Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Attacking Iran from left and right 

I, and just about everybody else in the blogosphere, missed this op-ed from last week -- Barack Obama virtually channeling Andy McCarthy and Michael Ledeen on the subject of Iran:

Americans need to come together to confront the challenge posed by Iran. Yet the Bush administration and an anonymous senator are blocking a bill with bipartisan support that would ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian regime. It's time for this obstructionism to stop.

The decision to wage a misguided war in Iraq has substantially strengthened Iran, which now poses the greatest strategic challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East in a generation. Iran supports violent groups and sectarian politics in Iraq, fuels terror and extremism across the Middle East and continues to make progress on its nuclear program in defiance of the international community. Meanwhile, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has declared that Israel must be "wiped off the map."


There are at least three interesting aspects to this story.

The first is that it has become curiously popular in some quarters of the left, in addition to the right, to describe Iran as a serious strategic threat to the United States. Of course, the lefties who purport to worry about Iran may not, in fact, worry about Iran. Rather, they know the claim is a virtually necessary component of their argument that the invasion of Iraq was geopolitically "disastrous" -- Iran's position needs to have "strengthened" to sustain the argument that the Iraq war has made us "less secure." If, after all, Iran is not in a stronger position than it was a few years ago, then maybe people will think that the Coalition's occupation of Iraq helps to contain Iran. The Democrats really cannot let that opinion float around out there entirely unmolested, can they?

That said, the political logic of Obama's position eludes or offends -- I am not clear which -- the "pacifist" left, which views it as reinforcing the Bush administration's obviously fraudulent propaganda. What, according to the intransigent left, would be the purpose of that propaganda? To build "surplus demand" for military action against, just as Bush and Cheney supposedly did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Put differently, the "Obama" left says that the Islamic Republic is a serious threat, and that the Bush administration lacks a strategy for contending with it. The intransigent left says that Iran is not nearly the threat to the United States that either the right or the Obama-wing says that it is. The right is inflating the threat to justify imminent military action, and Obama is just, well, pandering.

Ironically, the right is also divided in its willingness to characterize Iran as enormously threatening to American interests. The anti-Iran hawks believe that the Islamic Republic is the subversive center of most of the really threatening anti-American Islamic radicalism in the world. They further believe that successive American administrations, including those of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have systematically understated the threat posted by the mullahs. Andy McCarthy's review of Michael Ledeen's new book succinctly captures the position of the anti-Iran hawks:
For three decades, Iran has made war on the United States and unabashedly told the world that it seeks the destruction of the United States, all the while — directly and by proxy — murdering and imprisoning Americans. For three decades, Iran has brayed that “Death to America” is the alpha and the omega of its revolutionary designs.

And for three decades, the United States — under Democratic and Republican administrations — has pretended it just isn’t so.

Any day now, diplomats from Cyrus Vance to Robert MacFarlane to Madeleine Albright to Richard Armitage to Condoleezza Rice have wishfully maintained, we will strike the Grand Bargain. Any day now, the rapprochement will take hold. If we just overlook this atrocity or apologize for that indignity, the Iranian mullahcracy, a regime myopically dedicated to expanding and exporting its messianic hatred, will transmogrify into a normal government. It will renounce the terrorism that has been the spectacularly successful instrument of both its foreign policy and its iron-fisted domestic control. It will see the purported wisdom of abandoning its nuclear ambitions and the terror-mongering that has brought it to the brink of dominance on the world stage.

Well, we can continue living the dream, the suicidal illusion that it will all work out if we just negotiate … while they kill.

Why, in the view of the hawks, have successive administrations clung to the hope that negotiations will work? Because, in their view, those administrations have had no strategy:
Which leads us to the current Bush administration. As Ledeen notes, it is simply astounding that, nearly seven years in, the president has developed no Iran policy … other than to continue the Clinton quest for the fools’ gold of rapprochement. Even as Bush rhetorically labeled the mullahs part of the “axis of evil,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage undercut him by inanely casting Iran as a “democracy.” Ledeen himself bore witness to the State Department and CIA’s refusal to deal with informants who provided evidence of Iran’s murderous operations against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And, notwithstanding the mullahs’ war-making in Iraq, Secretary of State Rice clings to the failed multilateral negotiations which, having first emboldened the regime by conveying our transparent lack of will, have now brought Iran to the brink of nuclear power.

