Monday, July 17, 2006

Perspectives on Bush, the Middle East and Iran

When I read a large amount of material while trying to understand what's going on in the world, Donkey Path seems to go somewhat quiet when there's actually a fair amount of work going on. One thing has been clear for some time and we've been seeing it again in the last month: when the US fails to provide leadership, there's rarely anyone who steps in to fill the vacuum and we're seeing proof of that once again. And when there's a lack of leadership, one is sure to find confused motives among multiple parties from Washington to, well..., let's say St. Petersburg this week.

Let me start with a quote from Frank Rich's article in Sunday's New York Times (sorry no link; feel free to add one in comments):
Last week's Time cover, "The End of Cowboy Diplomacy," lays out the conventional wisdom: the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, upended by chaos in Iraq and the nuclear intransigence of North Korea and Iran, is now officially kaput. In its stead, a sadder but more patient White House, under the sway of Condi Rice, is embracing the fine art of multilateral diplomacy and dumping the "bring 'em on" gun-slinging that got the world into this jam.

The only flaw in this narrative—a big one— is that it understates the administration's failure by assuming that President Bush actually had a grand, if misguided, vision in the first place. Would that this were so. But in truth this presidency never had a vision for the world. It instead had an idee fixe about one country, Iraq, and in pursuit of that obsession recklessly harnessed American power....
One of the interesting thing about Bush's so-called vision is that much of the intellectual framework of what passed for Bush's foreign policy was worked out by neoconservatives. Today, the neoconservatives are in disarray (and Karl Rove must be having nightmares). Some are calling for war in Iran. Some, like Gingrich, talk foolishly and say it's time to recognize it's World War III. Some are arguing that the flareup in the Middle East isn't Bush's fault but is just one of the usual flareups that we have seen in the last forty years. And some are even using the old it's-Clinton's-fault line again. There seem to be hints of other excuses while Putin makes jokes of Bush's idea of democracy in Iraq. No, there is no foreign policy worthy of the name from the American far right.

Rich mentioned Ivo Daalder and I looked up his article on America Abroad of the TPM Cafe format and here's the part Rich mentioned:
Instead of force, Bush and Co. now emphasize the importance of “diplomacy” — whence the belief of many that the administration has embraced multilateralism almost to a fault. But what the administration is doing isn’t diplomacy — defined by the great British diplomat and historian, Harold Nicholson, “as the art of negotiating documents in a ratifiable and therefore dependable form.” Rather, what Bush is doing is just talk (or talking about talk). But diplomacy “is by no means the art of conversation,” Nicolson noted. “Diplomacy, if it is ever to be effective, should be a disagreeable business. And one recorded in hard print.”

Bush isn’t about to get into such disagreeable business. Whence the constant refrain that just sitting down with North Koreans, or Iranians, or even Iraqi insurgents would be a concession or reward or, worse, legitimize the interlocutor, rather than a means to solving problems. Whence, too, the insistence on talking to adversaries only in the company of others (be it Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan in the sixth party talks, or the other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in the proposed talks with Iran). For Bush, negotiations are the weapon of the weak. The strong don’t negotiate with the weak; they defeat it. Unfortunately, the Iraq debacle, and a more sober appreciation of the cost and consequences of using force against Iran and North Korea, has put military defeat beyond even America’s reach.

With neither force nor diplomacy, Bush is pursuing a foreign policy of empty gestures. Strong words here; a soothing telephone call and hasty meetings there. But no control of events or any clear sense of direction. Bush is left with trying to kick the proverbial can down the road — far enough so the next president can deal with it — even thought we’re now talking about a trash can rather a soup can.

The hard work of being president must be difficult if all Bush can do these days is go around the country looking for sympathetic audiences rather than looking at the crises mounting on his desk.

As for the current crisis, this one in the Middle East involving Israel and the usual suspects, here's a perspective by Steve Clemons of The Washington Note:
My view is that three broad threats were evolving for Israel from the American side of the equation. On one front, the U.S. will be attempting to settle some kind of new equilibrium in Iraq with fewer U.S. forces and some face-saving partial withdrawal. To accomplish this and maintain any legitimacy in the eyes of important nations in the region -- particularly among close U.S. partners among the Gulf Cooperation Council states -- America "might have" tried to do some things that constituted a broad new bargain with the Arab Middle East. The U.S. had even previously flirted, along with the Brits, in trying to get Syria on a Libya like track and out of the international dog house.

