WASHINGTON – At first glance, the casual observer probably would not notice the painting above is about bringing the world together to fight the expansion of militant Islam.
Or second glance. Third, fourth or 127th.
But Victoria Coates gets it.
Perhaps that is why, when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz wants foreign-policy advice, he turns to an art historian.
Not just any art historian. One whose keen eye sees in the past crucial lessons for today.
Coates’ expertly trained gaze spots what few others behold.
For instance, the blue glow surrounding Christ in her favorite work of art, pictured above, Raphael’s painting “The Transfiguration.”
The glow is not just pretty. And it’s not just an ethereal representation of Christ. It’s also potent political symbolism.
It represents a concept dear to Eastern Orthodox Christians, the “Sapphire Light of the Mind,” which, Coates explained to WND, is the otherworldly light of divinity.
She further explained the significance of its mere appearance in Western art, especially in a painting commissioned by the pope, as an expression of solidarity with the captive Eastern church in the hope it might inspire Catholic monarchs to join forces and repel the Ottoman Empire, then preparing to invade what is now western Europe, in an attempt to conquer the globe.
“I think it’s such an interesting reminder that the challenges we face today are not all that different from what was faced in 1520,” said the woman who received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in Italian Renaissance studies.
Coates is not your typical classically trained PhD.
For someone so steeped in such serious subjects, Coates is exceptionally warm and down to earth. And, for a scholar, she only rarely slips into wonkish academic lingo. Coates is adept at explaining complicated matters simply so they are understandable, not in complex verbiage meant to impress.
She laughs easily. Warmly and deeply.
One might expect a steady stream of constant gravitas from the woman who’s a top adviser to a senator and presidential candidate and who solemnly predicts only two outcomes from President Obama’s Iran deal: an Islamic Republic with nukes either 1) sooner or 2) later.
But Coates is a study in intriguing contradictions as varied as her contrasting roles as art historian and foreign-policy expert.
Academic. Fun mom. Defense hawk. Die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, Flyers and Eagles. Classicist. Facebook fanatic.
Her eclecticism and Renaissance-woman kaleidoscope of interests is evidenced in a sampling of her Facebook posts:
- A Petition to Have Pope Francis Bless (Eagles quarterback) Sam Bradford’s Knees.
- “Arts-and-crafty Tony Romo is the real Tony Romo. Thanks for pointing this out, DigitalTV.”
- Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World.
- What’s The Fastest (Fictional) Spaceship In The Universe?
- “This is what my boss was doing five minutes before going on stage last night. He wasn’t huddling with aides or pollsters–he was playing a video game with his girls.”
- Scientists discover seaweed that tastes like bacon but is better for you than kale.
- “A short video presentation of (her son) Pocket’s response to Frenchie’s walk-off homer, which I totally called.”
- “A drone we can all support:” A Custom Remote-Controlled Quadcopter That Looks Like Snoopy Flying on His Doghouse.
- A video she titled, “Cats are weird.”
- “The Amazon minion boxes are fantastic.”
- Can You Name These Famous Figures from the Middle Ages?
- Wild boar hogs limelight in Hong Kong shopping mall.
One could call it providential serendipity, or one could say Coates is somewhat of an accidental foreign-policy expert, analyst and adviser.
Frustrated with liberal conformity as a professor in the academic ivory tower, the fine arts scholar vented by analyzing politics anonymously on the Red State website under the name “Academic Elephant,” and that turned into a second career.
As recounted in a recent profile in National Journal, a Coates blog post that “systematically dismantled” Bob Woodward’s book on the Bush White House, “State of Denial,” caught the eye of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who recruited her to spend four years helping write his 800-page autobiography, “Known and Unknown.”
From there she became foreign policy adviser to 2012 presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, and now serves Cruz in that capacity. A former Rumsfeld colleague called her “the most interesting Capitol Hill staffer” and “definitely not a neoconservative” but someone with a “well-informed peace-through-strength worldview.”
Her book, “David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art”, due out on Oct. 27, combines her two specialties as a look at how “the societies that have made the greatest contributions to the spread of freedom have created iconic works of art to celebrate their achievements.”
Coates may be an expert on the past, but it is her look into the future that is perhaps most revealing – and most ominous.
