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Iran Politics

Folks sometimes worry that Bush will attack Iran for political reasons in hopes of boosting McCain.
But I suspect the bigger concern is that Bush is engaging in disingenuous diplomacy with Iran for political reasons, so when it “fails,” McCain can say that the Obama approach has been tried and proven wrong.

Serious Foreign Policy

Selected responses from last night’s GOP debate, answering the critical question, “did the American commander in the Strait of Hormuz the other day make the right decision by responding passively when approached aggressively by Iranian fast boats believed to be from the Revolutionary Guards?”
Fred D. Thompson:

I think one more step and they would have been introduced to those virgins that they’re looking forward to seeing.

Rudy Giuliani:

Maybe by using this incident and the fact that Iran certainly shouldn’t be seen as benign, as some people saw it when they tried to spin the NIE, as suggesting that maybe we were being too serious about Iran. It would seem to me that this inci-dent should wake a lot of people up.

John McCain:

I agree with Rudy. Maybe the Iranians think we’re weaker because of the NIE. Maybe the Iranians aren’t really slowing their export of most lethal explosive devices into Iraq.

Mitt Romney:

I do not believe this action was taken by rogue elements within the Iranian forces. I believe it was calculated. And I believe it was designed to test our defenses. I believe it was also designed to rattle a sword to the Arab neighbors to see that they could go after the Straits of Hormuz. I believe, as well, that it was a diversionary tactic for them to consider other actions in other places. And so I believe it was a very serious act. And the Iranians continue to take acts like this, it points out that we have in Iran a very troubled nation.

Wow. We’re so close to World War III. Battle stations everyone!
Or maybe not. From the Washington Post today:

The Pentagon said yesterday that the apparent radio threat to bomb U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf last weekend may not have come from the five Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboats that approached them — and may not even have been intended against U.S. targets.
The communication Sunday was made on radio channel 16, a common marine frequency used by ships and others in the region. “It could have been a threat aimed at some other nation or a myriad of other things,” said Rear Adm. Frank Thorp IV, a spokesman for the Navy.
In the radio message recorded by the Navy, a heavily accented voice said: “I am coming to you. You will explode after a few minutes.” But Farsi speakers and Iranians told The Washington Post that the accent did not sound Iranian.

These are the serious guys with foreign policy experience who you want to have their finger on the button.
Or should we say, fondling the button, caressing the button…
Heed the words of Slate’s Fred Kaplan:

…Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, told the Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender and Farah Stockman on Monday, the U.S. commanders have no systematic way to halt a conflict if it begins to spiral. “I do not have a direct link with my counterpart in the Iranian Navy,” he said. “I do not have a way to communicate directly with the Iranian Navy or [Revolutionary] Guard.”
Through the darkest days of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow maintained a hot line. During most of those times, there were parallel forums for communication between the two sides’ senior officers. Iran doesn’t pose anything remotely resembling the threat that the United States and the Soviet Union posed to each other in those years. Here is yet another reason to establish diplomatic relations with Iran. You don’t have to be friends to talk.

Will Iowa Be About Nothing?

This Washington Post dispatch on the Obama campaign befuddles me:

Sen. Barack Obama has seemed to float above the fray over the last few days — barely acknowledging attacks from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on the campaign trail and leaving it to his campaign aides to object to (and raise money off of) what they describe as a wave of negativity from the national front-runner…
…Today, Obama is staying on his mellow message with a speech about “national service.” He is continuing to urge out-of-state college students to cast their ballots on campus in Iowa — an entirely legal process, but one that his rivals have complained about — and calling for more volunteerism. He has left the dueling with Clinton — in particular, over Iran — to former Sen. John Edwards, who drew sharp distinctions with the New York senator during their NPR debate here on Tuesday.