Of course, it is all well and good to attack the State Department and the CIA, which are ancient favorite targets of conservatives, but the unwillingness of the Bush administration to shout about the Islamic Republic's perfidy obviously extends beyond those agencies. The "realist" right, which may now include the President, is also worried about creating surplus demand for visible action against Iran, military or otherwise. If they say that Iran is a great strategic threat, then the failure to do something -- anything -- about that threat would then be a great strategic defeat. And, of course, the administration does not want to argue that Iran has gotten "stronger" since the invasion of Iraq for precisely the reason that the Obama Democrats do want to make that argument.

Put differently, the anti-Iran hawks say that the Islamic Republic is a serious threat, and that the Bush administration lacks a strategy for contending with it. The realist right, which now seems to be calling the shots in the Bush administration, says (or by its silence implies) that Iran is not nearly the threat to the United States that the hawks say that it is, in part so as not to create "excess demand" for overt action that cannot be fulfilled.

Got it?

Second, Barack Obama has now climbed out on something of a limb. If the Islamic Republic is indeed "the greatest strategic challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East," President Obama will have a hard time ignoring it. True, his first move may be to impose the economic sanctions and secondary boycotts authorized by his proposed legislation, but when that does not work what will he do next? Obama, American voters, and the watching world all know that the strategic challenge posed by the Islamic Republic will not go away just because Obama's preferred tactic for dealing with it has failed.

Third, the usual lefty position on Iran and the impact of the war in Iraq contains a structural contradiction. On the one hand, the argument goes, the Bush administration's policies have caused the Islamic Republic to be more belligerant in its pronouncements and policies than would otherwise be the case. How? In putting our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and in ratcheting up our own rhetoric, we have increased Iranian insecurity, which has forced the mullahs to counter with aggression of their own. On the other hand, leftists who opposed the invasion of Iraq (as Obama did) argue that we have weakened our position vs. Iran because the Islamic Republic now has the means -- through Shiite Iraqi proxies -- to attack our soldiers and otherwise pin us down in Mesopotamia.

It seems to me that it is difficult -- not impossible, but very difficult -- to argue that the American invasion of Iraq has both strengthened Iran and made it feel less secure, yet that is the essence of the usual lefty criticism of the Bush administration's policy in the Gulf. Obama has avoided this trap (as nearly as I can tell) by not trying to claim that Iran's recent belligerance is a consequence of the Bush administration's policy. Fine. But if Iran's aggressiveness is not a reaction to American policies, whence does it spring? The anti-Iran hawks have a point: If you do not inquire into the sources of Iranian hostility, how can you expect to negotiate a resolution of the current crisis? Even if a negotiated settlement were theoretically possible, how can President Bush, or President Obama, for that matter, know what may safely be conceded in those negotiations if they will not even attempt to formulate a theory of the Islamic Republic's motivations?

So we arrive at this: the lefty doves and the righty hawks have both promulgated a theory of the Islamic Republic's motivations. The doves say that its belligerance is the natural and nationalistic reaction to American aggression since as far back as 1954, and that the Bush administration's policies have exacerbated that tendency by making the Iranians feel insecure. The hawks say that the Islamic Republic is a revolutionary regime motivated by an ideology that is hostile to the United States and the rest of the civilized world. The Iranian revolutionary ideology calls for victory, not peace, so American concessions will not genuinely diminish the hostility of the Islamic Republic.

Unlike the most passionate voices on the left and right, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama have described a theory to explain Iran's motives. No doubt this saves them the tedium of ironing out the logical inconsistencies in their various arguments, but it does invite this rather serious question: If they do not understand Iran's motives, how, then, will they negotiate?

MORE (8 a.m.): Andy McCarthy emails thoughts about the substantive legislation that Obama has introduced (and which he promoted in the linked op-ed piece):
[T]he legislation Obama is talking about is itself very interesting and worth analyzing because of the contradictory position it puts national-security conservatives like me in, while being actually much more cost-free for lefties like Obama -- i.e., I disagree with your suggestion that it will be offensive to the pacifist left.

