by Grace Cason and Jim Lobe
“Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal,” President Obama observed August 5 at American University in perhaps his most forceful and aggressive speech in favor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
There really is no question regarding the fundamental truth of that assertion. Virtually all of the political appointees who held foreign-policy posts under George W. Bush—from Elliott Abrams to Dov Zakheim, not to mention such leading lights as Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, Eric Edelman, and “Scooter” Libby—have all assailed the agreement as a sell-out and/or appeasement with varying degrees of vehemence, if not vituperation.
This is reminiscent of the curious Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI), an organization established by the Bush White House in November 2002 to “mobilize U.S. and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein and freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny.” Indeed, Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), perhaps the most aggressive anti-Iran group over the past couple years, is based at the same offices as CLI was. Three of the CLI’s staff of four were associated with the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). CLI’s president, Randy Scheunemann, among other things, enjoyed an especially close relationship with Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC), and CLI and INC also seemed to share websites (as shown by the screen shot below.) A carefully chosen bipartisan group of 33 prominent individuals served on CLI’s advisory board.
This board did virtually nothing as an organization, although some of its members—acting in their individual or law-making capacities—took highly visible roles in promoting the March 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation.
Indeed, the board’s chairman, former Secretary of State George Shultz, told The New York Times Magazine in 2010: “There was a group — there was a committee that didn’t really exist, was a name, and it supported the war. …[i]t never met, and I don’t even know who the members of it were.” Former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, one of the three Honorary Chairmen, also indicated the board did nothing. He told The Wall Street Journal in 2008 (when he was hoping to be Obama’s running-mate): “I don’t remember any meetings, any conversations, any anything. Obviously my name was linked to it, but other than that there’s nothing that can be said.”
In other words, CLI was a classic letterhead organization (LHO), a collection of individuals with widely varying degrees of knowledge about Iraq gathered together by the Bush White House, PNAC, and Chalabi to lend their reputations and credibility to a dubious and violent enterprise that turned out to be the greatest foreign-policy disaster since the Vietnam War.
In light of Obama’s observation, we thought it might be interesting to find out—to the extent we could—where the 33 members of this brilliant board of advisers stand on the Iran deal?
CLI Opponents of the Iran Deal
Let’s begin with Shultz and his three honorary co-chairs.
The former secretary of state, who also told the The New York Times Magazine interviewer that he had no particular expertise on Iraq, hasn’t yet taken a specific position on the JCPOA since it was signed July 14. But back in April, shortly after the State Department released its “Parameters” summary of the deal, Shultz co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with Henry Kissinger that raised a host of criticisms that the deal’s foes have predictably seized upon. Although the two authors completely failed to address what a viable alternative to the JCPOA might be, they argued “…[u]nless political restraint is linked to nuclear restraint, an agreement freeing Iran from sanctions risks empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts [in the region].” Whether that is Shultz’s final word on the issue remains to be seen. For now, let’s mark him down as a “no.”
The same goes for CLI’s three honorary co-chairs, beginning with Bayh. True to form, Bayh, who is not known for his expertise either on nuclear issues or Iran, has joined two new LHOs, both of them dedicated to derailing the JCPOA. He serves on the four-man board of the American Security Initiative (ASI), a multi-million-dollar organization that in March sponsored a TV ad depicting a truck driver listening to speeches by Lindsey Graham and Bibi Netanyahu just before detonating an apparent nuclear bomb in the heart of a U.S. city. He is also serving on the advisory board of Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran (CNFI), the AIPAC spin-off that is reportedly spending $20-40 million on a huge ad campaign to reject the nuclear deal. Whether Bayh simply attached his name to it as he claimed was the case with CLI, or whether he really believes Congress should reject the deal based on his profound study of Iran and the deal remains unknown. But, given these two associations, he seems to be a clear “no.”
The same goes for CLI’s two other honorary co-chairs: former (Independent Democrat) Sen. Joe Lieberman and Republican Sen. John McCain, two of the old “Three Amigos” (along with Lindsey Graham), and known on this site as the “Chalabsey Twins” based on their championship of the Iraqi confidence man.
“Congress should step up to block the terrible Iran agreement,” was the headline of a Washington Post op-ed by Lieberman, who, like Bayh, serves on both CNFI’s advisory board and ASI’s board of directors. He argued that Iran would eventually be forced to agree to an (undefined) “better deal” if Congress rejected the JCPOA. McCain, who began reciting that “old Beach Boys song, ‘Bomb Iran’” when asked about Tehran’s nuclear program in 2007, has made no secret of his opposition. “The key will be the override of the presidential veto. That’s where we gotta get 13 Democrats,” he said in an interview earlier this month.
