MAR 9, 2015, VOL. 20, NO. 25
Barack Obama wants us all to simmer down about Iran. He wants Senator Bob Menendez, a fellow Democrat, and the donors he represents to butt out of the sanctions debate. He wants Republicans to quit crying wolf about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He wants the media to stop hyping terror threats. He wants the American people in the dark about the secret correspondence he’s had for years with Iran’s supreme leader. He wants John Boehner to be mindful of protocol. And most of all, he wants Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop questioning his accommodationist approach to Tehran.
MILITARY PARADE IN TEHRAN
With the breezy confidence that is his trademark, the president has repeatedly delivered a reassuring message on Iran to the country and the world: Trust me.
With respect, Mr. President: No.
From the earliest moments of his first term, Obama sought to convince the country that threats from our erstwhile enemies were overblown. He forged an approach to jihadist attacks and rogue regimes meant to be a stark contrast from that of his predecessor. He ended the war on terror, quietly sought rapprochement with radical Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban, and ostentatiously undertook a more conciliatory approach to terror-sponsoring regimes like Syria and Iran.
Notwithstanding periodic drone strikes on bad guys, Obama has demonstrated repeatedly that his instinct is to ignore, dismiss, or downplay threats to the United States and its interests and allies. The record over six years is a long list of mistaken judgments, awkward euphemisms, and false assurances.
So when Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood it wasn’t a terrorist attack but “workplace violence.” And when Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit, he was an “isolated extremist.” And when Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate an SUV in Times Square five months later, it was a “one-off” attack. And when jihadists attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, it was a simple protest gone awry.
The problem in each of these instances wasn’t just that the descriptions were incorrect. It’s that the administration knew they were wrong and made the false claims anyway.
Numerous eyewitnesses reported that Hasan shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he shot. According to court documents in the case of the Christmas Day bomber, Abdulmutallab confessed that he’d been trained and dispatched by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula a full three days before Obama publicly labeled him an isolated extremist. The administration was aware that the Pakistani Taliban had claimed responsibility for Shahzad even before he attempted his bombing. And top intelligence officials on the ground in Libya repeatedly reported that al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists participated in the attacks and that there was no demonstration.
In the year before the 2012 presidential election, the Obama administration and campaign officials routinely claimed that al Qaeda was “on the run” or “on the path to defeat” or “decimated.” But top analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency were regularly providing Obama detailed assessments showing that the opposite was true. “When asked if the terrorists were on the run, we couldn’t respond with any answer but ‘no,’ ’’ said Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, former director of the DIA, after he was forced out of his job a year early. “When asked if the terrorists were defeated, we had to say ‘no.’ Anyone who answers ‘yes’ to either of those questions either doesn’t know what they are talking about, they are misinformed, or they are flat-out lying.”
Or all three. There’s little question that the administration misrepresented what it knew about our jihadist enemies. It’s equally clear that the administration chose to set aside information that contradicted its campaign narrative.
The U.S. government captured more than one million documents during the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Top administration officials initially described it as “a treasure trove” of intelligence on al Qaeda and its affiliates. But more than three years later, the senior DIA official who ran the project, Colonel Derek Harvey, says the intelligence community has fully analyzed less than 10 percent of the collection. Top DIA officials were told directly to stop providing analyses based on the bin Laden documents. The administration had decided to end the war on terror, and no amount of new intelligence about threats from al Qaeda was going to change their minds. So they chose ignorance.
A central element of the efforts to “end the wars” was peace talks with the Taliban. Initially, top officials said the Taliban must satisfy certain preconditions—disavow al Qaeda, recognize the Afghan constitution—before talks could proceed. The Taliban never agreed to the preconditions, so the administration dropped them. Mullah Omar’s men simply demanded that the United States free their top five commanders held at Guantánamo. In May 2014, the administration did just that, releasing the Taliban Five in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Top intelligence officials testified that the five Taliban commanders were almost certain to return to the fight against the United States. President Obama portrayed the exchange as potentially opening the door to “reconciliation” talks. Indeed, this was the first reason the Obama administration wanted to release the Taliban Five—as a confidence-building measure to jumpstart negotiations with one of al Qaeda’s strongest allies. This desperate attempt at diplomacy—preemptive capitulation—has failed. On February 24, the Taliban rejected press reports saying they were willing to negotiate with the Afghan government and decried the “occupation” of Afghanistan, a reference to the U.S.-led international presence in the country. They had simply wanted their leaders freed—and they have been.
In early 2011, the Obama administration formalized its hopes for improved relations with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad by restoring a diplomatic presence in Damascus. Ambassador Robert Stephen Ford presented his papers to Assad on January 25, 2011. Four months later, even as the Syrian regime was engaged in the slaughter of its own people, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Assad was a “reformer.” As the U.S. government accumulated evidence of Assad’s role in the widespread killing, Obama called for him to go and warned that the movement or use of chemical weapons would be a “red line.” But when the United Nations and the U.S. government confirmed reports that the Syrian regime had repeatedly used chemical weapons, the administration balked. Top Obama officials acknowledge that Assad was a puppet of the Iranian regime. In spite of that fact—or more likely because of it—Assad was allowed to cross the red line and continue the carnage. Although Assad agreed to ship some of his chemical munitions out of Syria, his regime has continued to slaughter Syrians with conventional weapons and barrel bombs. In the four years since the United States sent its ambassador, more than 200,000 people have died in the civil war.
