Does the fact that the White House lied to the American people when it was selling the Iran nuclear deal to the media, Congress and the public matter? That’s the question that a lot of the reactions to the astonishing New York Times Magazine profile of Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes by David Samuels haven’t fully addressed. But once we finish discussing Rhodes’ shameless self-promotion and the question of how the press did its job (or let Rhodes do its job for them), it will be time to get back to the heart of the matter: the ultimate consequences of a nuclear pact that ensured that Iran would eventually get its bomb and how the West — even if has wiser leaders than President Obama down the road — won’t be able to do much about it.
There have been a number of useful takedowns published of the Rhodes profile. Our John Podhoretz wrote in the New York Post about the brazen manner with which Rhodes confessed that he played the entire Washington press corps “for suckers.” Max Boot wrote here about the arrogance of Rhodes and the fact that he — and President Obama, for whom Rhodes serves as alter ego in what they call a “mind meld” relationship — shows no interest in learning from their many mistakes. Eli Lake correctly pointed out in Bloomberg that despite the contempt that Rhodes and other Obama courtiers have for the foreign policy establishment — which he calls “the Blob” — and its groupthink, their ideas are actually a reflection of the conventional wisdom of that same group they claim to detest including retreat from the Middle East and cutting deals with Iran.
Other reactions have centered primarily on the way Rhodes threw the White Houses’ two favorite foreign policy reporters — the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Al Monitor’s Laura Rozen — under the bus. Both served as apologists for the administration’s efforts throughout the long struggle for the deal but were mocked in the piece by the administration as being as easy to manipulate that the rest of the press corps with less experience in foreign policy. That’s produced some furious pushback from these journalists and their defenders. Meanwhile, Rhodes has subsequently tried to walk back some of the claims in the piece of his importance as well as his assertions that he hoodwinked official Washington about the nature of the talks and the Iranian regime.
But while this is the sort of thing that is catnip to Washington writers and connoisseurs of inside-the-beltway controversies, the truth is that, in the long run, no one is going to care much about Rhodes’ inflated sense of self-importance or whether Laura Rozen was as much of a useful tool to a cynical White House as Samuels’ piece seems to claim.
It’s true that the White House spin machine was particularly effective during the debate over Iran. It’s also true that much of the mainstream media, especially those in it that are looked to as credible reporters on foreign policy, bought the administration’s party line about the rise of Iranian moderates providing the opening for a nuclear deal.
But this isn’t the first administration to manipulate the media. Nor will it be the last. There will always be Washington writers and reporters who will be willing to allow presidents and their handlers to use them in exchange for access and all that entails in terms of juicy leaks or interviews. Long after Rhodes’ time as the power behind the throne has faded from memory, and others have replaced Goldberg and Rozen as top administration flunkies in the press, others will be playing those roles. The next administration will find just as many journalists who are willing to become their conduits for circulating false spin and being their cheering section on the same terms.
But what will have a lasting impact is the aspect of the story that many in the press aren’t quite as interested in as they are in the reputations of those involved in this story: an Iranian nuclear deal that guarantees that the Islamist regime will eventually get their nuclear weapon, and that puts Tehran in a position to make good on its quest for regional hegemony.
The lie at the heart of Rhodes’ sales job for the negotiations and then the deal was that the Iranian presidential election in 2013 put in place a set of new leaders that were amenable to cutting a deal with the West that would, in President Obama’s phrase, allow Iran to “get right with the world.” But as even some administration figures have admitted in the last several months after deal began to be implemented, there are no “moderates” in Tehran. The disputes within the regime are between different sets of hard-liners whose differences have nothing to do with their support for the acquisition of a nuclear weapon or an aggressive foreign policy.
The lies about the regime may or may not have affected public opinion about the Iran deal, which remained strongly opposed to the pact throughout the debate. But the support of the liberal mainstream media did help keep wavering Democrats in line behind the president. It was that factor that, combined with the stupidity of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, enabled the deal to squeak through Congress via a Senate filibuster.
But the lie is of lasting importance because, if there are no real Iranian moderates and no sign whatsoever that the regime wants to change, then what Rhodes sold to the press was a fatal mistake that strengthens and empowers a dangerous regime. As the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Mark Dubowitz noted in reaction to the piece about Rhodes:
As a result of sunset clauses in the deal that see most of the key restrictions disappearing over an eight to 15 year period, Iran will be left with an industrial-size nuclear program with near-zero nuclear breakout, easier advance centrifuge-powered clandestine sneak out, an ICBM program and a more powerful economy increasingly immunized against sanctions. If the Iranian regime has not moderated by then, the United States will be facing a much more formidable and dangerous enemy and may have little choice but to use military force (as sanctions power will be severely degraded) to stop Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. At that point, Iran will be stronger and the consequences of military action more devastating. In selling the Iran deal on a lie, Rhodes may have made war with Iran more not less likely.
