National Security on the Edge
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|Thomas E. Donilon||June 9th 2011|
National Security Advisor
|National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon|
Just over two years ago—on May 26, 2009—President Obama called Director Panetta and me into the Oval Office. Bin Laden’s trail had gone cold. The President told us in no uncertain terms to expand and redouble the effort to find him, and to make it the intelligence community’s top priority.
Dedicated professionals painstakingly scrutinized thousands of pieces of information until we found a man we believed was bin Laden’s trusted courier and began to track his movements. In the months leading up to the raid, we combed the intelligence, worked over the options, and met regularly with the President on the way ahead. As that process culminated, I was struck by how quintessentially presidential this decision was—and I’ve served served three presidents.
On Thursday night, the 28th of May at around 7:00, the President left the Situation Room, where he had received his final briefing on the various courses of action. In that room, the President had received divided counsel from his team, and told us that he would make a decision soon.
The President stood up, walked out of the Situation Room, and walked across the colonnade, past the Rose Garden, into the residence. This decision was his—and his alone—to make. And then the next morning at about 20 minutes after 8:00, he asked a few of us to come to the Diplomatic Room and told us “It’s a go.” That’s what strikes me now: that we ask our presidents alone to make these exceedingly difficult decisions. And at the end of the day, 300 million Americans were looking to him to make the right decision.
We all know the outcome, but let me make five observations about the operation, all the hard work leading up to it, and what we see as some of the consequences.
First, the decision-making process was truly emblematic of President Obama. It was intensely rigorous—he challenged assumptions and pushed on the analysis and the intelligence to make sure we actually knew what we thought we knew. We held more than two dozen interagency meeting, and the President personally chaired five meetings in the White House Situation Room in the six weeks leading up to the operation on Sunday, May 1. When it came time to decide, there were a number of options available, but the President chose to launch the raid for three main reasons: he wanted to limit the risk to innocent civilians—which, by the way, we did. He wanted to be able to prove we found who we were looking for. And he wanted to be able exploit any intelligence found at the scene, which I’ll say more about in a moment. One more comment on the process—our team was able to maintain absolute operational security. Through months of work—not a single leak. It is a tribute to the team, the President’s leadership of the process, and was key to the success of the operation.
Second, the Special Forces who carried out this operation performed brilliantly. Our view was that there was about a 50-50 chance that if we launched this operation we’d get bin Laden, but what gave the President the confidence to go ahead with the operation was his 100 percent faith in the abilities of these warriors who have conducted literally thousands of such missions. As the President said when he met with them at Fort Campbell, they are the greatest small fighting force in the history of the world.
This was also one of the great achievements in the history of the intelligence community. It was a success that was years in the making—across three U.S. Administrations—which is why the President’s first two phone calls once our helicopters were out of harm’s way were to former Presidents Bush and Clinton.
Third, as a result of this raid, we now have the single largest trove of intelligence ever collected from a senior terrorist leader. The intelligence community says it is equivalent to a small college library’s worth of material. It is remarkable: based on what we know now, we have tens of thousands of video and photo files, and millions of pages of text. One fact is already clear from this intelligence: Osama bin Laden was not simply a marginalized or symbolic figurehead. He remained an operational commander of al-Qaeda—a man directly involved in strategy, operations, propaganda and personnel. That is why the President’s decision to pursue the assault option mattered so much. In that compound in Abbottabad, we got more than Osama bin Laden.
Which leads me to my fourth point: As of early 2010, we assessed that al-Qaeda was at its weakest point since 2001. The successful assault on bin Laden’s compound is a strong blow and important milestone on the way to al-Qaeda’s strategic defeat. But al-Qaeda suffers additional fundamental challenges: the Arab Spring narrative presents al-Qaeda with a potent ideological challenge. For its entire existence, al-Qaeda’s message has been that violence is the only path forward. It has never had an affirmative program—it could not have been further removed from or irrelevant to those who came to Tahrir Square in January.
Fifth and finally, our action sent a powerful message for America’s friends and adversaries: we do what we say we will do. It is a message of persistence, determination, and dedication. No matter the obstacles, the United States does what it says it is going to do. Across presidencies and parties. And the United States has the capabilities to do so. These capabilities and this message were on full display a week ago Sunday. That is an important message that resonates across our other strategic interests.
The quiet and determined pursuit of bin Laden is not the only example of how President Obama matches his words with action.