As for the other 29 members of the advisory board, three of them—Gen. Wayne Downing, former UN Amb. Jeane Kirkpatrick, and former Democratic New York Rep. Stephen Solarz—are deceased. Two other board members were Iraqis: INC co-founder Mahdi Al-Bassam and Rend Rahim Francke, another close Chalabi associate who served briefly as Baghdad’s ambassador here after the invasion. Neither has voiced any opinion about the Iran deal, according to the public record. However, Chalabi himself—who has long been on the outs with at least some of his former boosters due to his links to Tehran—has been a strong supporter of Obama’s policy of détente with Iran. (Lots or irony to savor.)
As for the two dozen who remain, let’s start with those members who beat the drums for war especially loudly in the run-up to the invasion. This sub-group that includes Newt Gingrich and the hard-line neo-cons—PNAC and ECI co-founder Bill Kristol, and the American Enterprise Institute’s Richard Perle, James Woolsey, Joshua Muravchik, and Danielle Pletka. All thumbs down on the P5+1 negotiations (if not the deal itself), and a few thumbs up for military action, either by the U.S. or Israel.
Gingrich: “Mr. Obama will argue that that the choice is a bad agreement or war. He misunderstands the current reality. We are already at war with Iran. They are winning. This deal hands them a victory while continuing our fantasy.” (07/13/2015)
Kristol: “We have a deal. It’s a deal worse than even we imagined possible. …Congress should then pass a resolution of disapproval…” (07/14/2015) (Kristol has always supported military action against Iran. In 2011, for example, he noted, “It’s long since been time for the US to speak to this regime in the language it understands—force.” (10/24/2011))
Perle: “Never again should the potential for genocide be allowed, and that means taking action before it’s too late, and that means not entering into agreements that predictably will place the most lethal weapons into the hands of the most dangerous enemies.” (03/03/2015) “Bibi Netanyahu was right when he said in his joint address to Congress that this does not block the road, this paves the road to Iran’s nuclear weapons because they’ll keep the whole nuclear establishment in place.” (03/23/2015) (Like Kristol, Perle has always favored “regime change” in Iran, through military means if necessary. In 2006, he accused then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of “appeasement” when she first suggested that Washington might join European powers in negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.)
Woolsey: “Critics of the Iran nuclear deal are right—it is a very bad deal. It surrenders to the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism the right to enrich uranium and the technological pathway to eventually build nuclear weapons, and intercontinental missiles to deliver them, on a mass industrial scale, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the U.S. Congress on March 3, 2015.” (07/26/2015)
Muravchik: “[Obama] mocks his critics as warmongers, but it is his ill-conceived policy that is most likely to get us into a war.” (08/19/2015) As for war-mongering, it’s worth noting that Muravchik himself argued that “[w]ar with Iran is probably our best option” back in March. (03/13/2015)
Pletka: “It’s the worst constructed deal I could imagine.” (07/19/2015)
Another big Iraq war booster, at least on the military side of CLI’s big names, was former drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey. You won’t be surprised to learn that he’s not too big on the Iran deal either. “In my view the Iran nuke deal is a deeply flawed agreement,” he told the Washington Free Beacon earlier this month. “The option was not war. The option was walling off Iran for another decade—and threatening nuclear retaliation if they attacked their Sunni neighbors [with] nuclear weapons.”
Another CLI member who championed the invasion and helped give the idea respectability among liberals was The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier (who later claimed that he had been deceived by the Bush administration’s claims regarding Iraq’s purported WMD). His latest piece of advice, which came in the form of a long-winded, predictably pedantic, and self-contradictory (as Ali Gharib pointed out here) essay published by The Atlantic, conveyed profound, if resigned unhappiness with the JCPOA.
This accord will strengthen a contemptible regime. And so I propose—futilely, I know—that now, in the aftermath of the accord, America proceed to weaken it. The conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action should be accompanied by a resumption of our hostility to the Iranian regime and its various forces.
