. Bill Clinton appointed Indyk as Ambassador to Israel in 1993. A former Research Director at the American Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Indyk was the founding director of the Washington Institution for Near East Policy (WINEP), an AIPAC-created think tank dedicated to influencing the executive branch on Middle East foreign policy while AIPAC focused on lobbying members of Congress. Indyk is also the founding director of Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy. During the 2008 presidential primaries, Indyk backed Hillary Clinton, but supported Barack Obama when he won the Democratic nomination.

In the past several months, however, Indyk has grown critical of Obama’s foreign policy. As co-author of  Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy (with Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Lieberthal) he classified Obama as a pragmatist who opted for reasonable policies — often the least-worst available options — “with an approach typified by thoroughness, reasonably good teamwork, and flexibility when needed”. Indyk told Nahum Barnea of the Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot in an interview coinciding with the book’s publication that despite the greatness of the vision he presented, “Obama’s  cold, analytical and aloof attitude didn’?t suit the Middle Eastern climate.”

?In a February 29 op-ed in the New York Times, Indyk criticized the “fundamental design flaw” in the Obama administration’s Iran sanctions policy. Indyk warned that “crippling” sanctions designed to “persuade the Israelis that there is a viable alternative to a preventive strike” could backfire as “the Iranians conclude that they have no choice but to press ahead in acquiring the ultimate means of assuring the regime’s survival.” Furthermore, Indyk opined, the constant warnings of Obama’s military advisers about the grave consequences of a military strike by Israel might signal that the US can be counted upon to restrain the Israelis from launching a war against Iran. Indyk also suggested that election year rhetoric might impact Iran’s strategic calculus. The louder Obama insists that that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that that Iran will respond defiantly:

The only way out of the vicious circle is for Khamenei to understand that Obama is not seeking his overthrow — that behind the negotiating door lies a path to Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear power and not a corridor to the gallows. But how, while pursuing sanctions designed to cut Iran’s economic jugular, can Obama credibly signal this to Khamenei without opening himself up to the charge of weakness? Any hint of reassurance to the Iranian regime will surely be seized upon by his Republican rivals as a sign of appeasement.

Yet during an Yediot Aharonot interview at the end of May, Indyk recommended that Israelis be wary of US efforts to negotiate with Iran. “?The Israeli response must be skeptical, regardless of what exactly is agreed upon there,” Indyk said. “?When others are negotiating in your stead, you have every reason to suspect you are being sold out.”

In his latest interview, Indyk’s message seems to be that Obama has nothing left to promise Netanyahu:

Essentially, the U.S. had done everything it could to reassure Israel, the president doesn’t have anything more in his quiver, no other arrow to shoot to reassure it. I think this time around they thought, ‘Here we go again, there’s nothing more we can do we’ll just learn to live with it.

What exactly is Indyk’s game?

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. Regardless of how well or badly Obama has played his Israel hand, he sure has allowed Israeli untrustworthiness and deviousness to emerge for the world to see.

    As a consequence, Israel has far fewer friends in the US than it did during the Bush era. It’s almost as if Obama had planned it that way.

    But all that rubbish about the US’s vow to defend unconditionally Israel’s “security” had little to do with “friendship” anyway, and a whole lot to do with Washington’s expectations that Israel’s regional military supremacy would help keep the lid on things in the Middle East.

    Well, Israel made sure that it did a pretty lousy job of that — the Israelis have been totally useless to Washington throughout this “Arab Spring.” So what are they worth now?

    What will happen to the “sacred relationship” when the US has completed its “pivot” to the Pacific?

  2. Dave Robert’s observations about fallout are very realistic – and, as he says, there is no certainty that Israel itself could escape a minor dose (a big deterrent right there).

    I don’t see where existence of ‘clandestine nuclear facilities ..unknown to the IAEA’ can be inferred – apart from the barrage of disinformation, reminiscent of the Iraq ‘yellow cake’ affair, coming from the usual sources. Having said that, if Iran does have a covert weapons program who could blame them, with daily threats coming from two nuclear powers?

    Returning to the supposed Israeli strike: before ever that happened (and it won’t) the citizens of all Israel’s major cities would need to be intensively prepared in readiness to receive incoming missiles – giving Iran many weeks of warning. And don’t forget the possibility of Dimona or Nahal Sorek getting hit!

Comments are closed.