The legislation is nicely described in this Weekly Standard post from Brian Faughnan. It is Clintonian in the sense that it sounds tough, and lets the pols talk tough, but it's really all wind and no rain. It's a sanctions bill. In pertinent part, it removes the power of the president to waive penalties against countries that run afoul of our "prohibition" against trade with Iran. (The other parts of the bill are not controversial at this point -- the Bush administration has already designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization and no one in Washington is ever opposed to more spending....)

The Dems, including the hard left, are all for the bill precisely because it doesn't lay the groundwork for military action; in essence, it says the opposite: we don't need military action if we just have smarter, rigorously enforced sanctions. The more clever ones among them, moreover, know the law is unconstitutional and will, in any event, be ignored ... including by any future Democratic president. One of the more interesting parts of Michael's book reminds us that Senator Al Gore (along with McCain) sponsored an Iran sanctions act in the Senate; then Vice President Al Gore effectively (and "illegally") waived it in negotiations with Chernomydrin that allowed the Russians to keep helping the mullahs develop "peaceful" nuclear energy. (I put illegal in quotes because I don't think what the Clinton administration did was illegal; I think, instead, that the statute was unconstitutional, and [that] presidents honor the rule of law when they ignore statutes that violate the Constitution. This is why I noted in the review of Michael's book that it is so hysterical, and hypocritical, for Gore to be whining about Bush's violation of FISA.)

Under the Constitution the president's control of foreign policy is plenary. (See pp. 28-31 of the white paper on the NSA program that I wrote (w/ David Rivkin and Lee Casey) for the Federalist Society re the NSA program.) In the famous Curtiss-Wright case of 1936, the Supreme Court acknowledges the "delicate, plenary and exclusive power of the President as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of foreign relations." Congress can't tell the President to penalize or not penalize a country that trades with Iran. Let's say Sarkozy says to Bush, "Gee, we'd love to help you on Darfur, but too bad about those Iran penalties, n'est-ce pas?" It's the president's job ... to decide how we should deal with other countries -- to decide whether it's more important to get an ally's cooperation on Darfur or Afghanistan or whatever than to collect a few bucks from one of its corporations that does business with the mullahs. The reason the Framers designed things that way is because, under the Articles of Confederation, they bore witness to the disaster that is foreign policy by committee.

That's why, interestingly I think, Iran hawks like me have to oppose the legislation. My problem with Bush on Iran is a policy dispute, not a legal one. I want him to sanction these other countries because it is the right thing to do -- Iran is very important and we need to show real determination. But unconstitutional restraints on presidential power, designed to turn a policy dispute into a legal controversy, are a terrible idea. I resent Congress's propensity to score cheapie political points by passing stupid laws like this so they can say they're really tough on Iran when, as we know, these laws are unenforceable and impractical. If you strip away the rhetoric, common sense says we are not smart enough to know what crisis may emerge tomorrow in which we might need a country congress wants to penalize today; we elect a president to manage that in real time, not in accordance with statutes that may (like FISA or Iran sanctions) be out of date or over-run by events or technology by the time they are passed ....

I'd have no problem if Congress conducted public hearings on the Bush administration's handling of Iran, including its failure to penalize countries undermining sanctions by trading with the mullahs. Foreign policy is a poltical matter, and it is entirely appropriate for the Democrats to exact a political cost for the administration's missteps. But foreign policy is not a legal issue, and we shouldn't try to turn it into one by passing laws which violate the separation of powers and pit the national interest against compliance with a statute.

Release the hounds.


By Blogger Escort81, at Wed Sep 05, 12:57:00 AM:

It seems to me that it is difficult -- not impossible, but very difficult -- to argue that the American invasion of Iraq has both strengthened Iran and made it feel less secure, yet that is the essence of the usual lefty criticism of the Bush administration's policy in the Gulf.

Well, I suppose one could argue in a similar vein that the 9/11 attacks both strengthened America and also made it feel less secure -- that is, the U.S. became a somewhat harder target in the aftermath, and it went after the geographic center of the perpetrators and took down the host government, but there is also an uneasiness about the possibility of future attacks.

That said, your point is well taken regarding the logical inconsistencies of various positions on Iran.

No politician standing for national office wants to take a clear position on Iran that will spell out precise action, especially if that action is just too icky to talk about. Obama is simply repairing a small crack in his future centrist credentials (in case he beats the odds and actually gets the VP nod from Hillary) that resulted from his debate faux pas (well, not with the base, but with most of the middle and all of the right) that takes nukes off the table in dealing with certain other Islamic radical problems.