Now, I have long said that if someone was going to overtake Sen. Hillary Clinton, they were going to have to “make something happen” to draw substantive contrast with her, and there wasn’t much to work with but Iraq.
In Iowa, that has not proven true.
Sen. Barack Obama has a slight lead in some polls (overall, polls show a three-way dead heat), that occurred after Clinton’s equivocating in a debate allowed fears of her electability — seemingly put to bed — to resurface.
This seems to show some fragility in her support among primary voters, though that fragility may well be unique to Iowa Democrats.
Either way, the race still seems to be turning on Clinton: is she electable or not?
Perhaps Clinton will end up on the losing end of that question (David Corn and Sam Boyd suggest that her campaign’s attacks may not be supporting her own argument about her ability to fight well.)
But for Obama to try to “float above fray” leaves Clinton — very much on the offense — more in control of their destiny.
This week offered Obama a fresh opportunity to focus the race on a favorable issue: Iran.
With the new National Intelligence Estimate undermining neocon dreams of expanded war, Clinton’s vote in favor of the belligerent Kyl-Lieberman resolution could be portrayed as enabling an utterly misguided confrontation, and evidence of putting politics ahead of leadership on foreign policy — supposedly Clinton’s strength.
But according to the W. Post, Obama is standing back and letting Edwards take the lead on that front.
With Obama the nominal front-runner, he would have to make it a consistent issue if it he was to successfully frame the race around who has the best foreign policy vision and judgment. (Or if Edwards was skillful enough, he could pass Obama by.)
It could be that Obama is hesitant to press the issue of the Kyl-Lieberman vote since he was campaigning instead of voting on the Senate floor at the time.
But as he made his view clear on the day of the vote, it shouldn’t be hard to say he made the right foreign policy call and Clinton didn’t, again. (And surely, all the sitting senators have missed votes — it’s impossible not to.)
I never thought anyone else besides Clinton could win a primary election that’s about nothing. Based on recent developments, I may be wrong.
But if I were Obama, I wouldn’t float. I wouldn’t let Clinton set the terms of the debate. I’d make the election about something.

Iran is Rational

From yesterday’s National Intelligence Estimate (PDF file):

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might — if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible — prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.

Hmm, who said that before? (Maybe I should be a professional intelligence analyst…)

Iran 24/7

Just like the run up to the war with Iraq we have the constant drumbeat of war or at least bombing Iran. It is as if the Bush Administration is egging on radial Muslims. The best way to make sure that Iran moves farther away from the west is to bomb them. Yet, just as with the build up for War with Iraq, no information has deterred this administration from talking about bombing Iran.
On CNN this morning, Mohammed ElBaradei of the IAEA said, “I very much have concern about confrontation, building confrontation, Wolf, because that would lead absolutely to a disaster. I see no military solution. The only durable solution is through negotiations and inspections.” He was 100% right about the weapons of mass destruction leading up to the War in Iraq. Why wouldn’t he be the voice of reason now?
The folks who we know are not the voice of reason are the neocons on Fox. In my opinion, whatever they say we should probably do the opposite. William Kristol has been wrong so many times it is unclear to me why he is allowed back on any TV show that isn’t a comedy. Today he said, “useful for Iran to believe that this administration will stop at nothing to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon.” Also, today, Brit Hume who is the neocon’s neocon said, “Doesn’t it make sense that you want Iran to believe that if you keep this up, they might be the subject of a devastating military strike of the kind that only the United States of America can mount. I would think so. And it seems to me when you have Democrats running around, wringing their hands about alleged saber rattling that it makes them look terribly weak, and in the end if you’re the head of Iran, you think, ‘well, we want those people in charge.'”
Let’s just quickly review history. Not ancient history, just history of the past 6 – 7 years. The Clinton administration through direct discussions with North Korea got North Korea to allow nuclear inspections. The North Koreans had stopped their nuclear program (sort of). The Bush administration comes in and calls the North Korean leadership untrustworthy and liars. Inspectors are kicked out. North Korea begins to build a nuclear bomb. They enrich enough nuclear material to make 4 – 6 weapons. They explode something. It is unclear if it was a nuclear explosion but it was something. Only then does the US begin direct talks with North Korea. The direct talks have worked and inspectors are going to be let in again. We only allowed them to build 4 – 6 bombs because the Bush administration’s failures. Now, why hasn’t the Bush Adminstration learned from their mistakes?

