Join us for a busy news day on the Three Martini Lunch. Today, Jim and Greg discuss Iran’s missile strike injuring no one in Iraq, leading President Trump to announce new sanctions but no new military action. They also discuss whether the Ukrainian airliner crash in Iran was a coincidence or something more sinister. In addition, they’re glad to see Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann receiving a settlement from CNN after the network attacked over his encounter with an American Indian near the Lincoln Memorial last year – all because Sandmann was wearing a MAGA hat. And they try not to lose their breakfast as MSNBC not only carries the Soleimani funeral live but fawns all over the legacy of a man known for killing hundreds of American service members and slaughtering innocents at home and abroad.
Join us for three Iran-related martinis for you today. First, Jim and Greg are glad to see the likes of Russia and China offering nothing but word salad as no nation commits arms or manpower to Iran in the wake of the Soleimani strike. They also cringe as the Pentagon has to walk back a letter stating the U.S. Army would leave Iraq, only to have Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley explain the letter was just a poorly worded draft that doesn’t accurately express our policy and was never intended to go public. And they unload on California Rep. Ro Khanna for suggesting that Pres. Trump retaliating against Iran could warrant another article of impeachment, with Jim wondering if the Democrats are starting an impeachment of the month club.
Human rights advocates are vigorously applauding the Trump administration’s decision to stop sending aid to Iraqi Christians and Yazidis decimated by ISIS through the United Nations and to provide the help directly from now on.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence announced the shift in policy.
“Christians in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly. Tonight, it is my privilege to announce that President Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding ineffective relief efforts at the United Nations.
“From this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted communities through USAID,” said Pence, referring to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Virginia, was a leading human rights advocate in Congress for more than three decades. He is now a distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. He is very happy to see the Trump administration make this move.
“It’s a very good decision that the administration and President Trump and Vice President Pence have made,” said Wolf. “This may very well save Christianity in the cradle of Christendom. more biblical activity took place in Iraq than any other country of the world other than Israel.”
Wolf says relief efforts organized by the United Nations failed for a number of reasons.
“Many in the Christian communities say they were afraid to go in some of the UN-run camps,” he said. “Secondly, the aid was not getting to the Christian communities. Many of the Christian communities and Yazidi communities wanted to return to where they were from. Their towns were liberated but they were not getting any assistance through the UN.”
Wolf says Christians were fearful of entering UN camps because of the Sunni Muslim refugees there. Not knowing which families had relatives fighting alongside ISIS, the Christians were afraid the Sunnis in those camps would report them and put their lives in danger.
Now that ISIS has largely been rooted out of Iraq, Wolf says the displaced people are eager to return home. However, with the UN failing to provide aid, going home if almost impossible.
“They were concerned about security. They were also concerned that they were seeing the money funded to different groups but not to them. They couldn’t rebuild their water treatment plant, couldn’t rebuild their electrical grid, couldn’t restore some of their communal property,” said Wolf.
But while the removal of ISIS is a good thing, Wolf is very concerned about the Shia militias, called Hastashabi, that seem to be filling the vacuum.
“The Hastashabi are Iranian-backed, sometimes paid for by the Iranian government, Shia militias who are now filling in the gaps. We went to checkpoints where there were Shia militias who had taken over for the others,” said Wolf, who was in northern Iraq just two weeks ago.
He says the rise of Shia militias is greatly concerning given Iranian ambitions in the region.
“The Iranians want to create what they call a land crescent or a land bridge, so you’ll be able to drive from Tehran, through Iraq, through Syria, to a port on the Mediterranean, whereby they will be able to aid terrorist groups with guns and missiles and weapons,” said Wolf.
“So there are problems as you see ISIS defeated. There are some potential problems out there, particularly with regard to the militias,” said Wolf.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton says President Trump took a good first step in decertifying the Iran nuclear deal but he says the whole thing must be scrapped in order to remove the smokescreen that Iran is an honest player and end the financial windfall for the the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.
Bolton is also cheering the collapse of ISIS and commending President Trump for policy changes that expedited that outcome, however he is deeply concerned about the fate of the Kurds as Iranian-backed militias and even the official Iraqi forces look to force Kurdish fidelity to the regime in Baghdad.
And he is also urging Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to get on the same page quickly for the sake of American foreign policy.
On Thursday, Trump announced he was decertifying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, negotiated among the Obama administration, Iran, and five other nations in 2015. Decertifying the agreement does not kill it but gives Congress 60 days to act on it. If Congress cannot reach a consensus on how to move forward, Trump could then decide to abandon the deal.