Dubowitz is right. The bottom line here is a nuclear Iran with the financial might to stand up to any belated Western attempt to undo Obama’s mistake. Stacked up against that, Rhodes’ ego trip or the reputations of Washington journalists are meaningless. Obama and his mind-meld partner Rhodes endangered the security of the United States, Israel, and the West. That it was done on the strength of a falsehood and with the help of credulous, feckless Washington press corps is less important than the catastrophic nature of the mistake they have made.
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Iran Deal Lies Have Consequences
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A big, beautiful stall?
President Donald Trump loves to talk about “the Wall” that he claims will be built on the U.S-Mexico border. On the campaign trail, Trump wasn’t shy about reminding anyone who would listen that the sprawling barrier of his imagination was thrusting ever skyward in defiance of its critics. As president, Trump continues to tout the virtues of his wall, though he’s less theatrical about it. This month, Trump traveled to California for a photo shoot in front of a series of imposing prototype wall segments. The evidence suggests that Donald Trump clearly wants to make good on his promised border barrier. Right? Maybe not. When it comes to the 15-month legislative fight over the wall, the president has had a number of opportunities to declare his mission accomplished. He has conspicuously passed on all of them.
On Thursday, the president once again insisted that defeat was some rare species of victory. After he won a meager $1.6 billion from Congress, explicitly allocated to existing border fencing and levees, Trump claimed that this was just a down payment on the wall. This is the second time in as many years that Congress has provided Trump with a pittance for border security, and it’s the second time Trump has taken the deal.
The “rest will be forthcoming,” he assured his supporters this week. When, however, remains a mystery. Along with a permanent resolution to the status of the nearly 700,000 DACA beneficiaries, Trump had requested from Congress $25 billion in a border-security trust fund that would bankroll the wall’s construction. Democrats did not object to the price tag but insisted that DACA’s resolution must consist of a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million DACA-eligible illegal immigrants. That was it; there was no counter proposal from the White House. That’s where negotiations with Democrats ended.
The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim revealed that Trump then turned to Republicans on the Hill, seeking support for some winning combination of wall funding, border-security provisions, and DACA protections. None of the president’s proposals would have preserved majority support for the omnibus spending bill in the House, and all of them were swiftly abandoned. This did not have to be. The distance between the White House and the Democrats on wall funding and DACA was minimal. Why didn’t the White House simply counter the counter?
This isn’t the first time the president has been unable to take “yes” for an answer. In January, the White House made it clear that the president expected to secure funding for the wall before his first State of the Union address. That seemed like a feasible prospect. Democratic opposition to funding the wall was fading amid consistent and significant pressure from the party’s base to secure a permanent status for DACA beneficiaries before the initiative sunset forever on March 5. Amid a dispute over precisely how much of the wall’s funding Democrats would agree to appropriate up front (not over the wall’s $20 billion price tag) in exchange for DACA, negotiations broke down. Democrats overplayed their hand, forced a brief government shutdown, and lost. It was a debacle from which Trump emerged stronger and emboldened.
When the government reopened following a conditional Democratic surrender, Trump issued a new request: a modest hike in wall funding and related border-security provisions up to $25 billion in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for the broader DACA-eligible population and the curtailing of family-reunification programs. Absolutists on both sides of the divide over immigration reform issued hyperbolic denunciations of the proposal, but this was a significant concession to Democrats, and there were grounds for compromise. The conciliatory posture was quickly withdrawn. The administration’s offer, Trump surrogates insisted, was non-negotiable. Take it or leave it. They left it.
On February 15, Trump’s proposal received an anemic 39 votes in the Senate. Days later, the Supreme Court decided not to overturn a lower court ruling that allowed existing DACA recipients to continue renewing their status, effectively taking the president’s leverage with Democrats off the table.
The wall, as an issue, was not predestined to drag on well into the second year of the Trump administration. Despite Republicans’ misgivings about the high cost of a project that was doomed to fail at its primary task, they were willing to give the president the wall he wanted. As early as January of 2017, Republicans including Speaker Paul Ryan began floating the idea of a border-adjustment tax, which would impose a one-way duty on imports. The revenue from a BAT would be used to reimburse the treasury for the cost of the wall—in effect, Trump would have his wall and Mexico would actually pay for it. Despite the White House’s tacit endorsement of the proposal, conservatives savaged it. Trump eventually told the Wall Street Journal that the proposal was “too complicated” and a “bad deal.”