There was also pressure building to push Hamas -- or at least the "governing wing" of it -- towards a posture that would move dramatically closer to a recognition of Israel. Abbas was becoming increasingly entrepreneurial in creating opportunities for the constructive players in Hamas to squirm towards eventual negotiations with Israel that could possibly be packaged in terms of "final status negotiations" on the borders and terms of a new Palestinian state. George W. Bush is the first President to actually call the Palestine territories "Palestine" and may have eventually come around on trying to pump up Abbas's legitimacy as the father of a new and different state. I am doubtful of this scenario -- but some in Israel had serious concerns about this unfolding.

Lastly, despite lots of tit-for-tat tensions and enormous mistrust, Iran and the U.S. were tilting towards a deal to negotiate about Iran's nuclear pretensions and other goals.

Some in Israel viewed all three of these potential policy courses for the U.S. -- a broad deal with the Arab Middle East, a new push on final status negotiations with the Palestinians, and a deal to actually negotiate directly with Iran -- as negative for Israel.

The flamboyant, over the top reactions to attacks on Israel's military check points and the abduction of soldiers -- which I agree Israel must respond to -- seems to be part establishing "bona fides" by Olmert, but far more important, REMOVING from the table important policy options that the U.S. might have pursued.

Israel is constraining American foreign policy in amazing and troubling ways by its actions.

Not only is it bad enough that Israel's response seems disproportionate but the potential implications of Clemon's article is that the Bush Administration not only doesn't have a foreign policy, but it may be allowing another country, supposedly an ally, to box us into a foreign policy not of our choosing.

And finally Steve Soto of The Left Coaster reminds us of the possible perspective involving Iran and Syria:
We can argue all we want about Israel’s disproportionate and ultimately counterproductive response to the Hezbollah action. The targeting of the Lebanese civilian population who had nothing to do with what Hezbollah did, and the destruction of Lebanon’s economic infrastructure will only make it easier for a moderate and powerless Lebanese government to fall and for the innocent Lebanese to hate the Israelis more and more. The failure of the Bush Administration to use its leverage with Olmert is on full display to the Islamic world, despite the foolhardy belief by the Israelis that they can militarily defeat Hezbollah by crushing the people of Lebanon. But the truth is that Hezbollah committed an act of war against Israel, and that both Hezbollah and Hamas get financial support and weapons from Iran through Syria. If Iran and Syria had any role at all in these kidnapings and used their proxies to carry these acts out, then both have committed acts of war against Israel. These acts cannot go unaddressed, and we cannot allow Iran’s clerics to feel that they can use the political standing that Hamas and Hezbollah have gained as a platform to wage acts of war against Israel. Iran cannot be allowed to perpetrate these acts without consequences. The real question now is what are the appropriate ways to go forward.

The one thing to keep in mind in all this is that Iran and Syria are quite capable of their own miscalculations and it's possible some of this is involved. I can see one scenario where the kidnappings were intended for a kind of stupid diplomatic posturing that backfired. We'll know more in time.

One of the key problems of 2006 is that hardly anyone knows what the rules are for this era. That's the chief blunder made by Bush's foreign policy. For the last sixty years, America's foreign policy has often been flawed but it was the only game in town and it was a game, if one can use such a word, where most of the time the rules were clearly understood.

Bush didn't merely tinker with the old largely bipartisan foreign policy; he destroyed it and replaced it with something revolutionary and profoundly dysfunctional. And he did it at a time where in the last seventeen years, since the end of the Cold War, the world has been changing rapidly and many of his advisers have been so caught up in outdated conservative theories that they are nowhere close to catching up to this world.

Now with his foreign policy in disarray, we are left to drift for the next thirty months. Congress could mitigate the damage but the Republicans who dominate Washington have refused to do anything useful, such as admitting we have a problem. If the Democrats can manage to take a house this fall, we might, as a nation, be able to avoid a third war by Bush and the prospect of $5.00/gallon at the pumps with no energy policy in sight. If not, it could be a very rough ride.


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