What are we, Americans, about?

As I look around and I try to interpret domestic and foreign policy, one question keeps nagging at me, what are we, as Americans, about? Let’s look at recent events. The failure of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-Chip) was extremely interesting. Several facts, no matter how badly the Republicans try to twist them, are still facts. 6 million children are not covered by any government program or private insurance. This is a fact. The current program will be an increase in funding just a cover the same number of kids as the program has been covering. The Bush administration has proposed a cut in funding. Furthermore, the Democrats met the Republicans half-way and closed the loophole where some states had enrolled adults. Also, Democrats excluded economic refugees (illegal aliens). Even if you became a citizen, you had to wait 5 years before qualifying for the S-Chip. As most of you know, the S-Chip program was unable to override a veto. The Democratic led Congress is trying to devise a bill that may be more suitable to more Republicans.
The wildfires in California demonstrate the overwhelming power of nature. At one point over a half a million people had evacuated the region and over a thousand homes have been burned. Why? The Southern California wildfires are completely predictable. We know that wildfires will erupt in late August or early September. So, these wildfires were late in the season but still, why haven’t we adopted some plan to protect a city as large as San Diego. Estimates of damage currently hover around $1 billion. Couldn’t we have spent $1 billion and constructed some sort of protective barrier just east of San Diego? The barrier could be an area of desert that is devoid of vegetation. We could construct some sort of rock formation that makes it difficult for the fire to skip over the rocks. Although I believe a lot of Katrina references are inappropriate, I think pre-disaster planning or more correctly, the lack of pre-disaster planning is seen in both instances. The levies in many areas of New Orleans were laughable if we are serious in protecting the city.
Over the last several months there have been several outbreaks of food poisoning. Time and time again we are told by food processing companies that they are doing “all that they can.” We’ve also had several different toy recalls because the toys were painted with lead paint. Lead paint! This is the year 2007 not 1967. Lead paint?

The Iraq invasion and occupation has been a complete disaster. Everything that thoughtful experts were saying about the region is coming to pass. Ethic violence – Check. Interference from Syria, Iran and Turkey – Check. Destabilization of the region – check. Everything that the smart people said was true (maybe that’s why they are smart.) Now, the Bush administration has imposed sanctions against Iran. Sanctions that are specifically designed to get under Iran’s skin. It is clear that without corporation from Russia and China the sanctions have little or no meaning. Yet, we do this very aggressive act to what end? To pick a fight, that’s all that it could be.

Finally, looking at the way that we have treated captured detainees. We have tortured prisoners. We have tortured prisoners. I can’t get over that. (Isn’t that a great recruitment tool for Al Qaeda!) We, well, Bush has twisted the law so that he becomes all 3 branches of government. He was about to design, legislate and preside over these extra-legal proceedings called military tribunals. Bush’s own Republican Supreme Court struck it down. So, Congress wrote a law that substitutes this unconstitutional court with another one that looks almost exactly the same.
So, what are we, as a nation about? Are we the home of the free and land of the Brave? Are we about the idea of freedom and liberty? Are freedom and liberty just a slogan for the good times? Or are we about the Bush doctrine of my way or the highway, corporate greed and more corporate greed (I repeated greed because there is just so much of it.)

The Right Iran Question

DIck Cheney said on Sunday:

The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences. The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

In other words, he would rather guarantee a regional war than have Iran possess a single nuclear weapon that is not likely to be used in a war.
Of course, this is how the question will likely be framed for the next two years: would you “allow” Iran to have a nuclear weapon (or have the “knowledge” to build a nuclear weapon), or would you go to war first?
What we shouldn’t allow is having the Iran issue framed this way.
Lest we soon forget, the Bush Administration just “allowed” North Korea to have a nuclear weapon.
And there was no nuclear holocaust.

