Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The Gadflyer: Paralyzed Over Iran

The Gadflyer: Paralyzed Over Iran: "Paralyzed Over Iran
The Bush Administration doesn't know what to do about that other four-lettered country in the Middle East
by Matthew Yglesias, Guest Contributor
9.28.04

Demonstrating its typical - and lamentable - preference for scandal over substance, the media have been filled of late with accusation of spying against Larry Franklin and other Pentagon officials and counter-charges of anti-Semitism mounted by their neoconservative friends outside of government.

As Laura Rozen and her colleagues have documented, the story is certainly an important one - if classified information is being mishandled, the FBI should get to the bottom of it. The notion that the entire inquiry is motivated by some sort of bias is, moreover, absurd. Franklin is not Jewish, and the only Jewish members of the Bush Administration being targeted are those who just so happen to be above Franklin in the chain of command while those working elsewhere remain above suspicion.

Lost in the fog, however, is the opportunity to start shedding some light on the long underreported story of the Administration's paralyzing internal divisions over Iran policy and the danger these divisions pose to American security.

Iraq problems strengthen Iranian position

Those divisions are longstanding, going back at least to the spring of 2001 when the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) was soon set to expire. Reflecting the inordinate influence of oil companies who stood to benefit financially from a relaxation of sanctions as well as the generally realist inclinations of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration was inclined to let the law lapse.

Israel's friends in the Congress, however, felt otherwise and soon began organizing support for a bill to extend ILSA, thus strengthening the hand of the minority faction of Iran hawks -- centered, as ever, in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Vice President -- inside the administration. Faced with the prospect of expending political capital on an issue that would leave him vulnerable to charges of being soft on terrorism (back then when the Iraq War was just a twinkle in Paul Wolfowitz's eye, Iran, not Iraq, was considered to be the primary state sponsor of terrorism), the president flip-flopped, signaled support for ILSA extension, and it passed overwhelmingly in both houses.

Then came 9/11, the period of neoconservative ascendancy within the Administration, and the Iraq War, which the Iran hawks hoped would revolutionize Iran policy. The details here were always hazy (just as it turned out that the details on what, exactly, to do after Iraq was invaded were), but the thought was that toppling Saddam Hussein would either inspire Iranians to overthrow their government, intimidate Iran into substantial policy shifts, or possibly even pave the way for a quick march to Teheran.

Things didn't work out that way.

While the United States became increasingly bogged down in Iraq, the Iranian position was strengthened as anti-American sentiment rose throughout the region and it became increasingly unclear that military action would be taken. The Iranian nuclear program has proceeded apace - or even been accelerated - while the neocons fell from favor and Rice returned to her realist roots. She brought Robert Blackwill, her former boss in the first Bush administration's National Security Council, onto her staff and charged him with wresting control of Iraq policy away from the Pentagon. At this Blackwill, who favors engagement with Iran, has been successful. Paul Bremer was wooed away from the neocons, dropped his support for Ahmed Chalabi, and the American Enterprise Institute and other neocon strongholds are now seething with discontent about the outcome of their venture.

The result has been to stick America with an Iran policy - unilateral sanctions, no diplomatic relations, and no real push for regime change - that no one really favors and is becoming increasingly untenable. With American troops fighting counterinsurgency campaigns in two countries - Afghanistan and Iraq - that share borders with Iran, a total absence of diplomatic relations is unworkable. Iran, like the United States, has a deep interest in the future of both countries, an interest that cannot simply be ignored. To succeed in either place we must either talk to Iran, work out a common policy, and cooperate on implementing it - or, if failing altogether to deal with the current regime, do something to put a new one in its place. A policy of ineffective hostility merely guarantees continued Iranian interference with U.S. policy and continued instability in both countries.

Interagency squabbles

And then there's the small matter of Iran's nuclear program. Here, we have two options: either talk and make concessions, or else threaten and use force. The current paralysis leaves us doing neither, shunting the issue onto the shoulders of European diplomats who don't have the ability to do either.

The contours of both debates are similar and, indeed, resemble the contours of the original debate within the administration about Iraq. Hawks in the civilian leadership of the Defense Department allied with Dick Cheney and Undersecretary of State John Bolton find themselves pitted against Colin Powell and Richard Armitage at the State Department along with the bulk of the professionals in the Intelligence Community. This time around Powell and Armitage are assisted by Blackwill at the NSC, and the hawks' credibility has fallen far enough that they have not been able to carry the day. And yet they've not been weakened enough for the engagers to win, either. Instead, American policy is simply paralyzed - neither the President, nor Rice, whose job is supposed to be helping him resolve interagency disputes of this sort, quite seem capable of making up their minds.

For the Administration's detractors it's amusing to watch the once hyper-confident Vulcans twisting in the wind like this, but the situation is extremely dangerous. North Korea posed a similar challenge in late 2002 and early 2003 and the Administration found itself similarly divided between hawks and doves and led by a president incapable of resolving the dispute. There, as Fred Kaplan wrote the in Washington Monthly, Bush "neither threatened war nor pursued diplomacy" until the DPRK's nuclear program had advanced so far as to take military options off the table, at which point he decided it was time to start talking. The trouble is that diplomacy only works if it's undertaken before military options have become infeasible. Now if we do manage to get a deal (which appears increasingly unlikely), it will be far less favorable than what could have been achieved had we been willing to talk seriously in the first place.

Bush's learning curve

One would think that the president would have learned something from this experience and acted decisive to resolve interagency debates about Iran. Instead, things have even gotten worse. It appears that Franklin leaked a policy memo on Iran to the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) less out of a desire to help Israel than in the belief that AIPAC could use its influence on the White House political shop to help him circumvent the policy process. The engagers, meanwhile, have been leaking information about the investigation into the handling of classified information in an apparent effort to throw the hawks into sufficient discredit to win the day. Accordingly, if Bush ever does come up with an Iran policy it won't be the result of considering his options on the merits. Instead of a policy debate we'll watch a race between FBI counterintelligence officials and AIPAC congressional lobbyists to silence the other side. Alternatively, as in North Korea, the debate may ultimately be resolved by simply dithering until it's too late to take effective action either way.

Fortunately, the situation could be resolved easily enough if we had a president who didn't disdain nuance, detail, policy, and book-learning. A president like that could ask the various players to write up their arguments, read what both sides have to say, ask some more questions, read a few more memos, make up his mind, and then tell everyone they either need to get with the program or leave his administration.

Unfortunately, we don't have a president like that. Instead we have a president who's a captive of his advisors rather than their boss. A president who, when his subordinates disagree, remains paralyzed while they fight it out amongst themselves. And their fights are getting nastier, dragging foreign intelligence services and the U.S. law enforcement apparatus into the mix. It's no way to run a railroad, and we may all pay a high price for it.

Matthew Yglesias is a staff writer at the American Prospect."

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