President Obama walked into a trap. Here’s how it worked: The GOP spent months—years—insulting the president’s manhood. So his administration cooperated on a New York Times story proving that manhood. Only: The story contained classified information. So Republicans complained about that—and now the administration faces a pair of special prosecutors investigating the source of the “leaks.”
Obama was dumb to let his administration walk into the trap. But Republicans—led by Mitt Romney—were cynical, dishonest, and maybe even unpatriotic in setting it. They knew, or should’ve strongly suspected, that the U.S. was taking strong actions against Iran’s nuclear program. They pretended otherwise for political gain. And the worst part of it is: They’re probably going to be rewarded for doing so.
But let’s back up and explain how we got here.
It’s true that when President Obama took office, he spoke of wanting to emphasize diplomacy in efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. (He still makes a similar case.) His Republican critics like to pretend that that’s where Obama’s Iran policy began and ended—but it didn’t.
Publicly, at least, the Obama Administration have pushed through a package of international sanctions that has weakened the Iranian regime. And privately, the U.S. has taken more direct action.
Remember the Stuxnet virus that damaged Iran’s nuclear-enrichment efforts? It had long been widely suspected that the U.S. and Israel cooperated in unleashing the cyberattack. And when Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated, it was widely believed that the U.S. was at least aware of—and maybe even gave permission for—Israel’s likely role in the attacks.
The very strong possibility of U.S. involvement was thick in the air—only because that information wasn’t “official,” Republicans could pretend it didn’t exist.
Which is what they did, charging the president with “weakness.”
“He’s been timid and weak on the existential threat that Israel faces from Iran,” Romney said in December.
“Right now he’s not conveying any kind of strength whatsoever,” Rep. Alan West of Florida said the next month.
“Appeasement,” Rick Santorum thundered in March.
So when the Times reported that, yes, Obama had a pretty active role in derailing Iran’s nuclear program, what did Republicans do? Did they apologize for getting the story wrong? Not exactly.
They complained, essentially, that the president’s administration told the truth. And they demanded an investigation.
“Our intelligence people say this is the worst breach (of classified information) they’ve ever seen,” Senator John McCain said Sunday. That’s unlikely, because Washington’s involvement was an open secret. But releasing classified information is still a fraught action—especially when you’ve been otherwise vigorous about prosecuting leakers.
It’s easy to see now that the Obama Administration never had a chance of winning this battle. Keep quiet, and Romney wins because he gets to portray you as weak during the coming election campaign. Speak up—and Romney wins because you’re busy fending off subpoenas while the public watches. There’s no good way out.
Some Republicans surely feel this is payback time for the Scooter Libby prosecution during the last Bush Administration. One difference: Libby was prosecuted for leaking information as an act of revenge against an administration critic; the Obama Administration, at least, simply was trying to make itself look good.
It may not be much of a difference: Once special prosecutors are set in motion, an administration’s energy ebbs a bit—time is spent lawyering up instead of governing the country. So Friday may have been the beginning of the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. But if Mitt Romney ends up victorious, it will be because he was more interested in winning—and in laying traps for the president—than in acknowledging the truth that everybody knew: Obama has worked hard to keep nukes out of Iran’s hands.