President Barack Obama has complained multiple times about nefarious lobbies lined up against the Iran deal. Alongside the president, many proponents of the Iran deal negotiated by Secretary of State John Kerry argue that there can be no honest reason for the unease and outright opposition to the deal among some politicians other than nefarious money from lobbyists who want war or, at the very least, want to maintain the tense status quo between Tehran and Washington.
It is a theme supporters of the Iran deal have picked up. Trita Parsi, an Iranian-Swede who leads the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and once declared that everything he does, he does for Iran, marked Senator Harry Reid’s endorsement of the deal by declaring it a defeat for big money, a silly statement given Reid’s own partisanship and acceptance of myriad campaign contributions from lobbying groups. “The Iran Project,” likewise reported, “In efforts to sway Iran debate, big-money donors are heard.” The news media has played along. “Big Money and Ads Clash Over Iran Nuclear Deal,” USA Today reported.
The irony, however, is that many of the staunchest proponents of the Iran nuclear deal feed from the same trough of cash supplied by the Ploughshares Fund, a multimillion-dollar group which defines itself as a foundation seeking nuclear disarmament but which has, for several years, taken a consistently apologetic line toward Iran. Now, too often analysts throw around discussion of funding to cast aspersions on those who disagree with them in the policy debate. Often, this is nonsense. Few analysts on either the left or the right are blank slates that simply follow the money. Those staffing NIAC, for example, have always sought an end to sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many had worked for Atieh Bahar, a Tehran-based consultancy close to former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. They are not chameleons, changing their stripes to match their funders. When NIAC policy director Reza Marashi, an Atieh Bahar alum, worked for the State Department during the George W. Bush years, he was not pro-democracy agenda, but was understood to be sympathetic to an embrace rather than isolation of Iran. Indeed, his persistent questions about the recipients of U.S. aid inside Iran raised security concerns. Likewise, when NIAC received a couple hundred thousand dollars from the National Endowment for Democracy, Trita channeled it to organizations close to the Iranian government.
Not everyone is so ideologically consistent, however, or honest when it comes to the issues about which they profess objectivity. This has certainly been the case-in-point when it comes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by Secretary John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif. Usually, an indicator of a flawed agreement is its failure to win bipartisan support. The opposition party, in such cases, is usually not to blame; rather, partisan votes on international agreements usually historically suggest an attempt to leverage party loyalty over national security. In the case of the JCPOA, to reach agreement, Kerry shredded at least a dozen redlines. The idea that the JCPOA represents the best possible agreement and the toughest peacetime verification regimen is demonstrably false: After all, both South Africa and Libya subjected themselves to far greater and intrusive mechanisms. Then why is it that groups like the Arms Control Association seem to swear by the agreement and have even attested to the thoroughness of the agreement before its details were even negotiated? Here, the 2014 Ploughshares Fund report may provide a clue. The Ploughshares Fund describes itself as “support[ing] the smartest minds and most effective organizations to reduce nuclear stockpiles, prevent new nuclear states, and increase global security.” What it has done in recent years, however, is to organize and fund a broad-based lobby to exculpate the world’s worst violators of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in pursuit of a new progressive agenda. Most recently, its money has come to play in cobbling together ostensibly independent support for the Iran deal.
For example, Ploughshares gave the Arms Control Association $210,000 for “influencing…US policy toward Iran,” and then another $25,000 for an expert workshop and press briefings. It gave the Atlantic Council, a think tank that has garnered a reputation as Washington’s most mercantile, pay-to-play academic institution, $80,000 to support the Iran Task Force and another $130,000 for the South Asian Program. In effect, Ploughshares pays the salary of the Atlantic Council’s chief Iran hand that has consistently amplified Tehran’s own policy positions in her analysis and programming. It funded the Center for New American Security to give “boot camps” to Congressional staffers “on the nature of Iran’s nuclear program,” in other words, to lobby them. It underwrote the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s efforts “to support an integrated lobbying strategy to build support for pragmatic approaches to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.” It gave the left-wing group J Street $100,000 to “educate” on behalf of an Iran deal. The National Iranian American Council? Over $150,000 for its advocacy on behalf of the Iran deal, and that doesn’t include money given individually to its staff. National Security Network? $75,000 to “educate media and policymakers about policy options to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” The National Security Network’s home page proclaims its dedication to “progressive” policy solutions, so the notion that this is anything other than a political reward seems a bit rich. Recently, blogger Jeffrey Lewis has criticized and downplayed the Associated Press’ revelation about a side deal between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would essentially gut verification by allowing Iran to test itself. What Lewis did not acknowledge was the $75,000 his home institution received from Ploughshares, according to the Fund’s 2014 report. The Aspen Institute also received Ploughshares money to education Congressmen and senior staffers about Iran policy options, again, effectively to lobby them. In addition, the Fund gave $75,000 to Gulf-2000, a listserv run by former Carter Iran hand and “October Surprise” conspiracy theorist Gary Sick. While ostensibly non-partisan, in recent years Gulf-2000 has become a “Journolist”-style clearing house to feed pro-Iran talking points to journalists. Sick promotes one line and often uses his prerogative as moderator to censor and exclude arguments and information that may contradict his increasingly radical beliefs.
