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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Calling Sens. Mitchell, Daschle—Your “Bipartisan” Center Is In Funny Company

Former Democratic Sens. George Mitchell and Tom Daschle co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), along with their former Republican colleagues and fellow former majority leaders, Sens. Howard Baker and Bob Dole back in 2007. The Center, which describes itself as a “non-profit organization that drives principled solutions through rigorous analysis, reasoned negotiations and respectful dialogue,” has generally promoted mainstream, centrist positions on a range of issues over the years, including economic and energy policy, governance, health, and homeland security.

That by no means has been the case, however, with its policy positions on Iran. In contrast to the relative moderation of its four co-founders, particularly the two Democrats and Baker, its policy recommendations on dealing with Iran’s nuclear program—which were included in a series of reports that I have tried to cover since 2008 issued by a neoconservative-dominated task force (see here from 2009 and here from 2012, for examples)—have consistently ranged from very hawkish to ultra-hawkish. Most members of that task force have since migrated to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which is now headed by BPC’s former foreign policy director (and former West Bank settler), Michael Makovsky.

BPC will co-sponsor a forum at the Senate Visitors Center with two hard-line neoconservative groups closely tied to and funded by wealthy donors of the Republican Jewish Coalition (chaired by multi-billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson): the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), the successor organization of the notorious Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the letterhead organization headed by Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan that did so much to drum up support for the invasion of Iraq. (FPI’s four directors include Kristol, Kagan, former Romney adviser and spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority Dan Senor, and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Amb. Eric Edelman.)

The forum, entitled “Looming Deadline and Unanswered Questions: What’s Next for the P5+1 and Iran,” has a superficially bipartisan cast: the two main speakers are Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, the biggest recipient of campaign cash from “pro-Israel” organizations associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) from 2002 to 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, a loyal AIPAC follower who is highly unlikely to offer a full-throated defense of Obama’s policy.

And you can be certain that none of the other panelists who are scheduled to appear on the program will either. On the contrary, they include: FDD’s oft-quoted executive director and sanctions specialist, Mark Dubowitz; Edelman (who is described as a “Senior Advisor” to BPC’s foreign policy project); Blaise Misztal, Makovsky’s former deputy who succeeded him as BPC’s Foreign Policy Project director; Olli Heinonen, the Finnish former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and adviser to United Against a Nuclear Iran, who most recently provided The Israel Project with an exclusive briefing in which he suggested that Iran may have all kinds of clandestine nuclear projects that western intelligence agencies know nothing about; and Ray Takeyh, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow who had worked for Dennis Ross at the State Department and whose dislike of Tehran seems to have become increasingly fervent—some would say unhinged—over the past year.

The program doesn’t mention it, but Edelman is the co-chair (along with Ross) of JINSA’s Iran task force of which Takeyh is also a member. Among other recommendations, the JINSA task force has strongly urged Washington to transfer its biggest bunker-buster bombs and the means to deliver them to Israel as a way to increase the credibility of Israel’s periodic threats to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities unilaterally, if necessary. (The BPC task force on Iran had been making similar recommendations since its first report—drafted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin, a protégé of Richard Perle—was issued in late 2008.)

I personally can’t imagine that Mitchell and Daschle, and Baker if he were still living (and possibly Dole, too) would endorse the message that will be sent by this event—that the deal the administration is negotiating will inevitably be “bad deal,” and that it would be better to have “no deal” even if that risks a new war. And it’s certainly very hard to believe that Mitchell and Daschle would deliberately undercut the administration’s policy on such an important policy priority. Or that they would approve of a forum dominated by neoconservative hawks of the kind that helped get us into Iraq.

Of course, neither man is appearing at this event; indeed, it seems that, once they co-founded the BPC, they essentially abandoned it and went off to pursue other priorities, heedless of its direction, at least on Iran. Nonetheless, BPC is trading on their names and reputations. Indeed, their names are invoked explicitly on the announcement of Thursday’s event. BPC, according to the description, “combines politically balanced policymaking with strong, proactive advocacy and outreach.” In this particular event, however, it appears that we’re going to get “strong proactive advocacy and outreach” without the “politically balanced policymaking.”

Meanwhile, the chairmanship of the BPC is now in the hands of Air Force Gen. Chuck Wald (ret.), who has done some very good work on the relationship between climate change and national security, but whose position on Iran has been…well, you be the judge from this 2009 op-ed entitled, “There Is A Military Option on Iran,” published by the Wall Street Journal. In that particular article he makes clear that Iran’s failure to comply with US demands to dismantle its nuclear program should be met with an escalating series of measures beginning with a major military build-up, then a naval blockade, and ending with a “devastating attack on Iranian nuclear and military facilities.” While he acknowledges the potential costs of such an operation, Wald, who co-chaired with former Sen. Chuck Robb BPC’s Iran task force, argued that:

If the Iranian regime continues to advance its nuclear program despite the best efforts of Mr. Obama and other world leaders, we risk Iranian domination of the oil-rich Persian Gulf, threats to U.S.-allied Arab regimes, the emboldening of radicals in the region, the creation of an existential threat to Israel, the destabilization of Iraq, the shutdown of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, and a regional nuclear-arms race.

Of course, that was in 2009, and the situation across the region and regarding Iran’s nuclear program has changed rather dramatically, so it’s unclear whether Wald and the BPC would still favor such a “Plan B,” as Wald described it then.

But the question is, how was it that the foreign policy project of a “bipartisan” organization—founded by two relatively liberal former Democratic Majority Leaders and two relatively moderate former Republican Majority Leaders—was effectively captured and held captive for no less than seven years by hard-core neoconservatives determined to sabotage a top foreign-policy priority of a sitting Democratic president? And now (although this is not the first time) this same “bipartisan” organization is co-sponsoring a highly tendentious event with two superficially “bipartisan” but actually overwhelmingly Republican-dominated groups—FDD and FPI—at a critical moment in determining the fate of this same policy. Isn’t it time for Sens. Daschle and Mitchell to ask whether this is the kind of thing they had in mind back in 2007?

P.S. For those of you who are interested in Latin America, BPC’s foreign policy project acted as the Washington base for former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe after he left the presidency in 2010. From his BPC perch, Uribe, who was elected to the Colombian Senate and returned to Bogota last March, conducted an unrelenting campaign against his successor and former defense minister, President Juan Manuel Santos, in reaction to the latter’s pursuit of Cuban-hosted and US-supported peace negotiations with a decades-long insurgency. While Uribe has never been conclusively tied to the right-wing paramilitaries who terrorized much of his home province of Antoquia, as well as elsewhere in Colombia, during much of the past quarter century, many of his political allies and supporters, including his cousin and nearly 70 members of Congress loyal to his coalition, have been the subject of investigations into their alleged financial and other support for these groups. Local and international human rights groups harshly criticized Uribe for granting amnesty to many leaders of the paramilitaries allegedly responsible for mass killings and other atrocities.

Aware of that context, many Latin America specialists here found it a little odd that, given Uribe’s questionable human rights record and associations, as well as his outspoken criticism of Santos and the US-backed peace process, BPC agreed to provide him a permanent forum. This was particularly so because it had never before hosted a foreign leader in the same way and because Democrats in Congress refused during his presidency to approve a long-pending free trade agreement with Bogota due to his government’s failure to adequately investigate—let alone prosecute—the murders of hundreds of labor and peasant leaders since the 1990s, including several hundred during his tenure.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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