Iran deal backfire
The way she sees it, Obama’s Iran deal, if put into force, will backfire and have the exact opposite of its supposed intention: It not only will guarantee the Islamic Republic gets the bomb, it could actually prod the mullahs to greatly speed up production.
“With the caveat they don’t confide in me,” she told WND, “if I were the Iranians, I would do one of two things.”
“I would look at the next 10 years, which is basically what the deal covers, and decide if the next 18 months, the remaining duration of the Obama administration, is such an opportunity that I am going to go hell-bent for leather and test – right before the administration ends – and make clear the subsequent president, of whichever party, is going to have to deal with that power.”
By “test” she means detonate an atomic device, which would serve to announce Iran’s arrival as a nuclear power.
“Or, equally unpleasant,” Coates speculated, “Iran may look at the next 10 years and decide that is an opportunity to economically grow their country while pursuing all of the pieces needed for a military nuclear program and then test when the deal expires and say, ‘Well, there’s nothing they (the world) can do about it.'”
WND asked: If the Iranians were to choose option number one, would it be because, in your estimation, they would feel they could act with impunity – that they could test and Obama wouldn’t do anything about it?
“Exactly. That there is no ramification,” was her short but telling response.
Coates sees President Obama as completely ignoring the lessons of the recent past in pushing what she considers a false choice between his Iran deal or war.
“I think this is one of the most obvious falsehoods in all of this because, of course, there wasn’t war in either Iraq or in Syria after the strikes on those nuclear facilities,” she told WND.
Coates was referring to the Israeli air strikes that demolished a nuclear reactor under construction near Baghdad in 1981 and a nuclear facility in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria in 2007.
She said the Iraqis and Syrians were restrained from retaliating against Israel because it would have brought “an intolerable response from the United States. So, they were better off just kind of accepting this, complaining at the United Nations, but basically letting it go.”
WND asked, is Iran not of a different mindset? Might it not unleash hell after an Israeli strike because it’s got such an apocalyptic vision of the world?
“They might. That’s always the wild card in this. But a really good reason for preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon is, if they really are pursuing their version of the apocalypse, that’s the best way for them to do it.”
She added that was also all the more reason to keep the sanctions in place and to keep a credible military threat, which might have led to a different result than the deal the president reached.
Coates pointed to a recent instance in which sanctions had worked.
“When the Iran sanctions were originally imposed in the 1990s, they were the Iran and Libya sanctions. And after the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, when (former Libyan leader Col. Moammar) Gadhafi was looking around the world, not liking his sanctions and not liking what he was seeing, he came to the U.S. and said, ‘Look, how do I get these things lifted?’ And we said here are your options – and it worked.”
Obama had said a bad deal would be worse than no deal, and Coates clearly considered this a bad deal.
“So, I think the president is dead wrong. It wasn’t make this terrible deal or go to war – and it still isn’t.”
Even if Obama is right, isn’t war better than another Holocaust?
“There is that, as well. You can, to some extent, control the way that military exercise can be waged. There are lots of options besides 500,000 ground troops. So, whoever is commander in chief in 18 months is going to have to weigh those various options.”
A bad deal even by Obama’s standards
What are the most compelling reasons Democratic lawmakers should oppose the Iran deal?
“I think a Democrat has actually made this case extremely well, and that’s Alan Dershowitz,” she said, referring to the liberal Harvard Law School professor who once called his student, Ted Cruz, “off-the-charts brilliant.”
Coates described how Dershowitz found it a bad deal by the president’s own definition, focusing on the three things Obama had said were his objectives.
“First and foremost, the deal would prevent the Iranians from getting a nuclear weapon.
“On top of that, the deal would close down, it would eradicate the really dangerous elements in the nuclear program, primarily the Fordo facility.
“And finally, that we were going to have these 24/7 inspections – these were an American precondition – that was non-negotiable.
“We gave up on all three of those.”
So, she said, “I think, Democrats can say, ‘By your own standards, Mr. Obama, this is a bad deal. So, how can we, as responsible Democrats accept it?’
“I think that’s the bottom line.”
Coates picked one particularly crucial point on which she said Obama “caved”: the terms that will guide the inspections of Iranian facilities.
That’s because as no one knows what they are.
Except the Iranians.