I think it is time for a bit of a literary refresher, which I know Christopher Hitchens will appreciate (and this is not aimed solely at Obama, who I would still want on my team in College Quiz Bowl more than any other candidate):

"The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them . . . . To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth...

His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully-constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy; to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself. That was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved using doublethink."

Which of course is from George Orwell's great work, 1984.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Sep 05, 04:38:00 AM:

Great post. Iran has been at war with the US since 1979.

Politicians will say just about anything to get elected. Bush espoused a different foreign policy when he was campaigning, but I do think everything got turned around by 9/11.

Obama is being briefed by some very smart people. He is being to smart by half and, if he is not careful, runs the risk of being treated as a used car salesman. Or maybe, as just another politician.

I read something the other day which fits in with my views. The US needs to get off its backside and secure its own energy needs first. Drill in ANWAR, off the coasts, and in the Gulf. At the same time invest in the R&D resources to evaluate possible alternatives to oil, coal and nuclear (if you do not want nuclear). The oil will keep us going for at least twenty years, probably for ever, considering that we keep finding more reserves.

Bush should declare a National Emergency to get oil exploration and nuclear power stations started. Bush needs to do this precisely because he is not running for reelection.

I know we get a small proportion of our oil from the Middle-East but this course will send a signal to everyone. It may even drive down the price of oil down as OPEC and the oil companies try to dissuade the US from doing this.

Our fair weather friends in Europe may become a little more serious about bringing Iran in line, especially if they think that our new energy policy signals a move to isolate ourselves from Europe's energy problems.

Does this solve the Iranian problem, no. But it is a start. We need to take on the Iranians but the smart way is to embarass them, make them a laughing stock in the terrorism world, and make the government a laughing stock inside Iran.

I do not know how to do this but I am sure there are some smart people in the intelligence world already working on this. Just don't tell the State Department or the Baker-Hamiltonites.  

By Blogger Jim in Virginia, at Wed Sep 05, 06:39:00 AM:

Obama is gambling that W will not attack Iran before the 2008 election. Otherwise his campaign is toast.
I still wouldn't want to play poker with W unless I had four aces.  

By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Wed Sep 05, 09:00:00 AM:

TH - I wish I had the time to do a proper post on this.

IT is wrong to say the US hasn't had a strategy. Ledeen, Andy, everybody frankly -- is missing the fact that our approach to dealing with Iran has a long history that includes 2 -- not one --wars in which we imposed mighty costs upon the Iranians. The first was a proxy war fought by Saddam in part on our behalf and in which he failed because his regime was incompetent. But they lost years of oil production and maybe 1mm men. That's very expensive. The second was a naval war in which we directly eliminated any vessel threats they might have imposed on the straits of Hormuz. We also shot down an "airliner".

So one way or another, we certainly have used the stick with the Iranians. We have also tried carrots. In general, to little effect.

The problem evolved in a bad way when Saddam invaded Kuwait. At that moment, we had a severe problem because we no longer had a viable Iraqi bulwark against Iranian regional shenanigans. And we could not rely on the Saudis -- notoriously military incompetents --- to replace the Iraqis. Saddam's behavior and our response altered the regional balance and triggered instability which afforded the Iranian regime an opening to penetrate further into the region.

The only way we could begin to deal with Iran was to rectify the Saddam problem. We are in them idst of this. To instantly try to turn and change the regime in Iran would multiple the challenges.

In my view, you cannot separate the Iranian problem from the Levant. An unstable Iraq does not help us with Iran. It's why the Iranians generally want to complicate and destabilize Iraq. They get that. They would like the Mahdi Army in Iraq to replicate Hezbollah in Lebanon. The key difference is that we are in Iraq and not in Lebanon.

I think all of us knee jerk types (me too) have to replace our "fix it now" mentality with the understanding that things take awhile and it's helpful and saves a lot of lives to be patient. Let's keep in mind that along the way, Libya seems to be taking strides and so does North Korea, which alters the balance viz. Iran as well. Disrupting AQ Khan in Pakistan helped. Surrounding Iran with forces in Afghanistan helped. People talk about the US being stretched. How do you think the Iranian regime feels?