Bolton has long called for a complete withdrawal from the JCPOA, but he is encouraged by Trump’s decision to declare Iran non-compliant.
“It’s certainly much better than recertifying that the deal is in America’s national interest. What he did is to at least serve notice that it’s not. Nobody should be under any illusions that we’re still in the Obama administration,” said Bolton.
But he says it is vital for Trump to kill the deal once and for all in the next couple of months.
“The reason that United States needs to withdraw entirely is to create a new reality, to strip away the camouflage that Iran is provided by this deal, where it gains resources from trade and investment deals from all over the world but basically continues to pursue its nuclear weapons program without adequate inspection or verification,” said Bolton.
And Bolton is confident that Trump will have the chance to kill it because he has no confidence in Congress.
“This basically gives Congress 60 days to see if they can come up with some kind of comprehensive strategy. I have no faith whatever that Congress will be able to do that.
“So at 60 days, it’ll be back to the president. I’m hoping then that having given the supporters of the deal and the people who think the deal can be improved time to play out their option and failing, that he’ll then take the next step and get out of the deal entirely,” said Bolton.
Bolton says “camouflage” of a compliant, responsible Iran is nonsense.
“The argument to stay in the deal is that somehow the deal is constraining them and I believe that it’s not. They gave up temporary, easily reversible concessions in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars of trade and investment and assets being unfrozen,” said Bolton.
Furthermore, Bolton says Iran’s supposed transparency is also a farce.
“Every time that the Iranians have made a disclosure about their nuclear program for the last 20 years, it’s only been after U.S. intelligence uncovered it or Iranian opposition groups made it public,” said Bolton.
He says Iran did have one brief moment of honesty that also reveals the futility of the JCPOA.
“Just about two months ago now, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said that if they made the decision themselves to withdraw from the deal, they could get back to pre-deal levels of uranium enrichment in five days.
“Now, you take everything the Iranian leadership says with a big grain of salt but in that case they happen to be right, and it’s an indication of just how minimal their concessions were,” said Bolton.
But if the JCPOA is not an effective nuclear deterrent for Iran, what would be? First, he says it’s time for the U.S. to see Iran and North Korea as part of the same nuclear threat instead of separate challenges. He says the following step is to make sure neither rogue actor has nukes.
“I know people don’t like to hear it but you can’t leave the military option off the table because if you believe, as Trump said in his UN speech just about a months ago, that only way forward with North Korea is denuclearization, and I think the same is true with Iran, that means we can’t leave the current scenario with them still in possession of nuclear weapons.
“Otherwise, they’re available to extort and blackmail the United States as far as the eye can see,” said Bolton.
In neighboring Iraq, the news is better at least for the moment. On Tuesday, U.S.-backed militias said they had routed ISIS in its home base of Raqqa, Syria. U.S. officials indicated there is still work to do but that the vast majority of Raqqa had fallen.
Bolton says the speed of military success against ISIS is a big change from the previous administration.
“The president is right to say that he significantly speeded up the end of the ISIS caliphate. I think we are at the point where there may still be resistance here and there, but functionally the caliphate is over,” he said, while being quick to point out many ISIS figures fled to other hostile nations, so the ISIS threat itself lives on.
However, Bolton is worried that the Iraqi forces and the Shia militias backed by the U.S. and Iran are now taking aim at the Kurdish forces in the north, already wresting control of Kirkuk away from the Kurds who saved the city from ISIS.
Bolton says the Iraqis and militias are now moving on the Kurdish capital of Irbil and they’re doing it with American weapons. He says the Trump administration ought to respond in two ways, help the Kurds now and depose the Iranian government in the long term.
“The safety of the United States depends upon the ayatollahs being overthrown. I’ve believed that ever since the Ayatollah Khomeini took over in 1979.
“In the near term, I think we need to provide the Kurds with the armor and the artillery that, ironically, we’ve provided the forces of the Baghdad Iraqi government and the Shia militias. The Kurds are now being attacked with American weapons,” said Bolton, noting the Kurds have not been given such weapons.
Finally, Bolton says only President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson know the true state of their relationship, but he says it is vital that they get on the same page fast as these two men are at the center of executing American foreign policy.
“It’s not something you can let drift on and paralyze our decision making. It’s just too important of a combination not to have both ends of it working effectively,” said Bolton.
Bolton has some criticism of Trump on the personnel front. Unlike Trump, he believes it is vital for Trump to nominate good people to fill a myriad of vacancies at the assistant and deputy level in the State Department. He says Trump can’t bring about the change in bureaucracy and policy he’s promised without putting the right people in critical positions.
“The bureaucracy is like a big aircraft carrier. The way it was sailing when the president took office on January 20th is the direction it’s going to sail in until somebody says to turn it around. If you don’t have people around, your ability to turn it around is greatly reduced. I think that harms the president, ultimately,” said Bolton.
While ISIS is pushed to the brink of extinction, the Shia militias and Kurdish fighters who drove the purported caliphate out of Iraq are now fighting each other over control of key areas in northern Iraq and a decorated U.S. general says the ones who benefit are the mullahs in Iran.
NBC News reports Monday that Shia militias are launching a “major, multi-pronged attack” aimed at taking away the critically important city of Kirkuk from Kurdish control. The Kurdish peshmerga successfully defended Kirkuk from ISIS three years ago as the Islamists were sweeping through northern and western Iraq and prompting the official Iraqi forces to throw down their weapons and flee from the invaders.
Further complicating matters is the non-binding Kurdish referendum on independence last month. The vote passed easily but was seen by the Iraqi government and other anti-Kurdish elements as inflammatory.
When ISIS was routed out of Mosul earlier this year, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. General Tom McInerney was sobered by the key role of Shia militias loyal to Iran in that victory. He says the same groups are now turning on the Kurds.
“The people attacking them are primarily Shi’ite organizations that the Iranians set up for the Iraqi military. So I think we’ve got to get our hands on it very quickly and not let it get out of control,” said McInerney.
When asked if any U.S. sympathy for the Kurdish position would drive the Iraqi government even closer to their Shia brethren in Iran, McInerney says that ship has already sailed.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. The Iraqi government is already in the hands of Iran. Whether they can go further or not is another question
“We’re having out own challenge with the Iranian government on the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement. I think you can see this is only going to get worse because of the expansive nature of Iran,” said McInerney.
While acknowledging this is a complicated and delicate diplomatic dance for the U.S., McInerney says the sacrifices of the Kurds over the years need to be recognized.
“This is very complex. My gut feel is clearly that we should be supporting the Kurds. They resurrected Kirkuk when ISIS tries to take it over an d the Iraqi government fled. So they should be given credit for that.
“I’m not sure where our government’s going to go, but I do believe that we ought to make it so that since the Kurds saved Kirkuk from ISIS that they ought to be given credit for that,” said McInerney.
McInerney is quite sympathetic towards the creation of an independent Kurdish nation, known as Kurdistan, but also points out that creating that state is contrary to the interests of several nations in the region, since the Kurdish population centers would lead to a nation carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
While admitting the issue is so thorny that he does not have any specific proposals to solve the sectarian schism that’s now turning deadly, he says decisive U.S. leadership could well play a key role in preventing the escalation of these renewed tensions.
“It’s going to take State Department and Defense working closely together with all parties to create a solution that is satisfactory. But it will take U.S. leadership, strong leadership to do that.
“I’m delighted that we’ve got President Trump who’d be willing to make some of the hard decisions on what transpires over there right now. No clear, easy answer,” said McInerney.
Ultimately, McInerney believes any long term stability will require dealing with the Iranian regime. McInerney says Iran will likely work behind the scenes to kill any agreement that the U.S. finds palatable. He says as long as the mullahs are pulling the strings there and in their own nation, peace will be elusive.
“Iran is on a path that we need a regime change with the mullahs. We ought to admit it and there are so many allies over there that will help us change that regime and create a different calculus over there. We need to be looking at that very seriously,” said McInerney.
Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America react to Bowe Bergdahl pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, glad that justice is being done and not being swept under the rug in the case of the soldier who left his unit in Afghanistan and was returned by the Obama administration in exchange for five top level Taliban detainees. They also groan as Iraqi forces are now fighting with the Kurds over territory in northern Iraq when they’re supposed to be finishing off ISIS. And they unload on Newsweek for it’s reckless reporting, including such gems as interviewing pedophile and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert about politics and declaring the Family Research Council a hate group.
The U.S. and other coalition partners are celebrating the defeat of ISIS in Mosul, but a prominent national security expert says the victory is actually jump starting the most dangerous part of the ISIS strategy and paving the way for Iranian domination of Iraq.
“The global Coalition fighting ISIS congratulates Prime Minister al-Abadi and the Iraqi Security Forces on their historic victory against a brutal and evil enemy,” stated Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commanding general of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.
“Make no mistake; this victory alone does not eliminate ISIS and there is still a tough fight ahead. But the loss of one of its twin capitals and a jewel of their so-called caliphate is a decisive blow,” he added.
On Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went to Mosul to declare victory in the eight-month-long battle to take back Iraq’s second-largest city from the Sunni radicals. The win comes just three years after Iraqi forces humiliated themselves by throwing down their weapons and taking off their uniforms as ISIS advanced.
Retired U.S. Navy Captain Chuck Nash says U.S. involvement played a key role.
“The United States has been back in there. We’ve been training. I know some of the special forces people who have been over there and did a fantastic job. Now they’ve got some good, solid leadership in the junior officer and middle ranks and they’re still working on some of the senior ranks,” said Nash.
But as ISIS rapidly loses control of territory in Iraq and Syria, including control of the supposed capital of the caliphate, Nash says the West is about to see the evolution of the group that presents the most danger to us.
“It’s a big deal. That’s going to hurt their recruiting efforts somewhat, but what they’re doing is going into ISIS phase three,” said Nash.
He says the first phase was to build up up troops from the former Al Qaeda in Iraq into a large fighting force and the second phase was to expand the territory of the caliphate. Now that those gains are being quickly rolled back, Nash suspects we’ll see more of the latest strategy from ISIS.
“Phase three is, ‘What happens when we lose that ground? How do we reinvent ourselves?’ What’s happening is they’re sending hundreds of these foreign fighters back to their countries of origin and the countries of origin are taking them in. So they’re going to metastasize this,” said Nash.
As horrific as the ISIS control over parts of Iraq and Syria have been, Nash says we knew where to find them and kill them. He says this dispersion strategy makes the job of free societies a lot harder.
“At one point, it was a cancer but it was a tumor, it was observable. We could see it growing, but it was localized. Now as they lose and they go into phase three, that cancer is going to metastasize,” said Nash.
He says the means Islamic radicals are going back to their home counties and the leaders of those countries are rolling out the red carpet.
“Now they’re going to be among us and what are they going to do? The whole vehicle into crowds, the knifing attacks and all that, and it won’t take long until the bombs start going off either. This is a very dangerous phase, which is why these governments are near suicidal by allowing these people back into the countries,” said Nash.
Back in Iraq, it’s not just better trained Iraqi soldiers who are defeating ISIS. He says the best fighters are actually a combination of Iranian Quds forces and various Shia militias from the southern part of Iraq.
Nash says Iran and it’s satellites are not just fighting to uproot ISIS, but because Tehran has visions of dominating the region.
“The Iranians are looking to connect the Persian Iran, the Shia Iran, through Shia Iraq, through and into Syria and Lebanon where they have Hezbollah. They’re looking at what’s been termed the Shia crescent, that now covers an arc spanning from the east in Iran all the way westward to the Mediterranean,” said Nash.
Given the Shia domination of Iraq’s government, Nash suspects there will be little resistance in Baghdad to doing Iran’s bidding.
“When we deposed Saddam Hussein, that opened the door for the Iranians and now the Shia population vastly outnumbers the Kurds and the Sunnis. So it is a Shia country and it is a Shi’ite government and it is aligned with Iran,” said Nash.
However, Nash believes that Iraq can be convinced to take a different course, premised on the boundless economic potential of remaining fiercely independent.
On a trip to Iraq shortly after Hussein was deposed, Nash and others received a briefing on the economic possibilities resulting from Iraq’s location at the fertile crescent and their vast oil reserves.
“The reason is because of Mesopotamia. [The briefing officer] said, ‘This is the richest soil, the rainfall and the water from the Tigris and the Euphrates could be the breadbasket of southwest Asia and the Middle East. Add in oil, and all of a sudden you have a monster of an economy,” said Nash.
Nash says there’s an obvious foot in the door for the President Trump and our allies by showing a willingness to partner with Iraq in rebuilding Mosul and other cities devastated by ISIS.
“He needs to engage the Iraqi government and let them know when they come out of this that the United States is willing to trade and continue to work with Iraq to help them re-establish,” said Nash.
Jim Geraghty of National Review and Greg Corombos of Radio America celebrate the liberation of Mosul from ISIS control and the tightening of the noose around ISIS in Syria as well. They also discuss reports that former FBI Director James Comey’s memos on conversations with President Trump contain classified information. And they lightheartedly critique Donald Trump Jr.’s account of a fruitless meeting between top Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer who claimed to have dirt on Hillary Clinton but really wanted to talk about adoption policy.