Bernard Lewis, the Princeton Orientalist who is widely credited with persuading Cheney that invading Iraq would be an unmitigated good, is now in his 100th year and has not pronounced, insofar as we are aware, on the Iran deal. But his distrust of the Islamic Republic is well established. Indeed, despite his membership in CLI, he insisted in his 2012 memoir that he actually “opposed” invading Iraq and that his “primary concern was Iran’s nuclear program, not toppling Saddam Hussein.” In early August, 2006, he suggested that Iran might be planning an “apocalyptic” nuclear attack on Israel on that August 22 (because that date corresponded, “in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427 [which] …by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to ‘the farthest mosque,’ usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back.”) In 2012, he told an interviewer at the Hoover Institution that, for Iran’s leadership, mutually assured destruction is “not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.”
Yet another CLI member, Eliot Cohen, who teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), has not taken a public position on the Iran deal. But his past statements and current associations suggest that he would oppose it. He opposed Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon on the grounds that the former Nebraska Republican senator “already made it clear that he does not want to engage in a confrontation with Iran.” As defense secretary, what was needed, he said, was “someone who looks as if he’s perfectly capable of waging war against you and happy to do it.” More recently, Bloomberg reported that Cohen co-directs, along with Edelman, an outspoken foe of the deal, the John Hay Initiative, an enterprise that has so far arranged high-level briefings by former senior foreign-policy officials of more than half of the Republican presidential candidates. The fact that all of the Republican candidates have thus far opposed the deal offers some hint of Cohen’s own position.
We can probably make a similar inference regarding Ruth Wedgwood, who also teaches at SAIS. She has frequently accused Iran of being determined to develop nuclear weapons and has been an outspoken advocate for the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), the Iranian expatriate group that that was allied with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and was listed by the State Department as a terrorist group until 2012 when it agreed to repatriate its militants to third countries. It has long promoted “regime change” in Iran and has recently sponsored a series of briefings denouncing the JCPOA.
Of the remaining CLI advisory board members, we were unable to find any public comment on the Iran deal or negotiations with Iran one way or another for eight of them. They include Jacquelyn K. Davis, executive vice president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis; Lt. Gen. Buster Glosson (ret.); Teamsters President James P. Hoffa; Harvard Law Professor Howell Jackson; former Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey; Richard Shultz, director of the International Security Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Law at Diplomacy; Maurice Sonnenberg, Senior International Advisor at JP Morgan Chase; and Chris Williams, an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
CLI Members Who Haven’t Opposed the Deal
Four CLI advisory board members, on the other hand, have come out publicly in favor of the deal. They include:
Barry Blechman, a non-proliferation expert at the Stimson Center, penned an op-ed last week in The Hill newspaper that characterized the JCPOA as “an extremely good agreement.”
Thomas Dine, former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (1980-93), was one of more than two dozen leaders of the Jewish community who signed a full-page ad in The New York Times last week urging Congress to support the JCPOA.
Peter Galbraith, a former diplomat and current Vermont state senator who championed the Kurdish minority (possibly for mutual financial benefit after the invasion), last month called the JCPOA “quite significant” and “absolutely necessary.”
Will Marshall, president and founder (in 1989) of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) who earlier served as the first policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), penned an op-ed for CNN on the eve of the JCPOA’s signing, “A Nuclear Deal with Iran is Better Than No Deal.”
One former CLI adviser who has not yet announced a definitive position is Robert Kagan, the neoconservative princeling who co-founded both PNAC and its successor organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative, with Kristol. More recently, Kagan has tended to diverge from his partner-in-(neocon) crime. His failure to take a position to date is remarkable in itself given the combination of his stature and influence as a major foreign-policy thinker and the fact that the JCPOA has become by far the most controversial foreign-policy issue this year, if not during Obama’s entire presidency. He may be caught between his courtship of Hillary Clinton—his spouse, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, was Clinton’s spokesperson at State—and his ideological inclinations and past associations.
So far, however, his only public contribution to the debate has been a Washington Post column in which he called the agreement “a poor deal in many respects” but focused instead on challenging its Republican foes to back up their opposition by appropriating more money for the Pentagon and taking more aggressive action against Assad in Syria and against the Islamic State in Iraq.
In a New York Times op-ed he co-authored with his new boss at Brookings, Martin Indyk, at the outset of Obama’s second term, Kagan predicted that Iran’s nuclear program would represent the president’s premier security challenge. “If Obama can succeed in achieving meaningful curbs on Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations, he will do much to strengthen non-proliferation as a fundamental pillar of the new liberal global order,” he predicted.
Well, the deal is done; its provisions are now well established. Which group of CLI alumni will Kagan join?
Photo: Evan Bayh
Grace Cason is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, in foreign policy and national security. She received her undergraduate degree from Ohio State University in International Studies.