Benghazi, Bergdahl, and the Bomb

Column: President Obama’s stories haven’t held up before. How is the Iran deal any different?

April 3, 2015

President Obama strode to the lectern in the Rose Garden Thursday to announce a "historic" agreement between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The preliminary deal made in Lausanne, Switzerland, the president said, "cuts off every pathway Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon." I hope he’s right.

But I’m not counting on it. The president has a terrible record of initial public pronouncements on national security. He has a habit of confidently stating things that turn out not to be true. Three times in the last four years he has appeared in the Rose Garden and made assertions that were later proven to be false. He and his national security team have again and again described a world that does not correspond to reality. No reason to assume these concessions to Iran will be any different.

The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked on September 11, 2012. Four Americans were killed, including our ambassador. Obama delivered remarks on the attack in the Rose Garden the following day. "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," he said. What he didn’t say was that the killings in Benghazi specifically were a "terrorist attack" or "terrorism." On 60 Minutes, when asked if he believed Benghazi was a "terrorist attack," the president replied, "It’s too early to know how this came about." On September 14, neither the president nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called what had happened a terrorist attack. On September 15, Obama referred to Benghazi as a "tragic attack." On September 16, Susan Rice, then U.N. ambassador, called it a "spontaneous attack."

By September 24, when Obama recorded a campaign interview with The View, he again refused to say Benghazi was an attack by terrorists. "We’re still doing an investigation," he told Joy Behar. It was not until two days later that administration officials began referring to Benghazi as a terrorist attack—something the Libyan government had been saying since September 13.

The story originally put out by the White House, that Benghazi was the result of spontaneous anger at an Internet video offensive to Muslim extremists, fell apart in a matter of days. Yet the White House persisted in its false description of reality, declining to confirm what was widely accepted as a premeditated terrorist assault on a U.S. compound, and chose to ascribe responsibility for the events in question to anti-Islamic bias. The evidence continues to mount that Ansar al-Sharia, the Qaeda affiliate in lawless Libya, was behind the events of September 11, 2012, not the stupid video.

In August 2013 President Obama announced in the Rose Garden that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had crossed the "red line" by gassing his own people. "Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," the president said. Then he punted the issue to Congress. But no action against Syrian regime targets was ever taken, because the president reversed himself and accepted a Russian proposal to ship Assad’s WMD out of Syria. "This initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad’s strongest allies," Obama said in a September 10, 2013, televised address. Almost two years later, Assad is dropping barrel bombs filled with chlorine gas on civilians. Success.

Last May, President Obama again walked purposefully to a lectern in the Rose Garden, and informed the world that he had released five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held prisoner by the Islamic militia for almost half a decade. "Right now," the president said, "our top priority is making sure that Bowe gets the care and support that he needs and that he can be reunited with his family as soon as possible."

Criticism of the prisoner swap was immediate, and intensified when Bergdahl’s platoon-mates said he had deserted his post. The White House, as usual, struck back against the critics and repeated its story. On June 2, Susan Rice, now national security adviser, went on This Week with George Stephanopoulos and said Bergdahl "served the United States with honor and distinction."

The Government Accountability Office concluded that the Obama administration’s actions were illegal. Bergdahl himself was kept isolated as the Army reviewed the circumstances of his capture by the enemy. Completed in the fall of 2014, the report by Brigadier General Kenneth Dahl still has not been released to the public.

Last week, however, the Army charged Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Has the White House reevaluated its trade? Of course not. On the contrary: Pentagon officials suggested on background that Bergdahl wasn’t a deserter, he was a whistleblower!

Three stories that collapsed under the weight of the evidence, three instances of the White House doggedly sticking to its policy line despite everything. This president's resistance to events in the actual world of space and time is more than ideology, however. It’s also good politics: By refusing to concede the facts of the case, Obama is able to hold his base and stay on offense against his true adversaries: Republicans, conservatives, and Bibi Netanyahu.

And now we have the Iran story. Iran, the president says, will reduce its centrifuges, dilute its enriched uranium, open its nuclear sites to inspectors, and turn its fortified underground reactor into a "research" facility in exchange for sanctions relief. The only alternatives, Obama goes on, are bombing Iran or ending negotiations and re-imposing sanctions. "If, in fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking for the most effective way to ensure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, this is the best option. And I believe our nuclear experts can confirm that."

Sure they can. Though I believe other nuclear experts, such as Charles Duelfer, can also confirm that this agreement has major holes, such as the spotty effectiveness of inspections and the failure to get Iran to disclose fully the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. And there’s always the tricky issue of sanctions relief: The United States says the process of lifting sanctions will be gradual and contingent on Iranian compliance, but Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif says it will be immediate.

What the president and Secretary of State John Kerry unveiled Thursday was another fancy, another fairy-tale, another fable about what might happen in an ideal world where enemies and allies share common interests and objectives, autocratic and theocratic regimes adhere to compacts, and moral sincerity is more important than results. Best be skeptical—these so-called triumphs of Obama's diplomacy have a way of falling to pieces like ancient parchment. And keep in mind this rule: When the president enters the Rose Garden, run for cover.