Nor is all this lobbying for a policy favorable to the Islamic Republic new. In 2010, Ploughshares gave National Public Radio $150,000 in what appeared to be a pay-to-play scheme to get Cirincione and his grantees on air
, an arrangement that only ended after its public exposure (UPDATE: Plougshare’s 2013 Annual Report lists an additional $100,000 for National Public Radio). When Chuck Hagel — long a proponent of at-any-cost rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran — sat on the board of Ploughshares prior to his stint Defense Secretary, a tenure that even his ideological allies would like to forget, he channeled more than $2 million to support groups, many of which were led by former staffers, which sought to downplay Iran’s nuclear work and normalize ties with Tehran. More recently, Ploughshares has sponsored conference calls to rally support for the Obama administration and ensure a joint strategy among its grantees that, unfortunately, has turned on targeting the Jewish community.
So, in short, Ploughshares spread millions of dollars around to pro-administration groups to support whatever Iran deal came out of Vienna. To criticize the Iran deal would be to risk a significant source of funding — double digits percentages of their total budget in most cases — of these various groups. Seldom did these groups acknowledge the support provided by Ploughshares. The Ploughshares Fund’s strategy has amplified its success by cultivating both the non-partisan label of groups like the Arms Control Association, National Iranian American Council, or Atlantic Council, while using them to amplify each other’s similar messages. Hence, various organizations hosted one-sided panels in the wake of the Iran deal announcement with multiple Ploughshares grantees without acknowledging their funding from the same pot. For example, on March 26, the Arms Control Association sponsored an event featuring the National Iranian American Council. J Street, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation are all Ploughshares grantees.
President Obama is absolutely correct. Big money is seeking to sway the debate about the Iran deal. I personally have very little contact with AIPAC — I spoke twice at their conference on issues relating to the Arab world, never on Iran — in my 16 years in Washington, far less than, for example, than left-of-center pundit Peter Beinart. But, at least when AIPAC seeks to make its case, it does so openly; it does not pretend to be something it is not. What Ploughshares has done (and very successfully as well) is to fund myriad proxies who will push similar lines in concert with each other and Ploughshares, seeking credibility from their supposed objectivity, when the reality suggests they are anything but. When Obama warns of dark money and nefarious lobbies, it seems increasingly he is projecting.
Ploughshares: The Money Behind the Iran Deal
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How far–how low–do religious leaders end up going when they decide that, in public life, the end justifies any means? Consider the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr. For the Liberty University president, the end was the advancement of social conservatism. The means: Donald Trump.
Falwell endorsed Trump for the GOP nomination ahead of the Iowa Caucuses last year, and soon he emerged as one of the New Yorker’s most ardent evangelical backers. Trump’s dissolute personal life didn’t make him an ideal avatar for the evangelical cause. Nor did his transparently opportunistic change of heart on social issues such as abortion. But Falwell reminded his flock that Trump was running for president, not “pastor-in-chief.”
In a March 2016 interview with a Liberty campus newspaper, he even compared the Donald with David. Hadn’t David, though an adulterer and a murderer, found favor with God? (Yes, who can forget that marvelous Psalm, in which the king cries out to the Lord, “I will be asking for forgiveness, but hopefully I won’t have to be asking for much forgiveness. I’ve had great relationships and developed even greater relationships with ministers”?)
Judging by his Twitter and TV blitz in recent days, Falwell has kept the Trumpian faith through the first eight months of the Trump administration. Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Falwell tweeted, had been “bold” and “truthful.” He added: “So proud of @realdonaldtrump.” Note that Falwell’s praise came after the president suggested that there had been “very fine people” among the Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates who marched in Charlottesville.
Pressed by ABC’s Martha Raddatz on Sunday to identify these very fine people, Falwell descended to absurdity: “I don’t know if there were historical purists there who were trying to preserve some statutes, I don’t know. But he had inside information that I didn’t.” And more: “He saw videos of who was there. I think he was talking about what he had seen, information he had that I don’t have.” The president gets into trouble, Falwell concluded, “because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct; he says what’s in his heart.”
By now, these are familiar tropes of the Trumpian mind.