In a January 2014 interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, Obama famously suggested that the radical Islamist group amassing territory in Syria and Iraq and brutally killing those trying to stop it was nothing to worry about. Remnick asked Obama about the implications of the Iraqis’ losing Falluja to the Islamic State. Said the president, “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
But ISIL was not jayvee. And by early summer, the Iraqis were urgently asking Washington for help. The State Department casually responded by noting that the United States would be training some Iraqi soldiers later in the summer. Even as vast swaths of Iraq were falling to ISIL— including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city—Obama continued to boast that he had “ended the war in Iraq.”
By September 2014, it was no longer plausible for the administration to downplay ISIL. The group had become such an urgent threat that Obama delivered a prime-time address to the nation to describe his efforts to address this “cancer.” After months of dithering, Obama said: “I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight, I want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve. . . . We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.” But even as Obama finally acknowledged the threat from the Islamic State, he sought to portray it as just another violent group: “ISIL is not Islamic.”
In his speech that night, Obama pointed to Somalia and Yemen as models of successful U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Five months later, Iran-backed Houthi separatists had overthrown the Yemeni government and the United States shuttered its embassy in Sanaa. And just last weekend, homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson warned Americans against visiting the Mall of America, just outside Minneapolis, in response to a video threatening attacks by al Shabaab, the al Qaeda franchise in Somalia. Models no more.
Today, senior administration officials speak of a campaign against the Islamic State that will take decades, and top intelligence officials testify that attacks from members of the Islamic State potentially represent an immediate and grave threat to the homeland. FBI director James Comey said last week that the “siren song” of ISIL’s call for jihadist warriors has led to FBI investigations in each of the 50 states. The president is now calling for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force for a group he dismissed just a year ago as terrorist poseurs.
The administration’s efforts have reached new levels of absurdity in recent weeks. When the president of Uruguay agreed to accept high-risk Guantánamo detainees on humanitarian grounds because they’d been the victims of “a heinous kidnapping” by the United States, not only did the Obama administration fail to rebuke him for the slander, it expressed gratitude. White House spokesman Josh Earnest argued strenuously that the Taliban, which provided safe haven for al Qaeda before 9/11 and has fought alongside it against the United States ever since, isn’t a terrorist group but merely “an armed insurgency.” The president claimed that the victims of the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris were “randomly” shot, despite the fact that the attacker himself said he’d chosen the target in order to kill Jews.
Obama claimed in an interview with Vox in late January that the world was transitioning to a new, more peaceful era. “The trajectory of this planet overall is one toward less violence, more tolerance, less strife, less poverty.” But in recent months, his top defense and intelligence officials said the opposite. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said: “The world is exploding all over.” The assessment from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was even more alarming. “Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence, I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.”
To call Obama delusional at this point seems generous because it implies that the president is unaware of the reality he is so determined to ignore. But as these many examples make clear, he is not.
Perhaps nowhere is this willful self-deception more obvious than Iran. The very framework of the administration’s approach to Iran—“decoupling” diplomacy over its nuclear program from the many other troublesome aspects of the mullahs’ regime—exemplifies this approach. And once again, the problem isn’t just that the administration is ignoring reality. It’s that it is creating and selling an alternative, fantastical world that bears little relation to the real one.
For much of the decade before Obama took office, Iran was at war with the United States. The targeting of American military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan was approved at the highest levels of the Iranian government. Iran is responsible for more than one-third of all U.S. troop deaths in the region, according to a retired general with vast experience there.
But two months into the Obama administration, top officials made clear their willingness to set aside that history. The Iranians were invited to a conference on Afghanistan, and State Department officials repeatedly claimed that the Iranians could play a “constructive” and “positive” role in Afghanistan and the region. Six years later, administration officials still say the same thing despite a steady stream of evidence that the opposite is true.
“Iran is mounting an aggressive campaign to fuel anti-American sentiment here and convince Afghan leaders that a robust, long-term security partnership with Washington would be counterproductive,” the Washington Post reported in 2012, noting “the Iranian initiative involves cultivating closer relations with the Taliban” and buying off politicians and media outlets.
More striking is Iran’s support for al Qaeda. Last week, for the first time in nearly three years, the public saw new information from the bin Laden raid. Documents released as part of a terror trial in New York City show, in the words of the al Qaeda leaders themselves, Iran’s availability for training and safe haven. One letter from a senior al Qaeda operative to bin Laden in June 2010 lays out the plans of a core al Qaeda leader to travel to Iran. The letter notes that “Sheikh Yunis” is ready to travel and “the destination, in principle, is Iran. And he has with him six to eight brothers that he chose. I told him we are waiting for final complete confirmation from you to move and agree on this destination (Iran). His plan is: stay around for three months in Iran to train the brothers there then start moving them and distributing them in the world for their missions and specialties.”