So, here we are today: wall-less. This could be a risky place for Republicans. The president regularly takes his frustrations out over his stalled agenda on Democrats, but he is not afraid of savaging GOP lawmakers when it suits him. Indeed, Trump is arguably most comfortable attacking Republicans as pusillanimous cowards. That was, after all, the central theme of his primary campaign, and it suited him well. If Trump is unable to win his wall before Democrats manage to engineer a political comeback in November, he might find that the most advantageous strategy available to him would be to resume his attacks on the professional political class—Republican and Democratic.
The wall has always been better as an idea than a tangible thing, with all its flaws and its sprawling cost. Perhaps Trump would prefer to have his wall as a martyr, occasionally waving its bloody tunic around before the crowd at pro-Trump rallies. If that was the president’s ultimate goal, he’s on track to achieve it.
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Podcast: Reckless spending and Russia.
So what’s in the big spending bill? On today’s podcast, we break it down from defense to opioids to Palestinian support for murderers and the cutoff thereof. And then we do not congratulate. Give a listen.
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The ignoble lie.
When you complain that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement discriminates on the basis of national identity, you are nowadays met with a contemptuous sniff. Proponents of an academic boycott insist that individual Israeli academics are not targets; rather, institutional arrangements with Israeli universities—study abroad programs, for example—are. Similarly, the cultural boycott does not target individual Israeli artists, but artists and artistic groups that enjoy some sort of government sponsorship. Look, dummy, they say, our guidelines are crystal clear! This “is a boycott of Israeli cultural institutions, not Israeli individuals.”
In the case of the academic boycott, this distinction between individuals and institutions is paper-thin. Until fairly recently, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel had this to say about its commitment to principle: “In principle, since the call is specifically for institutional, not individual boycott, [activities involving Israeli academics] do not violate the boycott. However, all academic exchanges with Israeli academics do have the effect of normalizing Israel and its politics of occupation and apartheid.” Therefore, “academics could consider whether equally valuable contributions might not be made by non-Israeli colleagues; whether an invitation to a Palestinian intellectual might be preferable; whether the exchange is intellectually or pedagogically essential.” In other words, we’re against boycotting individual Israeli academics, but please see what you can do about boycotting Israeli academics.
Comically, the guidelines explain that individual academics are being boycotted because the movement is decentralized, not because BDS advocates should try to avoid exchanges with Israeli academics despite the fact that they literally just said that was the preferred outcome. “It may also be that as a consequence of the boycott Israeli academics are now having a harder time publishing outside the country, participating in formal exchanges, sitting on boards and international committees, and the like,” the guidelines continued.
These guidelines have quietly disappeared, but their disappearance probably has more to do with their foolish revelation of BDS hypocrisy than a change of heart.
Six Israeli choreographers were recently rejected as participants in a feminist art festival in Norway because the organizers could not “with a clear conscience invite Israeli participants” when Palestinian artists struggle to get their art out. The rejection letters assure the choreographers that they might someday be invited if political circumstances change. In the meantime, they were advised to “help raise awareness in your society about the concern that many of us artists and cultural workers around the world have about the brutal effects of the occupation.” Alas, this sort of thing is not atypical. Why would it be? The shunning of Israeli artists and academics is fully in line with the attitudes and actions BDS encourages with a hard nudge and a dramatic wink.
BDS does not want to have a debate, which it knows it will lose, about whether individual Israelis should be shunned until they join Jewish Voice for Peace. So they won’t stop lying. But watch what they do, not what they—except on the numerous occasions in which they slip—say.
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Everyone's a critic.
The Senate voted down a resolution on Tuesday aimed at ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It was a bitter defeat, but not a humiliating one. Despite their failure, advocates for this measure insisted that the support of 44 senators was vindicating enough. For advocates of American retrenchment whose ascendancy was supposedly heralded by the rise of Donald Trump, times are tough, and they’ll take what they can get.
The measure—sponsored by ideologically divergent characters ranging from Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Bernie Sanders to Republican Sen. Mike Lee—attracted the support of some prominent Democratic lawmakers, some with their eyes on 2020. What’s more, it was a noble albeit doomed attempt by Congress to exercise its power to authorize American military involvement. Such constitutional authority has fallen out of favor with lawmakers as America’s inviolable commitments abroad have grown less popular over the decades. In the end, though, the effort to end America’s aid to Saudi Arabia, which has taken the form of refueling warplanes and sharing intelligence, was a minority proposition.