It is by no means a good thing that North Korea has nukes, which could have been prevented with aggressive diplomacy.
The risk of proliferation, potentially to terrorist groups, was raised. Our ability to influence North Korea and promote democratic reform was diminished.
But the fact remains that the nukes were not used. Having nukes is not the same as using nukes.
Governments generally want a nuke for political reasons, protect themselves from regime change and maximize their regional leverage. But they know if they actually use a nuke against us or an ally of ours, they’ll be incinerated by us the next day.
Further, when we finally did engage North Korea diplomatically this year, it began to pay off.
Having a nuke, let alone the knowledge to produce a nuke, does not automatically lead to nuclear war.
Of course, make that argument, and the neocons will quickly claim that North Korea is already breaking the deal and trying to help Syria get nukes — just thwarted by an Israeli air strike — as suggested by a recent New York Times article.
But as the Center for American Progress observes:

One cannot help but notice a lack of on-record quotes …
…There are further questions that have been missing from the general mainstream media coverage of the Syrian bombing. For instance, why is there such an extraordinary level of secrecy about this? The names and locations of Iranian and North Korean facilities are public knowledge, so why the veil of secrecy surrounding an alleged Syrian program? Why hasn’t the administration been able to provide any satellite photos or agency reports? If there were well-founded suspicions that such a facility existed, why wasn’t the International Atomic Energy Agency contacted first to conduct inspections?

Arms Control Wonk adds that a subsequent ABC report doesn’t match key technical aspects in the NYT piece, and notes:

The hard evidence seems a little, well, soft to me. AP’s George Jahn, by the way, reports that the IAEA is now looking at commercial imagery, but hasn’t seen anything that screams nuclear reactor[.]

Raw Story reported (also, for what it’s worth, largely based on anonymous sources) last week:

According to current and former intelligence sources, the US intelligence community has seen no evidence of a nuclear facility being hit.
US intelligence “found no radiation signatures after the bombing, so there was no uranium or plutonium present,â€? said one official, wishing to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject.
“We don’t have any independent intelligence that it was a nuclear facility — only the assertions by the Israelis and some ambiguous satellite photography from them that shows a building, which the Syrians admitted was a military facility.â€?

And Steve Clemons said right after the NYT piece was published:

David Sanger’s and Mark Mazzetti’s piece on Syrian nuclear plant activities does disturb. Mostly because I don’t buy it. . .at least not yet. My intel sources don’t concur that this was a nuclear plant — but rather that it was a machine tool operation to modernize Syrian scud missiles with air burst capacity warheads. Such warheads could ‘eventually’ be outfitted with some nasty kinds of things — including chemical, bio, and nuke warheads.
I hate to be at odds with Sanger and Mazzetti as I admire them both a great deal — but they need to make sure that they are not being “Judith Miller’d”. I leave open the door that my sources could be wrong, but bombing a nuke site as opposed to a machine operation to raise the level of potential terror that Syria could rain on Israel (far more cheaply) are vastly different in scale.

Even if the troubling scenario that North Korea was proliferating to Syria, the point would still remain that having nukes has yet to equal using nukes.
Whereas publicly trying to hold Iran to a standard the Bush administration had not even held North Korea to (as Fareed Zakaria notes, “If I had to choose whom to describe as a madman, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il or Ahmadinejad, I do not think there is really any contest.”), only sends the signal to Iran that we’re gunning for them no matter what the facts are.
That’s not the way to prevent Iran from going nuclear. That’s the way to put them on the fast track, so they can prevent regime change.
The question to ask is not: will we “allow” Iran to go nuclear.
The right question to ask: what approach is most likely to prevent Iran from going nuclear and prevent broader regional war?

