The only real purpose of recalling this Obama gambit from 2008 is to highlight the hypocrisy of Democrats in 2017, bewailing the suggestion that Jared Kushner, a member of Trump’s transition team, wanted to open a back channel to Russian contacts in December 2016.
Why is that the only real purpose? Largely because the two cases are different in important ways. Partly because in neither case is there evidence of a prosecutable offense. But if you want to argue for these back-channel-opening capers as prosecutable offenses, Obama’s was worse. And that’s partly because there is credible evidence that it actually happened.
In mid-2008, the George W. Bush administration surprised “hawkish” critics by conducting talks with representatives of the Iranian regime, the first time such contacts had been made at a senior level. The vehicle for this move was the on-again, off-again forum of “six-party (P5+1) talks” with Iran, anchored by the EU-3 and focused on deterrence of Iran’s nuclearization program.
The talks were in “on-again” mode at the time, with a serious expectation of substantive engagement with the Iranian regime. It was for this reason, against the urging of Bush’s critics on the right, that U.S. Ambassador William J. Burns, deputy secretary of state and coming off a tour as the ambassador to Russia, was sent as the U.S. representative to the talks. At that point, Burns was the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to attend such a negotiation.
After the watershed meeting in Switzerland in July 2008, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the media with some disgust that Iran wasn’t serious about negotiating. The Iranian posture wasn’t just a lack of seriousness. It was described at the time as an apparent change of heart.
At Saturday’s meeting, Iran had been expected to respond to a package of incentives offered in exchange for halting enrichment of uranium, which can be used to fuel atomic weapons. The Bush administration broke with long-standing policy to send a top diplomat to support the offer.
However, Rice said that instead of a coherent answer, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili delivered a “meandering” monologue full of irrelevant “small talk about culture” that appeared to annoy many of the others present at the table in Geneva.
“We expected to hear an answer from the Iranians but, as has been the case so many times with the Iranians, what came through was not serious,” Rice told reporters aboard her plane as she flew to the United Arab Emirates. “It’s time for the Iranians to give a serious answer.”
This 2008 meeting was neither the first nor the last time the Iranians seemed to change their minds at the last minute, pulling back just in time to avoid making any accountable commitments.
But mid-2008 has the distinction of being the time at which candidate Barack Obama reportedly opened a back channel to Iran, conveying to the mullahs that, in Michael Ledeen’s words, “he was a friend of the Islamic Republic, and that they would be very happy with his policies.”
During his first presidential campaign in 2008, Mr. Obama used a secret back channel to Tehran to assure the mullahs that he was a friend of the Islamic Republic, and that they would be very happy with his policies. The secret channel was Ambassador William G. Miller, who served in Iran during the shah’s rule, as chief of staff for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and as ambassador to Ukraine. Ambassador Miller has confirmed to me his conversations with Iranian leaders during the 2008 campaign.
Claiming that Ambassador Miller confirmed these conversations is not something Ledeen could (or would try to) get away with, if it weren’t true. Beyond that, however, Ledeen’s 2014 post had a larger thesis that the Obama administration wasn’t dithering or incompetent, but acting from a strategy of “détente first”: ceding U.S. interests at the outset in the hope of a “full alliance with Iran throughout the Middle East and North Africa.”
As an instance of this “détente first” strategy, Obama’s back-channel opening to Iran, while he was still an unelected candidate, would have been indisputably at odds with the policy of Bush administration.
Writing for the Washington Times in 2015, James Lyons put it even more trenchantly:
Mr. Obama’s game plan on how to negotiate with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had its genesis in the summer of 2008. According to scholar and author Michael Ledeen, around the time when candidate Barack Obama received the Democratic Party’s nomination, he opened a secret communication channel with the Iranian theocracy. The go-between was Ambassador William G. Miller, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who spoke fluent Farsi from his previous tours of duty in Tehran.
The message was, “Don’t sign an agreement with the Bush administration. Wait until I am president — you will get a much better deal! You will like my policies. I am your friend.”