If the president says something untrue or absurd, it must be because he has secret knowledge about the matter at hand (in this case, about the supposedly innocent subjective views of people who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us”).
If Trump undermines presidential norms, if his careless rhetoric inflames rather than calms the nation in a moment of crisis, get over it. He isn’t PC–as if the political incorrectness of a statement guarantees that it is also true or worthwhile.
If you object to Trump’s lack of personal grace, his narcissism, his refusal to disavow support from the basest elements of his base, well, he isn’t the pope–again as if only pastors of souls are expected to possess grace, selflessness, and moral discernment.
It didn’t have to be like this for Falwell. One of the great blessings of a faith in a loving, personal God is that it liberates the faithful from the populist leaders and impulses of the moment. As Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention noted in his contribution to National Review’s “Against Trump” issue, “Trump can win only in the sort of celebrity-focused mobocracy … in which sound moral judgments are displaced by a narcissistic pursuit of power combined with promises of ‘winning’ for the masses. Social and religious conservatives have always seen this tendency as decadent and deviant.”
Moore might have added self-degrading.
Podcast: What to expect in a post-Bannon world
The first COMMENTARY podcast of the week finds us—me, Abe Greenwald, and Noah Rothman—wondering at the grandiose plans of Steve Bannon after the White House. A new news channel! War in the Republican party! Etc! All this leads into speculation about 2020, because why not, and why Joe Biden might be the guy to challenge Trump. And then we descend into more crushing morosity as we contemplate whether our divisions nationally are just too large to heal. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Sobriety in September.
August is traditionally the silly season in American politics and journalism, and this August is living up to the sobriquet.
Apparently, not even celestial mechanics is exempt from the necessity to be politically correct. To wit, there’s an article in The Atlantic complaining about Monday’s solar eclipse. The author says that not enough black people live along the path of totality. While it’s true that the northwest and high plains states at the start of the eclipse have very low black populations, that’s not true of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina at the end of the path.
Horses are in the same category as celestial mechanics. The mascot of the University of Southern California has been for decades a white Arabian horse named Traveler. The current horse is the ninth to bear the name, and he charges across the field every time the team makes a touchdown, ridden by someone dressed up as a Trojan. The problem? The horse’s name is Traveler.
So what, all but serious Civil War history buffs might well ask? But that was, almost, the name of General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller. Traveller rests in peace near the grave of his master at what is still called, I think, Washington and Lee University. Up the road, Stonewall Jackson’s horse, Little Sorrel, is buried at Virginia Military Institute, although his mounted hide can be seen in a glass case. Stonewall Jackson was a lousy horseman, by the way, and Little Sorrel was a placid creature almost guaranteed not to throw him.
Speaking of horses, the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc in New Orleans, inexplicably left standing, was defaced with graffiti calling for it to be torn down. I hadn’t realized that she fought for the South.
And speaking of General Lee, the statue of Lee in the chapel of Duke University will be removed. However, the statue of George Washington Duke—Confederate sailor, slave owner, and tobacco magnate in whose factories worked poorly paid black labor—will surely not be. His son gave Trinity College $40 million in 1924, and it was promptly renamed Duke University in the old man’s memory.
Oh, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in which “temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” has been defaced with four-letter graffiti.
To paraphrase Shelley, when the silly season comes, can Labor Day be far behind? I hope not.
An imitation mastermind exits a make-believe position
The fact that Steve Bannon, ousted from his senior role at the Trump White House, was its “chief strategist” in the first place is testimony to how accidental this presidency was and is. Who would hire for such a job a person whose first serious involvement in American political life had come only a few years earlier when he found himself running a right-wing media website due to a tragic accident—and whose entire involvement in actual political events was limited to three late months on the Trump campaign? This is the sort of thing that, in a normal universe, might get someone a deputy assistant to the president post as a reward—not a personal fiefdom inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Bannon is the greatest genius since Picasso. The fact is, Picasso had had art lessons before his Blue Period. Bannon took a central role in the White House with a knowledge base about the practical workings of politics gleaned entirely from books and newspapers. Trump the real-estate guy wouldn’t ever have hired a project manager who’d never so much as built a Lego tower before. In effect, that’s what he did with Bannon.
To be fair, no one really knows what a “strategist” is. The word’s common use can, I believe, be attributed to my friend Bill Kristol, who decided to call himself a “Republican strategist” when he had left the first Bush White House and was being sought to give good quote about the condition of the GOP in 1993 and 1994. From Bill’s clever innovation, a fancy-sounding title for a non-existent title perfect for a TV chyron became a national sensation.