Both Sanders and Lee framed the vote as a chance for Congress to take ownership of its war-making prerogative, but that seems more like a pretext to register their dissatisfaction with a war that is being waged indiscriminately and without regard for civilian life. The conflict that needs Congressional authorization is the war in Syria. There, hundreds of U.S. forces are deployed in pursuit of a complex mission of deterrence and support. Occasionally, they engage in combat not only with militia fighters but with sovereign Syrian forces and their allies, including Kremlin-backed Russian mercenaries, which is in no conceivable way covered by the post-9/11 resolution authorizing the use of force against al-Qaeda.
But the Murphy/Sanders/Lee bill’s sponsors don’t want to sanction the conflict in Yemen (or Syria, for that matter); they want Congress to withdraw support for these missions and force the president into retreat. It is not as though this bill’s authors lack pragmatic alternatives, like the measure backed by Yemen war critic, Republican Sen. Todd Young, which would tie U.S. support to evidence provided by Riyadh indicating that they are scaling back the mission in Yemen.
Upon this resolution’s failure, the lawmakers who supported it vented their frustrations. “This war is deeply immoral and making America less safe,” Murphy wrote. Sen. Kamala Harris called the war a “humanitarian crisis.” Sanders called it a “humanitarian disaster.” They’re both correct, but that assessment does not address the strategic imperatives at play in Yemen. Sen. Dianne Feinstein insisted that it is “time we separate ourselves from this bloodshed,” which is a rather radical departure from her position on the conflict in Yemen just a few years ago.
In 2015, Feinstein insisted that Barack Obama had been overly cautious in the region. “We need some special operations in these countries, on the ground, more than just advisors,” Feinstein told CBS News specifically about the brewing Yemeni civil war. She added that America needed to be “more pronounced” in supporting its allies in the region, including Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. The desire to let the Saudi-led coalition take care of the hard work of beating back both terrorist networks and Iranian proxy forces in Yemen wasn’t an especially controversial position at the time. Indeed, the vital strategic necessity of that mission was inarguable.
President Obama’s reluctance to commit the United States to anything beyond the occasional drone strike on rogue targets in Yemen was understandable, if ill-advised. But the rise of ISIS, culminating in the rapid seizure of vast swaths of Iraqi territory in the first six months of 2014, changed Obama’s calculus. In September of 2014, an Iran-armed and funded insurgency sacked the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, seizing the levers of power and forcing the largely Sunni government to regroup elsewhere in the country.
The threat posed by this insurgency was immense. Yemen seemed to be following a trajectory forged by Libya, which had recently become yet another failed state in the region where Islamist militias could gain a foothold. The Houthi-led regime in Sana’a was overtly hostile toward America’s counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen and rebuffed Washington’s obsequious overtures of friendship. The success of the Iranian proxy group represented Tehran’s latest victory following dramatic gains by Iran-backed proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The shifting balance of power in the region toward Shiite-dominated Iran compelled America’s traditionally Sunni partners in Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi threaten to take matters into their own hands (which, a few months later, they did).
Most critically, after the fall of Sana’a, the Houthis were expected to turn toward Aden, where the former president was believed to have fled. Aden is a strategic port close to the vital Bab al-Mandab Strait, the two-mile-wide northbound shipping lane of which is Yemeni territory. More than 60 commercial ships transit this strait on a daily basis on their way to the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea, and Europe. Providing Iran with the capacity to shut down, mine, or harass shipping in this strait represented an intolerable threat to American national interests.
If Barack Obama, a president genuinely committed to American modesty on the world stage, consented to support an allied intervention in the Yemeni civil war, it stands to reason that almost any American politician with an ounce of concern for U.S. national interests would have done the same. Congressional representatives have the luxury of critiquing the value of the American mission in Yemen, in part, because the conduct of the war by its Arab allies has been bloody and unsavory. The alternative, however, is direct involvement. Non-intervention is not an option, much as the members on Capitol Hill might like it to be.
It should induce some introspection on the part of reflexive anti-interventionists that the last three consecutive presidents have promised to scale back America’s power projection abroad only to adopt their predecessor’s extroverted foreign policy. Extroversion is the practical position; the default result of a sober cost/benefit analysis that compels politicians to shed their ideological convictions. Congress can and should exercise its authority to sanction the use of force abroad. It should also compel the White House to be more transparent about unpopular deployments. But an effort to force the president into retreat is dangerous, negligent, and historically disastrous. That seems like a perspective that only the presidency’s uniquely lofty heights can convey. For Congress, the partisan food fight takes precedence.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the former president of Yemen as Ali Abdullah Saleh.
