Shadow Government

Can Obama take credit for ending the Iraq War without taking blame for what happens next?

Talk to a certain kind of Obama supporter about Iraq - as I do often - and you will encounter a curious line of thinking that goes something like this:

President Obama deserves tremendous credit for keeping a promise and ending the war in Iraq.  The departure this month of the last major military units marked a heroic turn in the war -- heroic not for the troops, perhaps, but for the policymakers who had the foresight to end U.S. involvement in a foolish war of choice.  Well, not end U.S. involvement, since the largest State Department footprint in the world remains in Iraq, to be guarded by the largest private security force the State Department has ever attempted to manage.  But still the war is ending and for this "campaign promise kept" President Obama has earned the admiration of his boosters.

If you point out the rapid unraveling in Iraq, and ask whether a slower withdrawal that left behind residual forces might have preserved more stability in Iraq, the Obama boosters rapidly shift their reasoning.  Obama had no choice but to take out all U.S. troops, they will say.  The Iraqis did not want U.S. troops to remain and the American people were adamant that the war should end (before the 2012 campaign really gets going, is the silent coda).  This was not an exit of choice, this was an exit of necessity.

Besides, it is Bush's fault, the bitter-ender Obamaphiles say, because he saddled Obama with the 2008 framework agreement that  set the 2012 troop exit deadline.  Of course, to cling to this view requires ignoring that both sides, U.S. and Iraqi, viewed the 2008 agreement as an interim step, one that would be renegotiated after the Iraqi elections to allow for a longer-term U.S. presence.  More problematically, it requires ignoring the lengthy but ultimately failed negotiations by Obama-appointed representatives to accomplish just such an extension.

So the Obama spin involves a remarkable double twist.  Anything favorable that happens in Iraq is due to Obama's courageous decision to end U.S. involvement.  Anything unfavorable that happens cannot be blamed on Obama because he had no choice but to do what he did.  I have encountered Obama supporters who flip back and forth between these two lines multiple times in one conversation.

When really pressed, some decry all attempts to ascertain whether President Obama bears any responsibility for what has transpired in Iraq on his watch as a "stab-in-the-back" exercise - an odious reductio ad hitlerum that seems designed to silence critics without having to do the hard work of engaging their arguments.

For now, the American people appear to be satisfied with this line of thinking.  There is an undeniable Iraq fatigue and there are plenty of other challenges at home and abroad competing for the public's attention.  But if Iraq unravels further, this particular spin may not wear as well.  And there may even come a day of reckoning when Americans will want a more candid and forthright debate over the choices President Obama has made.

Davis Turner/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama Hits Iran-Venezuela Ties. Now What?

One certainly hopes that President Obama's recent criticism of Iran-Venezuela relations indicates a new willingness on the part of his administration to confront the growing menace of the radical Islamist regime in the Western Hemisphere.

In comments submitted to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, the president said that Hugo Chávez's ties to Iran "have not served the interests of Venezuela or the Venezuelan people" and expressed concern about his anti-democratic behavior and his failure "to contribute to the security in the region."

"Here in the Americas," he said, "we take Iranian activities, including in Venezuela, very seriously and we will continue to monitor them closely."

The president's comments came on the heels of further explosive revelations on the extent of Iranian subversion of U.S. interests in the region.  Earlier this month, the Spanish-language network Univision aired an investigative documentary,"The Iranian Threat" -- the product of months of research -- that included incriminating information on Venezuelan and Iranian diplomats in Mexico discussing waging cyberattacks on sensitive U.S. computer systems, including those of nuclear power plants.

Shortly thereafter, U.S. law enforcement officials revealed details of an investigation into a Lebanese bank in Canada that laid out Hezbollah's sophisticated global money-laundering operations that includes direct involvement by senior officials in the lucrative South American  drug trade.  The revelations put the lie to the State Department's long-repeated talking point that Hezbollah merely "raises funds" in Latin America for its operations in the Middle East.

Both reports drew sharp reactions from Capitol Hill, where a number of members have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the administration's regional policy.  Senator Bob Menéndez (D-NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said he would hold hearings on Iran's destructive role in the region when the Senate reconvenes in 2012.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said she would request the State Department to conduct its own investigation "into Iran's deeply troubling partnerships with regional dictators such as Chavez, Morales, Correa, Ortega and the Castro brothers."

(It bears noting as well that in the Nov. 22 Republican presidential candidates' National Security Debate, the threat posed by radical Islam operating in the Western Hemisphere was featured prominently as a national security issue that official Washington was neglecting.)

Thankfully, it appears the steady drumbeat of concern about Iran and their Hezbollah proxies' strategic push into the Americas has finally caught the White House's attention.   To date, U.S. law enforcement agencies have had to confront this threat virtually alone.  It is time the entire Executive Branch foreign policy apparatus joins in, including the slumbering State Department.

Most importantly, it is time for ramping up actions to back up the president's words.   This includes not only identifying more individuals, companies, and/or governments found to be aiding and abetting Iran and Hezbollah in their nefarious activities and bringing the full weight of sanctions against them, but also conducting a full-bore public diplomacy campaign for regional audiences on Iran's intentions and activities in the region and the dangers for their societies therein.

To date, consorting with Iran has been a freebie for anti-American demagogues like Chávez, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, and Bolivia's Evo Morales.  The administration needs to move now to raise the costs.