Shadow Government

A return from the woods, and reflections on a rough week

I've just returned from a week of fishing at a remote lake in Canada, blissfully disconnected from just about every other concern in life except for what the fish were biting on. (For any fellow anglers among our readers, the answers are: not much action from the elusive muskie, but lots of action on Cisco Kids for northern pike including a 20-pounder I landed, Yamamoto Senko worms did well for smallmouth bass, and the reliable jig and minnow produced a limit every day of walleye). Our meals were the opposite of the Singaporean haute cuisine that Peter Feaver indulged in during his own recent trip, but for my money it's hard to beat the traditional "shore lunch" we enjoyed of fresh-caught fried walleye, fried potatoes, and fried onions, all cooked over an open fire on a deserted island.

After that northern idyll, my return this week to the United States was jarred by a litany of grim headlines: plummeting stock markets, an unprecedented credit-rating downgrade, yet another round of sovereign debt crises in southern Europe that further imperil the Eurozone, and violent rioting throughout the United Kingdom. Herewith a few thoughts.

The credit rating downgrade puts a painfully vivid exclamation point on my observation a couple of weeks ago about the Obama administration presiding over an America in decline. Like "leading from behind," there's just no way to put a positive spin on the word "downgrade." Yet the downgrade is but the latest symptom -- along with unemployment, growing debt and deficits, and declining markets -- of a more fundamental problem: President Obama has consistently failed to articulate a persuasive account of what drives economic growth. Even more than different priorities over issues like tax rates and loopholes, spending cuts, and entitlement reform, this failure is emblematic of the economy's persistent weakness throughout his presidency. As Jeb Bush and Kevin Warsh lay out in this compelling WSJ op-ed, the Obama administration appears completely devoid of any strategy for economic growth. More pointedly, President Obama has not demonstrated an appreciation for the essential role of business in capital formation and wealth creation. He seems to see the business community as an unfamiliar entity whose primary purpose is to generate revenues for the government, rather than an engine of job creation and improving living standards for American citizens. This is why so many commercial leaders -- from Fortune 500 CEOs to small business owners -- fundamentally mistrust this administration. After all, why trust a White House that fails to appreciate your indispensable role in economic growth, and repeatedly threatens you with higher taxes and increased regulations?

Yet at least Americans are not violently rioting in the streets and looting small and large businesses alike, which has sadly been the case in the United Kingdom. Back during his campaign, David Cameron often lamented what he described as Britain's "broken society" of fractured families, endemic welfare dependency, growing violent crime, and a burgeoning cultural coarseness and dissolution of order and moral standards. It was a grim diagnosis that generated agreement among the likes of Daily Mail readers but snide dismissal as Eton moralizing from other quarters. I observed much of this decline firsthand during my recent years of living in London, where traditional British order and decorum persisted in some pockets but was too often eclipsed by endemic social breakdown and national decline. The riots now display this to the world. On one level they are simply opportunistic hooliganism amplified by social media. But on a deeper level they are a toxic display of the nihilism and pathologies of the Broken Society. Scotland Yard, already reeling from its unseemly role in the recent phone-hacking scandal, has performed ambivalently in this much bigger test that cuts to the core of its legitimacy as the protector of order and safety. Meanwhile the Cameron government, which has always been perched awkwardly between its emphasis of a "new brand" of compassionate Toryism and its traditional role as the law and order party, now faces its own crisis of governance and identity. As the perpetually insightful Tim Montgomerie observes, after some shaky first steps the prime minister seems to have reasserted authority yet now faces a series of new battles that will do much to define his premiership.

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Shadow Government

State snubs House request to examine Argentina-Iran ties

Last month, three members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) -- Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Subcommittee Chairman Connie Mack (R- FL), and freshman member David Rivera (R-FL) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their concern over information they had received on suspicious activity involving Argentina, Venezuela, and Iran and asking the State Department to investigate whether any nuclear cooperation is at play between the three countries.

Rather than making any serious effort to look into the matter, however, State dismissed the legislators' queries within a matter of days with a perfunctory: "We have no reason to believe that Venezuela serves as an interlocutor between Iran and Argentina on nuclear issues, nor that Argentina is granting access to its nuclear technology."

Well, the members didn't have any reason to either -- until information started to coming to light that has raised disturbing questions.

Argentina-Iran nuclear ties are nothing new, dating from the 1980s. The reactor in Tehran is largely of Argentinean design and Argentina was shipping highly enriched uranium to Iran as late as 1993. That relationship, however, ended under intense U.S. pressure in the early 1990s and seemingly was severed forever as Iran's role in the terrorist bombings against Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 came to light.

Still, Tehran never lost hope about restoring nuclear ties with Argentina and has made it a priority since. In 2009, the Iranian representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency publicly reaffirmed, "We are interested in buying [nuclear fuel] from any supplier, including Argentina."

Enter Hugo Chavez.

It's no secret that for the past several years the Venezuelan leader has been on point for expanding Iranian relations in South America, especially in Ecuador and Bolivia. Sources have told HFAC that in 2007 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personally asked Chavez to intercede with President Nestor Kirchner (the late husband of current President Cristina Kirchner) to reverse Argentine policy and once again allow Iran access to Argentine nuclear technology.

Sources have also provided information to HFAC that in February 2010 Argentine Minister of Planning and Public Works, Julio de Vido, in a meeting with Venezuelan Vice President Elias Juau, offered to share nuclear technology with the Venezuelan government, which has had a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran dating from November 2008.  

In addition, HFAC possesses documents indicating a financial relationship between Venezuela, Argentina, and Iran involving transfers of up to $250 million to build some 200 "socialist factories" in Venezuela -- mainly in the food processing and industrial equipment sectors -- although no one seems to be able to locate exactly where those factories are located, if they are operating at all.

The aforementioned comes against the backdrop of constant Argentina-Iran diplomatic parrying that continues to this day about the 1990s bombings and the price of restoring relations. In this, the Kirchner government can, on the one hand, be tough in its rhetoric holding Iran accountable for the Buenos Aires attacks, only to then undercut its position by offering Tehran quasi-olive branches.

For example, this past April, the Argentinean paper Perfil, citing confidential documents, reported that in a meeting last January with Iranian ally Bashar Assad of Syria, Argentinean Foreign Minister Hector Timerman offered to drop the investigations into the Buenos Aires attacks (several Iranian officials are wanted in those attacks) in return for restoring robust Argentina-Iran economic ties (once valued at more than $1 billion). Timerman denied the report, but the resulting scandal nearly cost him his job.

Yet, last month, Timerman again waded into controversy, calling an Iranian offer to help Argentina find the "real" culprits in the Buenos Aires attacks a "very positive step forward." Such a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach on Argentina's part only creates more uncertainty as to what its true intentions are vis-à-vis Iran.

Granted, there is no smoking gun on whether Hugo Chavez is playing the middleman to real or considered nuclear exchanges between Argentina and Iran, but given the players and histories involved there is certainly room for skepticism -- and the House members have every reason, given the stakes involved, to express their concern and expect a serious examination of the matter. And they deserve better from the State Department.

In fact, State's indifference to congressional concerns about the state of affairs in the Western Hemisphere is beginning to be noticed. Over several hearings this year, State representatives have either arrived unprepared to answer substantive questions or else appeared dismissive of Members' concerns about inter-American security or threats to democracy. One can only hope that when the Obama administration names a new Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs that individual will reinstitute a healthy respect for the views and opinions of members of Congress who happen to care deeply about the region.