This is also the case with respect to Iran.
President Obama has long understood the regional and international consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state. That is why we are committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. From his first days in office, he has made clear to Iran that it has a choice: it can act to restore the confidence of the international community in the purposes of its nuclear program by fully complying with the IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions, or it can continue to shirk its international obligations, which will only increase its isolation and the consequences for the regime. There is no escaping or evading that choice.
Already, Iran is facing sanctions that are far more comprehensive than ever before. As a result, it finds it hard to do business with any reputable bank internationally; to conduct transactions in Euros or dollars; to acquire insurance for its shipping; or to gain new capital investment or technology infusions in its antiquated oil and natural gas infrastructure. And it has found in that critical sector alone, close to $60 billion in projects have been put on hold or discontinued. Other sectors are clearly being affected as well. Leading multinational corporations understand the risk of doing business with Iran—and are choosing to no longer do so. These are companies you’ve heard of: Shell, Toyota, Kia, Repsol, Deutsche Bank, UBS, and Credit Suisse, to name just a few. The impact is real.
Unless and until Iran complies with its obligations under the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, we will continue to ratchet up the pressure. As the President has said: “Iran can prove that its intentions are peaceful. It can meet its obligations under the NPT and achieve the security and prosperity worthy of a great nation. It can have confidence in the Iranian people and allow their rights to flourish. For Iranians are heirs to a remarkable history.”
Like all NPT Parties, Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy. But it also has a responsibility to fulfill its obligations. There is no alternative to doing so.
That is why—even with all the events unfolding in the Middle East—we remain focused on ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.
But as you all well know, the Iranian regime’s nuclear program is part of a larger pattern of destabilizing activities throughout the region: In Iraq—where, as our former commander General Odierno said last summer, “They continue to be involved in violence specifically directed at U.S. forces¡”; in Syria, where it has helped the Asad regime suppress pro-democracy demonstrations; and in Lebanon, where it continues to arm Hizballah.
So make no mistake, we have no illusions about the Iranian regime’s regional ambitions. We know that they will try to exploit this period of tumult and will remain vigilant. But we must also remember that Iran has many weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
Iran’s model, like al-Qaeda’s, lacks a vision relevant to our times. It is a model that could not be more out of step with the sentiments of the Arab Spring. This model has the following characteristics:
- First: A corrupt, mismanaged and isolated economy that offers the younger generation little hope for a better future. It is an economy increasingly working for the security services like the IRGC and elites, and not for the people of Iran.
- Second: The denial of the basic human rights of freedom of expression¡Xthe very liberties people across the Middle East are prepared to risk their lives to claim.
- Third: a political leadership focused on preserving its reign at all costs, including by unleashing violence against its own citizens, rather than enabling its citizens to flourish.
- Fourth: The pursuit of policies that have worked to make a great civilization and people an isolated state, increasingly unable to carry on basic interactions with the rest of the world.
So it’s no surprise, then, that Iran’s world view bears little or no resemblance to the movements afoot in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, Benghazi, Deraa.
Iranian leaders’ attempts to declare themselves the inspiration for these demonstrators are belied by their clear hypocrisy: demanding justice for others while crushing their own people’s demands
Our observation is that since the elections in 2009, the regime has been heavily focused internally—on silencing dissent and preserving itself. And as you might expect, we now see fissures developing among the ruling class—a dispute that has nothing to do with meeting the needs and aspirations of the Iranian people. It also reflects a fundamental question: whether Iran has the confidence to engage with the outside world—a prospect that has been offered and that is in the overwhelming interest of its people. As the President has said to Iran’s leaders: “We know what you’re against, now tell us what you’re for.”
Externally, Iran’s destabilizing activities are backfiring by uniting its neighbors in the Gulf against their activities—this was something I heard often when I visited the Gulf last month. This is something Arab leaders are saying not just in private but in public as well. The Gulf Cooperation Council recently said it was “deeply worried about continuing Iranian meddling” and accused Tehran of fueling sectarianism.
I want to be clear: The door to diplomacy remains open to Iran. But that diplomacy must be meaningful and not a tactical attempt to ward off further sanctions.
These choices remain available to the Iranian government. In the meantime, America and our partners will keep the pressure on by continuing our current sanctions efforts and seeking new lines of activity to target.
We will continue the hard work of building a regional security architecture, maintaining a strong military presence, equipping our friends with early warning and missile defense systems— including our phased, adaptive approach.