This comes on top of what we already know about Iran and al Qaeda. As Thomas Joscelyn reported here last week, at least three al Qaeda plots targeting Western interests were hatched in Iran since Obama took office. As the administration pined for Iran to rejoin the community of civilized nations, the Treasury was churning out reports showing Tehran had no such interest. In its designation of Yasin al-Suri, “a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator,” Treasury wrote in December 2011: “Operating under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian Government, al-Suri moves money and al Qaeda recruits from the Middle East through Iran and on to Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
In February 2012, Treasury designated Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security a terror-sponsoring organization. “MOIS has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports,” not to mention “money and weapons,” Treasury explained, “and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] operatives.” AQI, of course, would later become the Islamic State or ISIL.
The MOIS doesn’t just sponsor terrorism, it also protects Iran’s nuclear program. According to a profile of the ministry published by the Library of Congress Research Division in December 2012, it focuses on Iran’s internal affairs but plays an “integral” role in operations abroad as well. The MOIS identifies “external threats, specifically those aimed at Iran’s nuclear activity,” and specializes in “countering foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA and [Israel’s] Mossad,” both of which have worked to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran even established an elite counterintelligence agency that “likely operates” as part of the MOIS and is “exclusively responsible for protecting all relevant information about Iran’s nuclear program, nuclear facilities, and the scientists working in nuclear facilities against threats, including threats from domestic opposition groups and foreign intelligence agencies.”
So the same agency responsible for Iran’s robust terror activities has crucial responsibilities in protecting and hiding its nuclear program. Obama may insist on “decoupling” Iran’s nuclear program from its terrorism. Iran doesn’t.
Iran’s centrifuges have been spinning throughout the lengthy negotiations over its nuclear program, and it has continued to make progress on its plutonium program. The administration has backed away from previous U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend its nuclear activities. In the fall of 2014, the IAEA discovered that Iran was feeding hexafluoride gas into the IR-5 centrifuge at Natanz. When the State Department inquired about this prohibited activity, Iran stopped—a tacit acknowledgment that it had been caught red-handed.
And yet in his State of the Union, Obama claimed that the Iranian program had been “halted” and that the Iranians hadn’t violated the interim deal. What incentive do the Iranians have to abide by the terms of the deal if the American president will make excuses for them when they don’t?
The day after that speech, House speaker John Boehner invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. White House officials howled in protest, calling the invitation a breach of protocol. It was a rich argument from a White House that had enlisted British prime minister David Cameron to lobby members of Congress against additional sanctions on Iran and a president who had invited the president of South Korea to address a joint session of Congress before asking congressional leaders for their blessing.
White House officials aren’t concerned about protocol. They understand that Netanyahu will give Congress and the American people exactly what the Obama administration has worked hard to avoid for six years: a detailed assessment of the threat from Iran.
Consider this question: When was the last time a senior Obama administration official gave a speech devoted to laying out the threat from Iran? It simply hasn’t happened. Perhaps the most extensive comment on the subject from the president himself came in October 2009, after Iran’s secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom was exposed. Obama appeared at a press briefing with French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister Gordon Brown, both of whom condemned the Iranian violations in the strongest terms. “The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the whole international community, and it will harden our resolve,” said Brown.
Even Obama sounded resolute, saying, “It is time for Iran to act immediately to restore the confidence of the international community by fulfilling its international obligations,” and, “To put it simply: Iran must comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and make clear it is willing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the community of nations.”
But these flashes of rhetorical toughness were invariably paired with comedowns—Obama offering Iran a “clear path toward greater international integration if it lives up to its obligations.” Administration officials in briefings with reporters emphasized the “opportunity” the breach had given Iran.
An opportunity despite the fact that for the third time in a decade Iran had been caught lying about its nuclear program. An opportunity despite the regime’s crushing of the peaceful revolution four months earlier after the mullahs fixed the elections. And an opportunity despite our knowledge of Iran’s support for al Qaeda and its policy of targeting and killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was clear before he’d been in office a year that Obama would not seriously address the threat presented by Iran.
Netanyahu will. For that reason, and because of this context and the enormous stakes, John Boehner’s invitation was less a breach of protocol or partisan ploy than it was an act of statesmanship.
Long before he was elected president, Obama and his supporters complained bitterly about the lack of public debate before the Iraq war. It was a bogus claim on the particulars—that debate lasted well over a year, and the congressional authorization for war came nearly six months before the invasion. The principle they invoked, however, is a valid one and it ought to apply to Iran. If it’s important to have an extended debate about the threat from an aggressive rogue state before going to war, it’s equally important to have such a debate before deciding to capitulate.
Let it begin.