Newt Gingrich made the rounds in Washington last week. At an American-Spectator-sponsored breakfast he talked –- among other topics –- about what he called the Obama Administration’s “fantasy foreign policy,” a major instance of which was Iran.
It was, in some respects, Iran week in town. It had started out as nuke week. Monday and Tuesday’s global nuclear summit was designed to showcase the president as a world leader addressing legitimate and growing worries about the wrong weapons falling into the wrong hands. But the administration made a major political and diplomatic error. It kept the summit away from Iran’s to-date-unstoppable progress toward developing its own nuclear weapon, the single most problemmatic issue of the new nuclear order.
And in fact, as William Kristol notes in the current Weekly Standard, two Friday’s ago the president all but surrendered any serious intent of blocking the creation of an Iranian atomic bomb. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos he said, “[T]he history of the Iranian regime, like the North Korean regime, is that… you apply international pressure … and … sometimes they choose to change behavior, sometimes they don’t.”
The same day that the president raised that white flag, Middle Eastern scholar Fouad Ajami wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the “Islamic world is coming to a consensus that a discernible American retreat in the region is in the works. America’s enemies are increasingly brazen, its friends unnerved.” From Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to leaders in Lebanon, those once allied with us are now increasingly eager to make nice with our enemies. In a land where power is everything, the American administration has communicated nothing so clearly as weakness of will, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran, sometimes in ways blatantly at odds with our immediate security interests.
Consider three recent developments.
Everyone knows that the Iranians have been working against us in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are widely reported to have shipped armor piercing bombs and other potentially game-changing weapons to the Taliban. But still the United States continues its public rapprochement offensive with the Persian state.
Less noticed, but potentially more devastating, was an incident detailed early this month in The Financial Times. A world-record-holding, British-developed speedboat called Bradford Challenger recently fell into Iranian hands. When armed with Russian-designed Shkval torpedoes, also the world’s fastest and also now in the Iranian arsenal, a swarm of Challengers could, some believe, “represent a serious threat against an aircraft carrier in the confined waters of the [Persian] Gulf.”
The question of American will and even judgment has to do with what transpired immediately before the Iranians took delivery of the super boat. The Challenger had been the object of an extensive cloak and dagger game between Iranian and Western agents. At the very end, according to the FT, “U.S. special forces were ready to intercept the Iranian merchant vessel” carrying it from Durban, South Africa, to an Iranian port, “but the operation was called off.”
The administration’s war of snubs with the British government is of a piece with this bizarre weakness of judgment and will. The coldness is not just a matter of diplomatic tilt but, potentially, of stripping our forces of a major asset, access to British intelligence.
A senior Bush Administration official with essential national security responsibilities told me not long ago that whenever an on-the-ground assessment of the Middle East and Iran was needed, this official did not call the CIA but the British Embassy, which sent over MI-6 briefers.
Since Carter-era Director of Central Intelligence Stanfield Turner fired our on-the-ground agents throughout the area, American intelligence capacity in the Arab-Persian world has been uncertain, at best. Meanwhile, in a region where loyalties as well as betrayals are remembered for generations, the British have maintained strong ties with families and tribes going back a century and more. So now, just as we are compromising our relationship with our only reliable regional ally, Israel, we are also picking a pointless feud with the other government that provides us reliable eyes and ears there, the United Kingdom.
It appears that at least some inside the administration are alarmed by our declining ability to take on the Iranians. The headline for the lead story in Sunday’s New York Times was “[Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates says U.S. Lacks A Policy To Thwart Iran.” The story reads like a leak designed at once to answer outside critics and to threaten opposition on the inside. While saying studies about what to do were underway, it warned that the administration currently lacks plans.
As I left Tuesday’s breakfast, I thought Gingrich sensed that Iran could become the foreign policy equivalent of the health care overhaul, the emblem of an administration that basically misunderstands the nation’s needs and interests. In domestic politics, that devistating linkage is where the “fantasy foreign policy” is leading. But changing that policy will require a massive GOP win in November.