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Trump's delusions die hard.
Millions of Americans watched with great apprehension as Donald Trump spent the 2016 presidential campaign vigorously supporting Vladimir Putin’s strongman regime. That apprehension did not dissipate when, just months after taking the oath of office, President Trump defended Putin’s murderous government by suggesting the United States has no right to judge. “You think our country’s so innocent?” the leader of the free world barked.
Donald Trump seemed quite willing to sacrifice American credibility in service to his bizarre, albeit consistent, desire to ingratiate himself with the autocrat in the Kremlin. That is what’s made his administration’s turnaround so remarkable. The Trump White House quickly abandoned his version of a “reset” in relations with Russia. It has seized Moscow’s diplomatic property in America and imposed Magnitsky Act sanctions on close Putin associates. It has sold interceptor missiles and liquid natural gas to Poland, a frequent target of Moscow’s intimidation, and it has fulfilled a longstanding request from Ukraine to access American lethal arms. Just this week, the administration complied with a bipartisan act of Congress requiring the imposition of new sanctions on Moscow related to its meddling in the 2016 election campaign, building upon Obama-era sanctions that this White House has dutifully maintained.
When it comes to the need to contain an aggressive and expansionist Russia, the Trump administration has a good story to tell. It is enraging then that they refuse to tell it.
On Tuesday, President Trump called Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on his fourth reelection to the Russian presidency. Later that afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if the administration believed Putin’s victory was a fair one. “In terms of the election there, we’re focused on our elections,” Sanders said. “We don’t get to focus on how other countries operate.” She added that “we can only focus on the freeness and fairness of our elections.”
This is cowardice masquerading as enlightened detachment. Of course, the United States can and has weighed in on the freeness and fairness of elections around the world. Not only have past administrations done so with regularity; this administration has done so frequently.
As recently as January 24, in fact, State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that “the United States strongly rejects” the Venezuelan government’s decision to hold a snap presidential election designed to disenfranchise opposition parties. That “vote would be neither free nor fair,” she said. On February 8, Nauert went so far as to endorse the opposition boycott of that vote. “We stand with the hemisphere in support of the Venezuelan people and their sovereign right to have their votes counted in free, fair, and transparent elections,” she added. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, too, condemned the Maduro regime’s “fraudulent” elections. Even Sanders condemned Maduro for holding unfair elections and choosing “the path of dictatorship.”
The administration doesn’t just condemn; it also congratulates. Trump’s State Department has issued plaudits to nations like Honduras, Chile, Nepal, Slovenia, Liberia, and Lesotho for holding legitimate elections. It issued a statement of concern following a rocky transition that was the result of Kenya’s 2017 presidential election, attacked undemocratic election laws in Cambodia, and has condemned the “persistent flaws” in Nicaragua’s democratic process “as illustrated by” last year’s municipal elections. America has found “irregularities” in Rwanda’s elections process and it has attacked as “illegitimate” snap elections in Georgia’s “occupied regions,” which have been held captive by Russia since 2008.
The United States weighs in on the legitimacy of elections all over the world all the time. There is, however, no State Department statement on the latest elections in the Russian Federation. And they were by no means free and fair.
According to observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia’s presidential election was “well-administered,” but “took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices” and “restrictions on fundamental freedoms.” The abuse of electoral freedom was so flagrant that Russian election workers were caught stuffing ballot boxes on camera, making no effort to disguise their abuse. The OSCE also alleged that Moscow ensured there was no “genuine competition” for Putin to guarantee that he would win an outright majority and avoid a runoff election on the first ballot. To achieve this feat, though, the number of registered Russian voters had to inflate by nearly 1.5 million people.
To call this election what it was—unfree and unfair—would only be to acknowledge reality and echo the assessment of the OSCE. Maybe this president still harbors delusions of a grand rapprochement with Russia. Perhaps he has failed to internalize the fact that the Soviet Union is no more; that would explain why he thinks he can negotiate with Putin over a non-existent “arms race.” Whatever the case, it is clear now that Donald Trump will never abandon his fanciful misconceptions about Russia. Moscow and Moscow alone benefits from Trump’s conspicuous double standards.
It is a miracle that Trump’s administration does not act upon the illusions that haunt the imagination of the president, but that is a condition that voters cannot rely upon to prevail forever. For now, Trump’s inconsistencies do not imperil American national security, even if they do give license to appeasers and aspiring authoritarians to entertain their darkest impulses. One day, though, Donald Trump’s government may act in a way that is consistent with what the president clearly believes America’s policy toward Russia should be. That will be a dark day for democracy, indeed.