Slam Dunk II: The Persian Version

President Obama came to power because of lousy U.S. intelligence that led the country to war in Iraq. Why does he think U.S. intelligence will now keep Iran from getting the bomb?

07.23.15 4:00 PM ET

“With this deal, we cut off every single one of Iran’s pathways to…a nuclear weapons program,” said President Barack Obama.  It “shuts down every path that Iran has to a nuclear weapon,” echoed the president’s press secretary, Josh Earnest. “This deal breaks each and every pathway to a weaponized nuclear device, including any potential covert effort,” chimed in Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

The president and his supporters are sounding awfully sure of themselves. Almost as sure as George W. Bush administration officials in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. It was CIA Director George Tenet who said that it was a “slam-dunk” that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. "Liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk," predicted Kenneth Adelman, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. And it was Vice President Cheney who predicted that U.S. forces would be “greeted as liberators.” 

President Obama’s rise to power was helped along immeasurably by these failed predictions. His foreign policy, which his supporters say can be boiled down to “Don’t do stupid shit,” is a direct reference to the Iraq war. Just this week, the president slammed critics of the Iran deal, saying they “are the same folks who were so quick to go to war in Iraq.”  

The decision to go to war in Iraq was informed by poor intelligence, wrong-headed groupthink, and an unrealistic desire to change a dysfunctional Middle East in one bold stroke. As it happens, these are three main ingredients in Mr. Obama’s Iran deal.

The president has made it clear that he intends to rely upon the U.S. intelligence community to enforce this deal. “It is not built on trust, it is built on verification,” the president said. Yet, the president is relying on the same intelligence community that botched the Iraqi WMD assessment a decade ago. America’s track record in this area is abysmal. So is that of the rest of the world, for that matter. Pakistan and North Korea are two recent examples. The former built the bomb without our spies having any idea. The latter went nuclear after President Bill Clinton assured Americans that an agreement—not unlike the one just signed in Vienna—would prevent it.

Admittedly, more than a decade later, America’s spies now increasingly rely on electronic intelligence—the hacking of emails, phone calls, and texts. Moreover, there has been significant turnover in the intelligence community since the Iraq war. But as my colleague Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iran case officer at the CIA, observes, “Iran’s nuclear sites are largely self-contained electronically. Stuxnet told us many things, and that is one of them. The Iranians are pretty good at protecting critical defense projects from being Internet-dependent.” He further notes that despite the turnover, “The [intelligence community] is the same. It's not a function of individuals as much it is the corporate ethos that makes the individuals.”

Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice confirms that American inspectors are not going to be allowed into Iran for inspections. The international inspectors that will be admitted, according to the deal, could be hampered by denial of access to suspect sites for at least 24 days. And in the event that Iranian “behavior” is deemed problematic, it could be another 50 days before the parties reach a resolution. Despite this and the myriad other opportunities Iran has to cheat, we continue to hear from a chorus of voices that this is the best we’re going to get.

A fair amount of ink has been spilled on the herd mentality in Washington that took the country from what many viewed as a war of necessity in Afghanistan to what is now seen as a war of choice in Iraq. A strong argument can be made that many smart people committed a large unforced error. In the end, there were too many dismissing the possible dangers of post-Saddam insurgency and too few dissenting voices within the President’s inner circle. Today, the voices of caution and dissent are equally hard to find. To be sure, there is a growing number of Democratic legislators expressing their concern about the Iran deal. But the administration is grinding them down, claiming that a vote against the deal is a vote for war.

To the public, the administration is marketing the Iran deal as one that cannot fail. It sounds a lot like the the run-up to the Iraq war, when American officials guaranteed victory. It was a mistake then, with Middle East stability hanging in the balance, and it’s a mistake now, with the world’s most prolific state sponsor of terrorism set to receive more than $100 billion in sanctions relief, and a clear pathway to a nuclear bomb in 10 years time.

While officials in the White House would be loath to admit it, what is driving them to make this deal with Iran is what drove the last White House, at least in part, to invade Iraq. That is the desire to change the Middle East in one fell swoop. The desire to overhaul the Middle East has been a siren song for policymakers throughout the post-9/11 era. The last president came to believe that a cocktail of toppling autocrats and promoting democracy could transform the Middle East, if given enough time. This one believes that after three solid decades of Iranian-sponsored terrorism, nuclear mendacity, and regional meddling, he has guided the world to the “promise of a new beginning” that is “grounded in mutual respect” that could lead to “constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community.” He may even believe that by dampening the possibility of conflict with Iran, the United States can once again, after several starts and stops, “pivot” away from the needless turmoil of the volatile Middle East.

While well-intentioned, President Obama’s efforts could backfire. Syria is a case in point. The president’s decision to stay at arms-length has made things worse. The death toll there nears 250,000, American citizens have been beheaded, and the Islamic State continues to conquer territory and threaten our interests across the region. Compare that to President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, where conflict spread instead of being contained, and where conservative estimates suggest that 219,000 were killed. It should be noted that thousands have died—and continue to be killed—in the chaos that erupted after Obama’s decision to withdraw from that country.

The President now claims that those who oppose the Iran deal are the same people who supported the Iraq war. That may be true. But he neglects to note that John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden were among the war’s supporters. He further seems to suggest that those who made mistakes can’t learn from them.

The fateful decision to enter the Iraq war is a case study that will be debated by historians for centuries. But it’s not too early to learn some bipartisan lessons from it now. Foremost among them is that neither war nor peace is easily won. And always beware of unintended consequences.