Now the question is, what will the departure of this made-for-TV job mean for the Trump White House? My guess is: Not very much. Stephen Miller, who may be 30 years younger than Bannon but has about five times the political experience, is still in there fighting for what is essentially the Bannon worldview. Trump’s entirely personal decision to lean toward the alt-Right in the past week is an indication that the conservative fear he might move leftward is ridiculous. Trump is gonna dance with the one who brung him here; he thinks he owes those guys.
So basically what I’m saying is: The Bannon subplot is over. Time for the rise of a new White House figure to serve the subject of the next “he’s the real president” newsmagazine cover story.
A long time coming.
The horrific series of events in Barcelona is yet another macabre example of what is starting to feel like Europe’s new normal. This is the era of frequent, low-tech, mass casualty Jihadist attacks, in which any ideologically driven fanatic can jump in a van or pick up a knife and inflict carnage on the streets of our cities. The former head of Mi5, Lord Evans, has predicted that the battle against this form of terrorism is likely to last for a generation.
Yet there is a certain added grotesque irony to the attacks in Barcelona. This current wave of Islamist terrorism, the so-called leaderless Jihad, has its origins in Spain. When that van sped through Barcelona’s iconic Las Rambles, plowing down innocent pedestrians, the latest incarnation of Jihadism was coming home to roost.
This kind of terrorism, increasingly familiar across Europe, was, in fact, masterminded by a Spaniard. A veteran Jihadist called Abu Musab al-Suri. Formerly part of al-Qaeda, he is understood to have parted with Osama Bin Laden. In 2005, he published what would turn out to be a hugely significant text: “the Global Islamic Resistance Call.” It would be some years before western countries would feel the full effect of the strategy outlined in this document, but it is precisely the tactics developed by al-Suri that have gone on to form the basis of Islamic State strategy and the strategy for the IS inspired attacks that we are now seeing in the West.
Abu Musab al-Suri has had a decades’ long involvement in modern Jihadism, and particularly with Islamist terrorism in Spain. The Spanish authorities have wanted al-Suri since 2003, for his role in establishing the country’s first al-Qaeda cell in the mid-1990s. However, Al Suri’s role in terrorism in Spain goes back to well before this. Spain also wants al-Suri in connection to the 1985 Madrid bombing by the Islamic Jihad Organization, in which a restaurant frequented by US servicemen was blown up leaving 18 people dead. But it is also believed that he may have had a connection to the far more devastating 2004 Madrid train bombing, which killed 191 people.
Al-Suri’s jihadism took him to several conflict zones, including Afghanistan. But his most significant role has been as an ideological mastermind. During the 1990s he spent a stint living in London. From there he was editor of al-Ansar, one of the most important Jihadist magazines the time. His writings would also later be published in al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. It has even been suggested that al-Suri was ideologically connected to the 7/7 bombings, given that his writings had specifically encouraged the targeting of the London Underground.
By 2005, however, it seems that al-Suri had become disillusioned with al-Qaeda’s strategy. Its rigid, top-down structure and highly-organized, sophisticated attacks had brought about neither the desired awakening among Muslims nor the Islamist revolution the Jihadists had hoped for. In 2005, al-Suri released his “Global Islamic Resistance Call” onto the internet. Envisaging a leaderless Jihad, in which individuals or small cells would form their own organic and independent plots, they would avoid detection by not linking to a large structured network and instead used the internet to spread ideology and tactics. Crucially, al-Suri’s Jihadist manifesto stresses the importance of ultimately capturing territory to establish an Islamic state. This obscure Spanish extremist had set in motion events that would bring about the wave of terrorism being suffered today.
Al-Qaeda had hoped to function as a vanguard for triggering a much larger Islamist insurgency. But it was the rise of Islamic State in Syria that would eventually turbo charge the vision laid out by al-Suri. Between 2014 and 2016, Islamic State’s prolific spokesman, Mohammed Adnani put out a series of messages to Muslims living in the West, increasingly calling on them not to travel to the Middle East, but to instead carry out attacks in the West using whatever they had available to them; a knife, a car, poison, even a rock if need be. And Adnani told adherents in the West not to wait for instructions, but to take their own initiative and to target civilians. Like al-Suri, IS believe that through attacking civilians in the West, they can eventually bring about a clash in Europe that will rally European Muslims behind them.
In Barcelona, as with the recent vehicular attacks in London and Paris, we are witnessing the adherents of this strategy attempting to get their deranged, but terribly dangerous, plan off the ground. And in a chillingly ironic way, via al-Suri, it is a strategy that traces some of its origins back to Spain. European authorities are now engaged in struggle of trying to prevent any more of al-Suri’s vision from coming to fruition. But as the former head of Mi5 has warned us, it is a generational task we now face, and there can be little doubt that Europe is now caught up amid a new era of Jihad.