And a U.N. agency.
As WND reported, Secretary of State and chief U.S. negotiator John Kerry admitted during testimony before Congress that the inspection terms were part of a secret side-agreement. Not only will the details not be made public, lawmakers tasked with approving the deal will not be allowed to even see the agreements.
WND asked if setting inspection terms was not the entire point of the deal.
“Theoretically. But this is what they caved on,” Coates bluntly charged. “They allowed the Iranians to remove the single most important element. And they turned it into a bilateral agreement between Iran and a segment of the U.N.”
Agreeing that inspection terms are indeed the most important part of any such arms-control agreement, Coates observed, “And this isn’t new or rocket science.”
She referred to an article that is required reading for all of her interns, Fred Ikle’s seminal 1961 piece in Foreign Affairs, “After detection – What?’
“It’s all about the fact that if you don’t have two things, one, a completely reliable verification regime, and, two, the actual threat of punishment if that regime that is violated, you don’t have a deal. I mean, he knew that 50 years ago.
“He was Reagan’s key arms guy. He’s the father of this. This is before Kennedy even had his great outreach and his diplomatic attempt to somehow domesticate the Soviet Union. Ikle knew, if you didn’t have those two things the arrangements are not worth the paper they are written on.”
Coates mentioned that other side deals apparently exclude all Americans from the inspections.
“And these are deals directly between Iran and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), which we fund. Part of the deal we know about is a requirement for the United States to keep up the robust funding of IAEA but we don’t even get to see the deal they are striking.”
And Iran even provides their own samples to be tested for radiation, correct?
“Yeah, that’s the other thing. They provide the samples. So, they can pick them off of any mountain side. It’s ridiculous. This is unacceptable.”
Billions for terrorism
Cruz, her boss, recently reiterated to WND that, “If this deal is consummated, it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.”
He added, “Billions of dollars under control of this administration will flow into the hands of jihadists who will use that money to murder Americans, to murder Israelis, to murder Europeans.”
The senator took a lot of heat for the remarks, but the administration has been unable to refute his point. National Security Adviser Susan Rice even admitted Iran could spend the money as it wishes, including the financing of its terrorist clients and proxies.
WND noted that even Obama, in fact, recently admitted Iran will likely sponsor more terror with at least some of the $100 billion (or more) in assets that will be unfrozen under the deal. But the administration still insists Iran won’t spend much more on terrorism.
“The rationale for this is just extraordinary,” marveled Coates. “The day after the deal was announced, John Kerry gave an interview to the BBC in which he explained that since there was a $900-billion shortfall in the Iranian economy, including $300 billion in the energy sector alone, there was no way this money would be spent of terror. And the disingenuity of that was obvious, so the president and Susan Rice have been forced to admit that indeed, they will spend some portion of this money on these activities.
“But then the president said sponsorship of terrorism doesn’t cost very much. It’s already fully funded. To me, this is such a failure of imagination, that, if it has been worth it during times of great economic hardship for this regime to funnel the resources they have into global terror, just imagine what they could spend once they are flush with cash.”
Coates said the administration seems to have not thought about the fact the Iranians plotted to blow up the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington in 2011.
And that has ominous implications for the homeland.
“They (the Iranians) are active in the Western hemisphere. They have an enormous embassy in Caracas. They are running money through that embassy. They are executing terrorist attacks in Buenos Ares. This is not something that’s isolated to the Middle East. The violent mayhem that is being caused by their proxies, by Hezbollah, by Hamas.
“You don’t think Hamas wants more money? You don’t think Hezbollah wants more rockets? It’s extraordinary to me that they think that somehow they’ve basically reached the goal line in terror sponsorship and won’t go any further.”
In fact, she implied, the stakes couldn’t be much higher, and the threat to America, much greater.
“The fact is, they could potentially do this with a nuclear weapon. Do they (the administration) think they won’t? I just don’t understand it. The Iranians’ every word and deed has indicated otherwise. And I, for one, would like to err on the side of caution rather than assuming that they’re going to behave responsibly.”
Israel to the rescue?
If the deal is so awful, does she think Israel can and will launch a strike to prevent Iran from deploying nuclear weapons?
