- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama’s most senior military adviser says President Bush is to blame for Iran’s bad behavior.

The assessment from an interview with retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak provides a glimpse into how an Obama administration would deal with Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called repeatedly for the destruction of Israel, is pursuing nuclear weapons in the opinion of some national security experts, and his Revolutionary Guard is training Iraqis to kill American military personnel in Iraq.

Earlier this month, Mr. Ahmadinejad said of Israel, “the world powers established this filthy bacteria, the Zionist regime, which is lashing out at the nations in the region like a wild beast.”

In the view of Gen. McPeak, the most-senior retired officer to back Mr. Obama’s presidential run, Iran’s behavior is a reaction to Mr. Bush’s tough talk.

“Iran is a big enemy of al Qaeda,” said Gen. McPeak, who was the Air Force’s chief of staff and a Joint Chiefs member during the presidency of Mr. Bush’s father.

“They were a big enemy of the Taliban,” the retired four-star general said. “They cooperated with us quite completely in the initial phases of our Afghanistan operation. And it was us that insulted them by including them in the ‘axis of evil’ and making sure they understood we didn’t like them very much.”

Gen. McPeak, an Obama campaign co-chairman, was referring to Mr. Bush’s post-September 11 speech in which he referred to North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an “axis of evil.”

“That drove us apart,” Gen. McPeak said. “Obama’s idea is: ‘Why not talk to them? Why not see if there isn’t some common ground?’ Certainly, the fight against al Qaeda would be one of them.”

National security officials note that Iran’s rogue behavior long predates Mr. Bush’s speech. In June 2001, the Justice Department indicted 13 members of a pro-Iranian group, Saudi Hezbollah, for carrying out the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 American service members in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Hezbollah, a terrorist group, held regular meetings in Iran, the FBI said.

“With all due respect to General McPeak, what drives the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran apart — and has since 1979 — is the unwavering antipathy of the regime in Tehran towards the United States, its ally Israel, and freedom-loving, non-Islamist nations more generally,” said Frank Gaffney, a Pentagon policy-maker in the Reagan administration who heads the Center for Security Policy.

Added Mr. Gaffney: “It is not simply naive, it is reckless to ignore serial statements by the mullahs and their front man, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, about a world without America, their goons parading in Iranian cities shouting ‘Death to America,’ their active efforts to kill and maim Americans and Iraqis in the hope of defeating the United States in Iraq, and rendering the latter an oil-rich satellite and new safe-haven for Iranian-backed terror, and accumulating evidence that Iran’s Hezbollah proxies and their intelligence agents are developing cells capable of unleashing deadly violence here as well as elsewhere.

“Even an individual without appreciable expertise in such matters, like Senator Obama, should be able to discern these realities. It is inexplicable how a professional military officer like General McPeak could fail to do so.”

Mr. Obama, who leads in the race for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, has said he will meet with any leader of any state, including Iran’s Mr. Ahmadinejad, without preconditions.

“He would be willing to meet with the leadership of Pakistan, with the leadership of Iran, with the leadership in Syria and see if we can’t find common ground,” said Gen. McPeak. “I mean, some of those places aren’t real happy with al Qaeda either, especially Iran.”

Mr. Obama’s position does not seem much different than an edict from Republican stalwart James A. Baker III.

The former secretary of state has said he believes in talking to one’s enemies. But Mr. Bush has shown no interest in meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad or Syrian strongman Bashar Assad, whose country is allowing al Qaeda suicide bombers to pass through on their way to deadly missions in Iraq.

Asked whether Mr. Obama would meet with al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, who has declared war on the United States, Gen. McPeak said, “No. Bin Laden doesn’t represent any country or legitimate government anywhere.”

Added Gen. McPeak, who switched from being a Republican to a Democrat over Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq: Mr. Obama “believes in a strong America and he understands that includes a military dimension. … He wants a strong military.”

This article originally appeared in Insight, an affiliate of The Washington Times, at insightmag.com.

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