In “Politician-in-Chief,” Steve Hayes writes about President Obama’s frustration with, as Hayes puts it, Republican “criticism of the difficult decisions he is facing as president on matters of war and peace.” In particular, Obama claims that his Republican challengers are simply politicizing the threat from Iran in criticizing his administration’s handling of the situation. Hayes goes on to show that Obama himself is guilty of the very same politicization he accuses his opponents of practicing.
Indeed, I would add another example. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly politicized the issue of Iran’s ties to al Qaeda.
Hayes cites Obama’s September 12, 2007 national security speech, in which then candidate Obama trumpeted his longstanding opposition to the Iraq war. Obama also warned the Bush administration against war with Iran. Here, in part, is what Obama had to say (emphasis added):
Iran poses a grave challenge. It builds a nuclear program, supports terrorism, and threatens Israel with destruction. But we hear eerie echoes of the run-up to the war in Iraq in the way that the President and Vice President talk about Iran. They conflate Iran and al Qaeda, ignoring the violent schism that exists between Shiite and Sunni militants. They issue veiled threats. They suggest that the time for diplomacy and pressure is running out when we haven't even tried direct diplomacy. Well George Bush and Dick Cheney must hear - loud and clear - from the American people and the Congress: you don't have our support, and you don't have our authorization for another war.
Obama’s argument was straightforward and has been repeated many times by others in recent months, especially as the debate about what to do about Iran has heated up. Putting aside the much more complicated issue of Saddam’s ties to al Qaeda, which Obama has always discussed in politicized terms, candidate Obama was simply wrong on Iran and al Qaeda.
And you don’t have to take the Bush administration’s word for it. Officials in President Obama’s own Treasury and State Departments have repeatedly pointed to the collusion between Iran and al Qaeda – something Obama implied was impossible because of the “violent schism that exists between Shiite and Sunni militants.”
In July 2011, Obama’s Treasury Department announced “the designation of six members of an al Qaeda network headed by Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator, operating under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Treasury officials explained that it was necessary to expose Iran’s “secret deal” with al Qaeda because the terror network’s Iranian branch serves “as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia, including to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a key al Qaeda leader based in Pakistan.”
Rahman, the Treasury Department continued, “was previously appointed by Osama bin Laden to serve as al Qaeda’s emissary in Iran, a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.” Rahman was subsequently killed in a U.S. drone strike. According to press reports, he was tasked with orchestrating a terror plot to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
Khalil’s network also supports al Qaeda in Iraq, according to Treasury.
In December 2011, the State and Treasury Departments announced a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of Khalil, who also goes by the name Yasin al Suri. The Treasury Department's assistant director of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Eytan Fisch, spoke at a briefing when the reward was announced. Fisch described al Suri as a “senior al Qaeda facilitator” whom Iranian authorities have allowed “to operate within Iran's borders since 2005.” The reward is one of the highest offered by the U.S. government for any terrorist.
Just last month, on February 16, the Treasury Department designated the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), Iran’s chief intelligence organization, for its sponsorship of terrorism and human rights abuses. Among the terrorist groups the MOIS has supported are al Qaeda and its affiliate, al Qaeda in Iraq.
According to the Treasury Department, the “MOIS has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.”
The MOIS has also “provided money and weapons to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)...and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI operatives.”
That is three times in less than one year that Obama’s own officials have made a big deal about Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda. Contrary to Obama’s remarks in September 2007, the Bush administration rarely discussed the issue of Iran and al Qaeda. In January 2009, the Bush administration designated several senior al Qaeda members who received safe haven inside Iran after 9/11. But the Bush administration did not claim that the Iranian government has an ongoing agreement with al Qaeda, as the Obama administration has said.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain said Iran was working with al Qaeda in Iraq. The media wrongly claimed this was a gaffe. Extensive evidence shows that McCain got it right. Senator Obama, however, took the opportunity to criticize McCain’s supposed ignorance.
Here is how the Huffington Post reported Obama’s remarks in March 2008 (emphasis added):
And speaking today, Sen. Barack Obama, used the misstatements as evidence that McCain's claims of foreign policy experience do not give him a superior understanding or judgment of the terrorist threat or Iraq policy.
"Just yesterday, we heard Sen. McCain confuse Sunni and Shiite, Iran and Al Qaeda," said Obama. "Maybe that is why he voted to go to war with a country that had no Al Qaeda ties. Maybe that is why he completely fails to understand that the war in Iraq has done more to embolden America's enemies than any strategic choice that we have made in decades."
Senator McCain claimed that Iran was training al Qaeda operatives and sending them back into Iraq. The Obama administration has not addressed that aspect of the collusion between al Qaeda and Iran. Other evidence shows that McCain was right on that specific count. Ironically, however, the Obama administration’s own designations make it clear that McCain was generally right – Iran has supported al Qaeda in Iraq in a variety of ways.
And McCain was not simply confusing, in Obama’s words, “Sunni and Shiite, Iran and al Qaeda.” McCain was pointing to a dangerous nexus that Obama and his many allies pretended did not exist. Many of Obama’s supporters still pretend it doesn’t exist, even though the Obama administration has repeatedly said it does and it is worrisome.
President Obama and his supporters like to claim that their political opposition has politicized the intelligence on Iran, including the mullahs’ terrorist ties. This is a type of projection. Obama repeatedly politicized the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda during the 2008 campaign.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.