“I think they can. Obviously, they have their calculus. I think they’ve got to be looking at the clock. They’ve got to be looking at the ramifications of a strike. And, most importantly, what kind of support they can expect from the United States.”
Would Obama try to stop them?
“At this point, anything’s possible. I would hope not. I would hope there would be grownups in the Pentagon who would explain to him the ramifications of that action. But I’ve given up predicting what this administration will or will not do.”
WND asked if Israel’s window to launch a strike was rapidly closing, with Russia bolstering Iran’s defenses?
“They always have a military option. S-300s (a powerful air defense system Russia is selling to Iran), while they are dangerous, you can’t install and operate them tomorrow. I don’t know what the window is. There is some period of months, if not over a year, to manufacture and install and test, and have that system be operational.”
She added, one of the most disturbing things that’s happened over the last couple of days was that Iran confirmed that Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani recently visited Moscow to meet with senior Russian leaders. Quds is a special forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that supports terrorist proxies across the Middle East and reports directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Soleimani was designated a terrorist by the U.S. in 2005 and U.N. sanctions are supposed to prohibit him from traveling. By letting him visit, Russia, a permanent U.N. Security Council member, was actually in violation of U.N. sanctions.
U.S. military leaders estimate Iranian-backed forces under the command of Soleimani killed 500 Americans in Iraq.
The response from Obama?
“The administration said, ‘Oh, we don’t want to comment on that.’ They apparently didn’t want to embarrass the Russians,” mused Coates.
WND asked: Shouldn’t that serve as the biggest red flag on whether Iran intends to keep its word?
“Absolutely. I mean they are now in blatant violation of an existing U.N. sanction. The deal should be null and void. But our administration won’t even comment on it.”
‘We’ve basically armed ISIS’
What should be the U.S. strategy in Iraq and the entire Middle East when America’s two enemies, Iran and ISIS, are fighting each other?
Coates said the administration seems to have a dual-track policy that is fueling both sides of that conflict, which she found baffling.
“On the one hand, we have doubled-down on assisting the regime in Baghdad, supplying arms to the (Iraqi Prime Minister Haider) al-Abadi regime, which is closely associated with the Shiite militia. And on the other hand, in our efforts to arm the, quote-unquote, moderate Syrian rebels, we’ve basically armed ISIS because they are confiscating so many of the materials we’ve supplied and are using them against us.
“So we’re in this kind of never-never world of supplying both sides with American arms. I don’t see the point in helping the Iranians against ISIS.
What would a President Cruz do about that?
“Well, it’s very hard to project where it’s going to be in 18 months. My recommendation, a year ago, would have been to look into a very coherent, aggressive campaign, maybe modeled on what we did in Afghanistan in 2001.
“And, at the same time, find viable partners on the ground as we did in Afghanistan so that you have an extremely small U.S. presence, but you have a very effective way to take out a terrorist regime.
“And we have those partners. We’ve got Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, these are the ones who have been effective. Why we didn’t partner closely with them from the beginning, I don’t know.”
She said the U.S. also has potential friends it has ignored among some of the Sunnis in Anbar province.
“One of the things we have to focus on is getting any supplies we’re sending to the right folks, and we do that by going through the Jordanians. They’ll tell you, ‘We know who the good guys are,’ and they have a vested interest in helping the good guys because ISIS is the wolf at their door. So why we wouldn’t try to do that directly is also a mystery to me.”
Could one explanation for Obama’s empowering Iran be what the Center For Security Policy’s Iran expert, Clare Lopez, had told WND, that the administration wanted the Islamic Republic to become a regional power, because it felt the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism could become a security partner with the U.S.?
“I think so,” replied Coates. “I have enormous respect for Clare, and her analysis is extremely sophisticated. I think he (Obama) looks at the world, and clearly a robust American presence is not part of his calculus.
“I think he honestly believes that kind of American presence is not a force for good in the region. If you remove that, something’s going to step into the vacuum. And I think his feeling is that maybe the Israelis are a little bit too strong. The Jordanians are a little bit too strong. And that a very strong Iran will act as a counter buffer to that and we will somehow achieve a balance.”
After all of those weighty considerations, it was then that WND asked what was her favorite work of art.
With a laugh and and perhaps a sigh of relief, the scholar replied, “What a nice question!”
Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth