In last night’s GOP presidential debate on CNN, moderator John King allowed a viewer to introduce a topic bedeviling U.S. foreign policy at the moment — Iran’s nuclear program. With war chatter on the rise, top U.S. officials have injected their opinions into the public debate.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said on Sunday that an Israeli attack on Iran was “not prudent at this point” and that such a strike would be “destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve [Israel's] long-term objectives.” When King asked Newt Gingrich if, as president, he would take Dempsey’s advice, the former House Speaker dismissed the U.S.’s top military officer opinion, saying he “can’t imagine why” Dempsey holds some of his views:
GINGRICH: Well, first of all this is two different questions. General Dempsey went on to say that he thought Iran was a rational actor. I can’t imagine why he would say that. And I just cannot imagine why he would have said it. The fact is, this is a dictator, Ahmadinejad, who has said he doesn’t believe the Holocaust existed. This is a dictator who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth. This is a dictator who said he wants to drive the United States out of the Middle East. I’m inclined to believe dictators. Now I — I think that it’s dangerous not to.
Watch a video of King’s question and Gingrich’s full answer:
Dempsey’s views track with those of the U.N. nuclear agency and reported U.S. intelligence estimates, as well as the public testimony of the top U.S. intelligence official. On Capitol HIll last month, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said of Iran’s nuclear program: “They are certainly moving on that path, but we don’t believe they’ve actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon.”
Not only does Gingrich dismiss the opinion of the top American military officer, but he also badly misstates Iranian political dynamics. On NPR this morning, Mehdi Khalaji — an actual Iran expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — pointed out that Iran’s actual dictator is not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Instead, Iran is lead by a Supreme Leader, who holds the office for life and makes many of the state’s final decisions. Khalaji said:
The main decision maker on crucial issues, including the nuclear program, is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. … We have to bear in mind that he’s not only Iran’s supreme leader, he’s the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Khalaji’s latter comment means that Ahmadinejad cannot start a war — with Israel or anybody else — and that responsibility rests instead with the Supreme Leader.
If Gingrich wants to “listen to dictators” in order to justify his hawkish views, he should be free to do so. But it’s disconcerting that he doesn’t even know who the dictator is that he should be listening to.