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Betrayed by time

The Obama administration's decision to let Iranian proxy Hezbollah build a criminal empire in the Americas in exchange for a coveted nuclear deal provides a glimpse into the strategic thinking of the former president. A recent Politico article laid out the bare bones of the transaction:

In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States, according to a POLITICO investigation.

The campaign, dubbed Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 after the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed evidence that Hezbollah had transformed itself from a Middle East-focused military and political organization into an international crime syndicate that some investigators believed was collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities. ... But as Project Cassandra reached higher into the hierarchy of the conspiracy, Obama administration officials threw an increasingly insurmountable series of roadblocks in its way ...

One Obama-era Treasury official, Katherine Bauer, in little-noticed written testimony presented last February to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, acknowledged that “under the Obama administration … these [Hezbollah-related] investigations were tamped down for fear of rocking the boat with Iran and jeopardizing the nuclear deal.”

Many of the particulars in the Politico article had been in open-source circulation for months, though largely unnoticed by the press. In fact one of Politico's sources, David Asher, had already laid out the same facts in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in June 2017. The emphasis of Asher's congressional presentation crucially differed from Politico's journalistic account: Asher saw as operational penetration what Politico viewed through the lens of foreign policy choice:

By May 2010, Brennan, then assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, confirmed in a speech that the administration was looking for ways to build up “moderate elements” within Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” Brennan told a Washington conference, saying it had evolved from “purely a terrorist organization” to a militia and, ultimately, a political party with representatives in the Lebanese parliament and Cabinet, according to a Reuters report.

“There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing,” Brennan said. “And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements.”

In practice, the administration’s willingness to envision a new role for Hezbollah in the Middle East, combined with its desire for a negotiated settlement to Iran’s nuclear program, translated into a reluctance to move aggressively against the top Hezbollah operatives, according to Project Cassandra members and others.

But it is the thinking implied by the facts that is so fascinating. The Obama administration must have been dazzled by the prospect of engagement, at the tantalizing chance of building up "moderate" elements in Hezbollah. But in exchange for these political goals, Asher noted, it would be necessary to allow Hezbollah to build an operational capability. One that could penetrate the U.S. homeland through a massive system of espionage rings, smuggling networks and money laundering syndicates based in Latin and Central America. Although the cost was steep -- tons of addicting drugs, a growing number of infiltration routes, and loads of dirty money that collectively made up the Iran "Action Network".

Asher told the Committee what Iran stood to gain:

Hizballah’s External Security Organization (i.e. its terrorist wing) uses crime for exporting its influence, increasing followers around the world, and generating income.

Organized crime -- ranging from cocaine and heroin trafficking to selling counterfeit currency and cigarettes, along with massive money laundering via the Lebanese banking system -- has become a much larger source of funding for Hizballah than support from Iran.

Hizballah, partnered with Latin American cartels and paramilitary partners, is now one of the largest exporters of narcotics from South and Central America to West Africa into Europe and is perhaps the world’s largest money laundering organization

Hizballah’s drugs-for-intelligence program has evolved into a massive drugs-for-profit initiative.

The administration apparently decided to pay it.

For Iran, it would be the fulfillment of a long cherished dream. As Robert Valencia in Newsweek noted, Iran had long coveted a base from which to attack the continental United States itself. "In the years after the 9/11 attacks, Iran and Hezbollah’s influence in Latin America thrived with the help of populist leaders. Venezuela's then-President Hugo Chávez worked alongside Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah on drug trade and other activities to weaken the U.S. clout in the region. Within a few years, cocaine trafficking from Venezuela to the U.S. soared ... Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department found that Hezbollah strengthened its relationship with Mexican and Colombian cartels and established operations in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela’s island of Margarita."

Iran got its dream so that the Obama administration could get theirs.

By canceling the Cassandra operation, Iran was allowed to form a Western Hemisphere criminal network unimpeded (in addition to all the other financial incentives offered to Tehran) in exchange for time. As the Brookings Institute noted, Obama wasn't preventing judgment day, simply paying to defer it. "The deal will only delay and not prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Key restrictions on enriched uranium- and plutonium-production expire after 10 and 15 years, permitting Iran to expand its nuclear capacities and greatly reduce the time it would need to produce nuclear weapons, if it chose to do so in the future."

Time without nuclear war is precious, worth perhaps all Obama paid for it. Unfortunately, all the benefits of his deal are ultimately in the future. By contrast, the actual costs have already been incurred. The United States knows to the penny what it paid for the historic UN agreement. The mystery is what it will get in exchange. Possibly nothing. The greatest fear of former Obama administration officials is that Donald Trump will somehow mindlessly ruin the deal by provoking the ayatollahs, thus preventing the delivery of the peace which the former administration paid Tehran to deliver.

What went wrong with the Obama deal?

In hindsight, the success of the Iran nuclear deal implicitly hinged upon the hidden assumption of a third and possibly a fourth Obama term through Hillary Clinton. Her defeat not only exposed the huge costs of the deal but undermined the future payoffs themselves. The eagerness of the Resistance to bring down Donald Trump stems from one single fact. He threatens to ruin their meticulously crafted multi-year plans.

Perhaps it was foolish of Obama to count on four terms to bring his plan to fruition. Maybe Bush's "bringing Democracy to the Middle East" strategy and Obama's "grand bargain with Iran" strategy can't exist in a Washington unable to maintain the multi-decade containment strategy that made victory in the Cold War possible. Foreign policy investments must show a return in one or two presidential terms, or run the risk a new president will reset everything from scratch.

Ironically, Trump's supposed lack of a "grand vision" may accidentally be working in his favor. By focusing on shorter term payoffs he may be aligning his decision cycle closer to the quickening clock of events. He may get up each morning thinking "what shall I do today" -- and that happens to align perfectly with a world in chaos.

Obama's deal suffered ultimately from one great weakness. It was vulnerable to time, the very time which it intended to buy from Tehran with cash and concessions to Hezbollah. Its costs were front-loaded while its benefits were deferred into far misty reaches, the glory so apparently near yet in reality so far. And the first of time's betrayals was the non-election of a president Hillary Clinton.

It was just Obama's bad luck that the sure thing of 2016 never came off so that all the sure things he counted on afterward would come true.

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