On Friday Colin Kahl was named Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser and deputy assistant to the president. Kahl previously served in the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East between 2009-2011, but is probably best known for his work outside of government—in particular, for advocating containment of a nuclear Iran, and for his part in trying to remove the recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel from the 2012 Democratic platform.
In his role as senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank close to the Obama administration, Kahl floated what was widely recognized as a trial balloon on behalf of the administration when he co-authored a report explaining how American policymakers would go about containing a nuclear Iran. Kahl’s report, “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” argued that while Obama says his policy is to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, the fact is that “prevention – up to and including the use of force – could fail, leaving Washington with little choice but to manage and mitigate the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Meanwhile, Kahl was helping out in the drafting of parts of the 2012 Democratic party platform. As Josh Rogin and Ben Smith reported at the time, Kahl and Congressman Robert Wexler were responsible for altering the platform so that it omitted mention of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which represented a change in longstanding party policy. As one source told Rogin at the time: "Colin Kahl and Bob Wexler bear personal responsibility for the platform debacle and the embarrassment caused to the president and the party. … They led a secretive, exclusionary process, rather than an inclusive one, recklessly threw out the longstanding platform language, and then attempted to cover their tracks by misleading stakeholders about what they had done and with whom they had consulted." Under pressure, the president had to overrule Kahl and put Jerusalem back in. But Democrats still paid a political price.
It’s hardly surprising then that a number of foreign policy experts are left scratching their heads with Kahl’s appointment. “Colin Kahl left the administration under a cloud of failure,” said one senior official at a pro-Israel organization in Washington, D.C. "He tried to insert an anti-Israel plank into the Democratic party's platform and failed to the point where the president had to personally intervene to repair the damage. Since he left government, he has galloped to the fringe of the Iran debate, floating all kinds of suggestions—including letting Iran go nuclear—that the party had to publicly shoot down. You really have to ask yourself why Joe Biden thought he was an appropriate choice.”
Kahl will be replacing Jake Sullivan, who reportedly led the administration’s secret negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. It’s hard not to conclude that Kahl was brought to carry out the next phase of the administration’s policy. If Sullivan’s engagement with Iran led to the White House’s acknowledgment of the clerical regime’s right to enrich uranium, Kahl will be leading the effort to persuade the American people that containment of a nuclear Islamic Republic is a reasonable policy goal.