That said, merely to suggest similarities between Obama’s 2008 back channel gambit – confirmed by Ambassador William Miller – and the anonymous allegations about Jared Kushner in 2016 is to overplay the comparison. For one thing, even if the allegations about Kushner are true, Trump had already been elected president. For another, the allegations about Kushner aren’t related to U.S. policy on Russia, or any conflict with the Obama policy.
The allegations are, instead, quite ridiculous. Oddly, many MSM outlets are citing the New York Times on them, even though the original story came from the Washington Post. This may be because the WaPo story sounds like something from a conspiracy website, even more chock-full than usual of over-the-top claims by anonymous sources, enhanced with breathlessly indignant commentary by other sources – mostly anonymous – who apparently have no way to know if the information is true or not.
WaPo reports first being notified of the interesting gossip about Kushner in December, by a source who sent an anonymous letter. Later, the usual deluge of highly classified intelligence from anonymous official sources hit WaPo like the Fukushima tsunami. Citing this intelligence, the leakers claim that Kushner asked Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak if it would be possible to set up a communications back channel to Russia using the Russians’ diplomatic network.
WaPo goes on to develop this theme at absurd length, speculating on things like how foolish it would be for a Trump representative (Kushner?) to trot back and forth to the Russian embassy to courier messages. (Who would do that anyway? There’s no suggestion that Americans going in and out of the embassy were to be part of the supposed proposal. WaPo appears to take its original snippet about the back channel business and just start speculating wildly.)
The WaPo story quotes a “former senior intelligence official” saying the whole idea “seems extremely naive or absolutely crazy.” Yes.
NYT, for its part, avers primly that it “could not immediately confirm these details.” But at this point, it’s doubtful that that means anything much. The story is stupid. It is also carefully crafted to drop hints that when Kushner spoke to Kislyak in December, he was discussing a way to “continue” communications with the Russians, although no actual evidence of any such “continuing” communications occurring, much less having fell implications, is offered. But we are to understand that the alleged “continuing” communications would be the reason why the FBI now considers this meeting to be of investigative interest.
Of course, the question arises in that regard: if what the anonymous sources say about the Russian description of the meeting is true, and is known to us with certainty from national intelligence, why hasn’t Kushner been questioned already? This kind of nugget – if it’s actually true, and relates to something untoward – isn’t just random corroborating data. It’s the smoking gun.
If Kislyak’s communications to Russia were under routine surveillance, and U.S. authorities have known about the Russian phone call since December (remember that anonymous letter), but the FBI is only now discovering an investigative interest in the Trump Tower meeting discussed in it, what kind of incompetent clown show have they been running?
Somehow, meanwhile, anonymous intelligence officials who purport to know so much about a single interaction between Kushner and Kislyak seem to know nothing specific or incriminating about other communications. (NYT refers to a Reuters report that Kushner had two phone calls with Kislyak between April 2016 and election day, in which they discussed improving economic relations and fighting Islamist extremism. There would be nothing unusual about this.)
The whole story, like every other on this theme, fails to add up in terms of “facts.” All it does is serve to flog an incessant, harping theme bearing the hallmarks of propaganda.
Reporting this stuff at all makes the Washington Post look like Sorcha Faal. The anonymous sources don’t sound like people talking straightforwardly about facts known to them. They sound more like people putting out a string of clues that fit a scripted narrative – clues they may not even expect to have to make good on. (The Russians aren’t likely to print out transcripts of their diplomatic communications, to disprove allegations being made in an American political attack.)
If the anonymous leakers do eventually purport to make good on their “clues,” we will be fully justified in demanding incontrovertible proof that they haven’t planted their “evidence.” At no time since this began have these people behaved in a credible, aboveboard manner.
Addendum (as this goes to post): Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins had an engaging piece on Friday 26 May, connecting some dots and suggesting that the real dupes of Russia will turn out to be the anti-Trump leakers and the mainstream media. Although I’m not convinced these folks had to be duped by Russia to do what they’re doing, it’s always good to see an intelligent observer who already gets that the Big Narrative from the anti-Trump forces is dismissible and without substance. Worth the read.