We do all these things because they are profoundly in our national interest. And we do them because America stands by its friends and allies.
And in this region we have no closer friend and ally than the state of Israel. The U.S.-Israel relationship is a close friendship, rooted in shared values and cultural common ground. But it has also evolved into a multilayered strategic partnership, to advance shared interests and counter common threats.
Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. We understand the threats that Israel faces. We have to understand them, because those who threaten Israel also threaten us. This starts at the strategic level, where our nations have worked together from the certainties of the cold war to the uncertainties of the Arab Spring to forge a conception of the strategic landscape. We have differed at times about the exact contours of the landscape, but through sustained and very open dialogue we have enriched each other’s understanding of the security challenges we both face.W
e have shared our best thinking about the most effective ways to match our resources to the requirements that flowed from our strategic worldview. At the highest level, there are regular meetings and phone calls between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
We also conduct these discussions through an array of channels: The strategic dialogue, the Joint Political-Military Group, and many more. These channels have been ongoing and have proved their worth at every level of our governments.
The enduring relationships our senior leaders have forged with their Israeli counterparts have produced a rock-solid foundation of trust between the Pentagon and the Israeli Ministry of Defense. In 2010 alone, there were nearly 200 senior-level DoD visitors to Israel; and Israeli defense officials visit us just as often.
Our multi-layered dialogue has produced concrete steps that enhance Israel’s security. While some are focused on noise and distraction, we are focused on fundamentals. And let me say this as plainly as I can—the fundamentals of this security relationship are stronger than they have ever been.
Everyone in this room knows that we are committed to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and back that commitment with about $3 billion of foreign military financing every year, regardless of the budget environment. This has helped Israel secure its future in a tough neighborhood. At the same time, we have made our own best technology available, such as the Joint Strike Fighter and sophisticated standoff weapons, so that Israel can defend against evolving threats.
For more than two decades, the United States has also been working to improve the protection of Israel’s population from the very real and urgent threat of rockets and missiles by partnering with Israel to develop an extensive missile defense architecture. We cooperate across the continuum of development, deployment, and operation of these systems. Our financial and technological support was essential to the Arrow and David’s Sling systems to defend against long- and shortrange ballistic missiles.
A recent example of the President’s commitment to protect Israel from the scourge of rockets and missiles is our support for Iron Dome, an advanced short-range rocket defense system that has recently been deployed. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then Senator Obama visited Sderot, where he saw firsthand the damage from waves of rocket attacks. So, last year, the President requested that Congress provide Israel with an additional $205 million, on top of the FMF support Israel already receives, for the production of Iron Dome. Throughout its development, the U.S. cooperated closely with Israel, and the additional funding for Iron Dome requested by the President will allow the IDF to deploy additional systems throughout Israel in the years to come.
Already Iron Dome has proven its worth by intercepting 8 out of 9 rockets fired at Beersheva and Ashkelon in one day.
We are proud to stand by this project. It is imperative that we do so, because there can be no peace without security. The relationship between peace and security is both intricate and reciprocal. There will not be peace until Israel is secure, but Israel can never be fully secure in the absence of a credible peace.
That is why from day one, President Obama has been committed to a process that can lead to two states—a Jewish State of Israel and a Palestinian state—living side by side in peace and security.
An enduring two state solution can only be achieved through negotiations. There are no shortcuts. But no one should take comfort in the status quo. As we have learned in the Middle East, the status quo is never static. There are demographic and technological clocks that keep ticking. There is a new generation of leaders who will emerge in the region as a result of the changes that are now taking place. And it is in everyone’s interest that they see that peace is possible.
Across the Middle East this is a time of unprecedented transformation and uncertainty. I know there are those who see the specter of new threats and great risks on the horizon. We understand that view. Even without its leader, al-Qaeda continues to plot the death of innocents. Iran retains its nuclear ambitions and destabilizing activities. And Israel and America continue to confront a range of daunting threats. We will remain ever vigilant to these challenges.
But this is also a time of great opportunity for America and its allies.
Our Administration came to office determined to restore American prestige, authority, and influence. This means not just charting a bold course but following it. Not just setting difficult goals, but having the persistence and determination to achieve them. Not just saying what we intend to do, but doing it. On the threat from al-Qaeda and Iran and on Israel’s security, we are doing just that. Thank you.
National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon delivered this address at the Soref Symposium at the Washington Institute, from where this article is adapted.