Patience folks. It is in our interest to work this carefully. The idea is to get them to fold the way the USSR did. The alternative may be necessary, but it will cos ta lot more in lives and $.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Sep 05, 11:36:00 AM:

If sanctions were effective, wouldn't they have worked in some discernibly positive way by now? After the better part of three decades can anyone point to a single positive benefit sanctions have yielded to the west in the ongoing confrontation with Iran?

Yet, it should be equally clear that our own nation can't gin up the political will for another regime change war in the Middle East absent a direct, verifiable attack against us here at home.

So, by default we've must operate between the poles of past strategies, sanctions to war. Whatever strategy we use will indeed require patience. We might consider various active confrontations short of war, possibly to include military action of defined purpose and specific duration (like bombing nuclear facilities, should it be necessary). We might consider working to undermine the control of government by the mullahs in a variety of ways, like promoting the ideas of people like Sistani (if there are Iranian equivalents), and promoting political debate within Iranian society (is there an Iranian Lech Walesa?).

We are in a strong position, occupying countries on two sides of Iran, and having a useful ally to the north (a traditional rival of Iran to boot). Iran's economy is in tatters, and getting worse daily, thanks to terrible mismanagement by the mullahs lapdogs. Increasingly, activists in Iran are taking to the streets to demand more freedom. Iran has no regional allies of any consequence, and internationally they are nobodys BFF. If ever we were in a good strategic position to confront a regime with support from the people of the country involved, this ought to be one.

Sanctions are useful as a tactic, but to mistake them for a strategy is where all the Democrats go wrong. First, sanctions don't work over any length of time and if they are too broadly applied (and haven't worked in this instance already). That should be obvious. Second, as Nixon proved in the case of China, the long term effects of trade and political engagement are far more effective at promoting American interests with otherwise hostile regimes. Third, the issue of how we engage the Iranians is clouded by the nuclear issue. We should treat it as quickly and as definitively as we can, destroying the Iranian capacity to make bombs if we think they are close to doing so.

The nuclear issue is "the crux of the biscuit", quoting Frank Zappa. Because it is clear Iran will bully it's neighbors if it can, and will use a bomb if they build one, we must do whatever is necessary to prevent them from acquiring one. If that can be accomplished, a more activist approach to Iran grounded in our longer term best interests of promoting democracy and trade should be possible.  

By Blogger Georg Felis, at Wed Sep 05, 12:45:00 PM:

Obama follows the unspoken word of the Democratic party that the only acceptable tools of foreign policy are money and diplomacy. Money must be directed to the Governments of these weak but otherwise quaint countries so they can improve the health care and retirement benefits of their children and old people. On rare occasions, money can be directed to individuals inside the country, but only if led by a major rock star or Hollywood type. Diplomacy is used to great effect when the US and a foreign power sit down in some secluded resort somewhere and make an agreement for the US to send money in exchange for the foreign power to do some unspecified actions over the next couple of years, like North Korea agreeing to disarm its nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil and a reactor (which worked so well for the Clintons, didn’t it?) After the foreign power breaks its word, there is a period of thunderous remarks, followed by another summit, more money changing hands, and another agreement. And so on, and so forth.

The actual use of American military force is totally off the table in their minds, as well as threatening, maneuvering, implying, building up or the like. (Modernizing is fine, as long as it involves Defense contracts in their district) “Speak softly and carry a big stick” is the language of barbarians, they have condensed it down to simply “Speak”.

Now that being said, some modern Democrats are perfectly capable of supporting the use of military force when backed into a corner. Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan have all been supported by some Democrats of principle, some of opportunity, and some who appear to have just pushed the wrong button on their little vote machine and really support it even though they opposed it all along except…

In my opinion, the only way the US military will be used on Iran is if they do something really, really dumb. Dumber than kidnapping British sailors, dumber than shipping land mines and bombs into Iraq. Maybe a repeat of the Tanker War. And any use will be quick, dirty, and decisive, not involve any ground troops, not touch any holy sites, or spread radioactivity.

Still, that leaves the problem. How do we deal with Iran, keep them from blowing people up, keep them pumping oil, and keep them from getting The Bomb. No sane individual is proposing that we bomb them into submission. But to remove the possibility of military action is the action of a fool.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Wed Sep 05, 07:06:00 PM:

Record an Iranian cross-border raid, release and promote it, and blockade their ports.

Economic implosion ensues, and it's wholly justified by military aggression.  

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