When GOP Obstructionism Trumps the Fight Against Iran and ISIS

Senate committee withholds confirmation of Adam Szubin at crucial anti-terrorist Treasury post for 270 days and counting.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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White House press secretary Josh Earnest listens at left as Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin speaks to reporters during the daily press briefing about combating funds going to ISIS, Dec. 16, 2015.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest (L) and Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin, Dec. 16, 2015.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

I don’t know Adam Szubin from Adam, but I can understand why Iran might feel uncomfortable with his appointment as Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI). Szubin was not only an architect of the sanctions regime that brought the Iranian economy to its knees and its leaders to the negotiating table, he is also an Orthodox Jew and a self-professed supporter of Israel. “I have very strong pro-Israel feelings,” he recently said, on record.

But never mind Tehran, or Hezbollah, or ISIS, or all the other members of the international rogues gallery whose illicit finances and dangerous activities Szubin relentlessly pursued as Director of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a post that he held from 2006-2015. His [depressingly impressive] bio is one that could even raise some eyebrows among run of the mill liberals and leftists, especially if they’re Jewish: He studied at Manhattan’s Ramaz school, a bastion of mostly right-wing Modern Orthodoxy; he spent his gap year after high school and before Harvard at Yeshivat Har Etzion, beyond the Green Line and deep inside the universe of Israeli settlers; and he chose to devote his Fulbright scholarship to researching messianic tendencies in the Chabad movement, another mainstay of compromise-opposing Orthodoxy.

All of this does not make Szubin a religious, right-wing reactionary – he is in fact one of the founders of the egalitarian D.C. Minyan synagogue in Washington – but one could hardly blame ignorant foreigners as well as habitual Jew-deriders for viewing his appointment as yet another chapter in "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." That suspicion would only be strengthened by the unqualified words of praise that I heard for Szubin’s dedication and resoluteness from his interlocutors, in and out of government, in Washington and Jerusalem.

But Szubin’s confirmation by the Senate Banking Committee as head of the uniquely powerful TFI isn’t being held up because of Muslim protests, Democratic foot-dragging or Jewish-liberal angst. It isn’t the Iran-supporters or ISIS-sympathizers or narco-financers, all victims of Szubin’s zeal in recent years, who are blocking his appointment to a permanent position. It is the committee’s conservative GOP chairman, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who has refused to bring the confirmation to a vote - despite Szubin’s impeccable credentials, despite his stellar record, despite his flawless testimony before the committee in September, despite the bipartisan support he enjoys and despite the 267 days and counting that have passed since President Obama first put his nomination on the table on April 20, 2015.

Perhaps more incredibly, the appointment has been held up despite the fact that Shelby himself has described Szubin as “eminently qualified” to oversee sanctions against America’s enemies and as fulfilling a “key role” in the fight against terrorism.

“In 15 years he has distinguished himself as a tough, aggressive enforcer of our Nation's sanction laws against countries such as Iran, Russia, North Korea, against money launderers, against terrorists, against narco-traffickers, the source of a good bit of the money for terrorist groups such as ISIS,” according to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee.

The Anti-Defamation League describes Szubin as “one of the most potent and effective tools against the funding of terror and the isolation of rogue regimes.” Former Senator Joe Lieberman and Ambassador Mark Wallace, writing in their capacities as co-chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran, a group specifically established to fight the agreement with Tehran, say that Szubin “is the best person for the job, a true expert, a dedicated public servant and fully committed to serve his country. He has shown those traits over two successive administrations - a rare feat in Washington.”

So what gives? Why are Shelby and the GOP refusing to confirm an appointment of Szubin, a civil servant who was promoted by the Bush administration and who enjoys the respect of colleagues around the world, including Jerusalem? How is the GOP justifying its refusal to provide Szubin with the maximum stature and influence to help him do his job and pursue the bad guys?

Shelby’s office declined to comment when we posed that question, but the Senator did provide a clue on Tuesday in a quote cited by Politico about another appointment being held up by the Banking Committee: "I'm in a primary right now. We're in no hurry to hold hearings.” The 80-year-old Shelby is running for reelection: perhaps he is spooked by the prospect of facing his 33-year-old challenger, former Marine Jonathan McConnell. Perhaps he fears that moving Szubin’s appointment forward, notwithstanding its importance to U.S. national security, could be used against him in the March 1 GOP primary.

Shelby, in fact, is the Senate’s record-holder in blocking administration appointments, but Szubin is far from alone: there are 147 other presidential appointments being held up by the GOP-controlled Senate. “The nomination process has been stalled by Senate Republicans not because of legitimate questions about the qualifications of the individuals who are nominated, but rather for political reasons,” a senior administration official told Haaretz. “The current Republican Senate is on track for the fewest confirmations in thirty years. Senates controlled by the opposing parties in the final years of the Clinton and Bush Administrations confirmed nearly twice as many nominations.”

Some Washington insiders believe Szubin is being “punished” by some Banking Committee members for his role in the negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal as well as his subsequent efforts to persuade Israeli officials and American lawmakers that the deal is worth supporting. In theory GOP lawmakers will concede that Szubin was only performing his sworn duty to carry out the President’s policies, but in practice they are concerned that approving his appointment could be interpreted in less discerning GOP circles as tacit recognition of the toxic Iran deal, which Republican presidential candidates have [unrealistically] promised to revoke upon their election as replacement.

Technically, there is no difference between Szubin’s legal authority as permanent or as “acting” Under Secretary, though his temporary status means that the Treasury is barred from recruiting a replacement for one of his former deputies at the crucial Office of Foreign Assets Control. Nonetheless, the prefix “acting” that precedes his title can significantly diminish his standing among some of his interlocutors in Europe, the Arab world and other countries. It weakens his hand, however slightly, as he seeks to strengthen non-nuclear sanctions against Iran, to cut off financial supply lines to ISIS, to formulate new punishments for renegade North Korea, to block funding for Hezbollah’s missile program and to undermine the financial infrastructure of the world’s drug trade, which is often a source of funding for anti-American terrorist activities.

His interlocutors could very well ask themselves whether this “acting” U.S. official really speaks for the American president and whether he’ll still be the person in charge of TFI in six months or a year. But they might also wonder what it says about America’s fortitude when a major political party that presents itself as more patriotic and more aggressive than its rival prefers short-term political expediency over longer-term national security interests, or when a U.S. senator procrastinates in moving such an important appointment forward for fear that some of his supporters might object

Who knows? Some people might even speculate that the delay in appointing Szubin has something to do with his Jewish background or support for Israel. We all assume that’s not true, of course, though it’s no less ludicrous than the self-destructive, hyper-partisan paralysis that has gripped Washington in recent years, which everyone has gotten so used to that it’s hardly even mentioned anymore.

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