Thursday, March 7, 2013

Brennan Vulnerable on More Than Drones

by Jonathan S. Tobin

The consensus in the last month among political observers is that while Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense faced serious challenges that would ultimately fall short of stopping him, there was never a chance that the president’s choice to run the CIA would be turned down by the Senate. With so much fire concentrated on Hagel, it was assumed that White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan would skate to an easy victory even if tough questions were posed at his confirmation hearing. The day of that hearing has finally arrived, and though it is doubtful that he will be rejected, it looks as though he will face an even rougher time than expected when on the Senate hot seat.

Much of that has to do with the recent revelations about the administration’s guidelines about conducting drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets. Liberal Democrats like Ron Wyden and a libertarian Republican like Rand Paul will rake him over the coals about this controversial, though justified policy. Other Republicans will take him to task for the disaster at Benghazi and try again to probe into the questions of who in the White House knew what and when did they know it about the incident, as well as who changed the talking points which led to administration figures like Susan Rice putting out false information about the murders having resulted from a film protest rather than a terror attack.

Those will be the headlines of today’s hearings, and though they are topics that deserve scrutiny there are other questions that need to be asked about Brennan’s views that may be of even greater importance in determining his fitness to lead the country’s intelligence operations. Brennan’s positions on engagement with Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood need to be given as much attention as that given to the drones and Benghazi.

As terrorism investigator Steve Emerson notes, Brennan wrote an academic paper in 2008 that championed engagement with Iran. The paper was the blueprint in some ways for much of the Obama administration’s foolish attempt to sweet talk the Iranians and was based on the fallacy that moderates within the Islamist regime could overcome the hardliners with enough encouragement. That was a misreading of the situation in Tehran that had already been debunked by events by the time it was written but which was more fully exposed during the years of the Obama presidency, as time after time Iran used the diplomatic process to manipulate the West into giving them more time to achieve their nuclear goal. Going forward the key question is how willing is the administration to go back down that dead end road and let the Iranians prevaricate long enough to get their bomb?

The same question must be posed about Brennan’s position about Hezbollah. Brennan has used the same sort of language about moderates within that terrorist organization that he used to justify the feckless engagement policy with Iran. Indeed, Brennan has even called for Americans to “cease public Iran bashing” and to “tolerate, and even … encourage, greater assimilation of Hezbollah into Lebanon’s political system.” Brennan has spoken as if the group was evolving away from terrorism even though the evidence for this is slight and the group is still operated by people who have killed many Americans and runs under orders from Iran. The recent murderous terror attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria carried out by Hezbollah demonstrates how wrong Brennan has been on this subject.

Brennan also appears to be part of the consensus within the administration that backed the U.S. embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt this year. Brennan has been at the head of an effort to do outreach with American supporters of the Brotherhood. He has also repeatedly sought to confuse the issue about support for jihadist goals by Muslims. His semantic arguments have been aimed at convincing Americans to view Islamist terrorism as somehow being motivated more by economics than religion. That is such a fundamental misunderstanding of America’s enemies as well as the history of the conflict and of the Arab and Muslim worlds that it is hard to see how a person who holds such views can be trusted to run the country’s intelligence operations.

John Brennan’s mindset about his supposed field of expertise—terrorism—appears to be stuck in a political vise that refuses to look clearly at the motivations of Islamists or at their goals. It is this kind of thinking that has led the administration to continually seek to appease Iran and Hezbollah and to empower the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The repercussions of these blunders are currently unfolding in the Middle East as Islamists tighten their grip on Egypt, revive a bloody terror campaign in North Africa and get closer to a nuclear weapon in Iran.

What is needed at the CIA is someone who will question the complacency about Islamism that predominated at the White House while Brennan ran its counter-terrorism shop. We can only guess at what new intelligence fiascos will occur on his watch at Langley. At the very least, the Senate should not let this nomination go forward without a thorough public examination of just how wrongheaded many of Brennan’s views have been. 

Jonathan S. Tobin


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