How Iran ruined a Washington friendship

By Al Kamen
Friday, January 29, 2010

In this town, policy disputes can rattle friendships. Take, for example, the exceptionally nasty donnybrook about Iran policy that erupted this week between Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, former policy planning chief for Colin Powell, and his former Foggy Bottom pals Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett.

Haass lit the fuse with a piece in this week's Newsweek magazine, saying that he was never a fan of the George W. Bush policy on "regime change" and that he had agreed with the Obama administration's policy of engagement with Iran.

But "I've changed my mind," Haass wrote in the column, headlined "Enough is enough: Why we can no longer remain on the sidelines in the struggle for regime change in Iran."

"The nuclear talks are going nowhere," he said, and the regime stole last June's presidential election. So the time has come for Washington and the Euros to impose economic sanctions, condemn Tehran's human rights violations and do whatever might be helpful, in a "nonviolent way," to topple the outlaw regime. Seemed last night that President Obama was heading that way too.

Haass's analysis touched off a firestorm 'mongst the foreign policy cognoscenti, perhaps in part because he had hosted a meeting at the council in New York with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It drew a blistering -- and quite personal -- response from some, including the Leveretts. (Flynt is now at the New America Foundation, and Hillary, his wife, runs Stratega, a consulting firm.)

They've both urged continued engagement with the Iranians, saying that Ahmadinejad clearly won the elections and the opposition was going nowhere. (They criticized Obama on Thursday for his tougher talk in the State of the Union address.)

On Tuesday, they blasted Haass for his new position, skewering him for his central involvement in Powell's "now-infamous" Feb. 5, 2003, U.N. speech, which helped garner support for the invasion of Iraq, "one of the biggest debacles in post-World War II American foreign policy."

Haass's column, they wrote in an online posting, reminded them of the phrase Powell used in the speech, when he said Iraq constantly rebuffed U.N. resolutions to disclose its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Powell concluded it was time to say: "Enough. Enough."

Powell's speech was "based on faulty, incorrect, and, in some cases, downright fraudulent intelligence," they wrote, and "now, the man who was Powell's principal policy advisor" for that speech is going down the same road, making assumptions about Iran that echo the wrong assumptions made by those advocating regime change in Iraq, saying once again, "Enough is enough." (Actually, someone at Newsweek wrote the headline.) Following Haass's advice today, they wrote, will produce a "similarly misguided and counterproductive policy."

Oh. Did we mention that Haass, a couple of weeks after Powell's speech, was the best man at the Leveretts' wedding in Fairfax? That he gave a warm toast? (His niece, journalist Jill Barshay, was a bridesmaid.) The old friends haven't been all that close in recent years. Not getting any closer now, it would appear.

God bless the absentee

The selection process for a "designated survivor" -- the Cabinet official who stays away from the State of the Union speech in the event of an attack wiping out the government -- is somewhat opaque. In recent years it's been handled, apparently on a random basis, by the White House chief of staff's office. Sometimes the decision is made up to a week in advance. Sometimes, we're told -- we can't say in which administration -- "everyone forgot" until not long before the speech itself.

One wag speculated that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan was the pick this year because he didn't show -- didn't need to, since HUD was not front and center. His office, even the next day, declined to say, even in general terms, where he was.

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