Something Bright on Bush’s Watch (and the Dark Underside)

The successful Korean summit and step toward reconciliation may not have happened if the Bush Administration — after counterproductive snubbing and saber-rattling — hadn’t engaged North Korea diplomatically and made progress on denuclearization.
This may end up being the only positive foreign policy legacy left by Bush.
But this bright spot very likely comes with a dark side.
As Steve Clemons noted earlier this year that there’s a link between progress in Korea and confrontation with Iran:

[Washington Post reporter Glenn] Kessler’s two essays … confirm independent information that this blogger has received from others close to the Iran-US diplomatic game suggesting that not only Cheney’s office quashed a positive reaction to Iran’s [2003] proposal [to negotiate the end of its nuclear program] but that Powell and his team did.
Powell essentially “traded” progress in North Korea for a regressive stance on Iran that Cheney’s gang ws dominating.
Powell did not want to antagonize Cheney with negotiations initiatives at the same time with not just one “Axis of Evil” nation — but TWO. That was the deal made nearly four years ago.
It is ironic that just yesterday, serious progress was logged in the US-North Korea nuclear standoff, while Cheney’s team continues to dominate the rhetoric and approach to dealing with Iran.

And as LIberalOasis noted at the time:

…remember that the Bushies loved to hold up their (anti-democracy) deal with Libya, so they could say they were not only interested in war and saber-rattling and unilateralism to solve international problems.
It’s possible that they will now hold up North Korea as evidence they are more than happy to talk, hoping to dampen American concerns about a rush to war, while they continue to ignore diplomatic openings in Iran so they can rush to war.

As Seymour Hersh reported this week, Iran remains very much in the White House crosshairs.
But there’s no reason we must passively let the Bushies claim that North Korea gives the credibility to attack Iran.
The opposite is true: the progress in North Korea shows the value in sincere negotiations even with abhorrent dictators.
And with Iran, there are far more openings to talk to relatively moderate and pragmatic factions that with North Korea.
Attacking and occupying Iraq isn’t working. Talking to North Korea is working.
Common sense would say, repeat what works. Common sense is not what this White House is based on.

Has Hillary Peaked?

Tim Russert began last night’s presidential debate in exactly the right way: asking all the presidential candidates if they would pledge to have all US troops out of Iraq by the end of the next presidential term: January 2013.
Unstated in the question was that Sen. Hillary Clinton refused to take that pledge this past Sunday.
This presented the opportunity for candidates to distinguish themselves from Clinton, inform primary voters that Clinton cannot be relied upon to end the occupation, and attempt to dislodge her front the frontrunner position.
Last month, John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama passed up such an opportunity. What about now?
Obama passed it up again. Instead, he echoed Clinton, saying:

I think it’s hard to project four years from now, and I think it would be irresponsible. We don’t know what contingency will be out there … I believe that we should have all our troops out by 2013, but I don’t want to make promises not knowing what the situation’s going to be three or four years out.

Edwards refused to make that pledge as well, but nevertheless, sought to make a distinction with Clinton, and raise questions about her foreign policy objectives:

…I heard Senator Clinton say on Sunday that she wants to continue combat missions in Iraq. To me, that’s a continuation of the war…
…when I’m on a stage with the Republican nominee, come the fall of 2008, I’m going to make it clear that I’m for ending the war. And the debate will be between a Democrat who wants to bring a war to an end … and a Republican that wants to continue the war.

Further, Edwards sought to emphasize that his residual force would be relatively small, between 3,500 and 5,000 troops, in order to protect the US Embassy in Iraq and protect humanitarian workers.
Without taking a pledge to get all troops by Jan. 2013, Edwards’ is drawing a very fine distinction, which may limit the political impact.
While some news reports highlighted criticism of Clinton, the AP noted that all three leading Dem candidates wouldn’t take that pledge.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis Kucinich sought to take advantage of the opening created by the three leading candidates to tout their plans to withdraw all troops from Iraq as soon as possible.
And Sen. Chris Dodd, when asked if he’d take the 2013 pledge to get all troops home, said, “I will get that done.”
So you have three candidates — Dodd, Richardson and Kucinich — who have pledged to get all troops out by Jan. 2013 (if not sooner). Edwards specifies a low level of residual forces for an indefinite period of time. Clinton, Obama and Sen. Joe Biden were vague about the size of their proposed residual forces.
Clinton also faced criticism, first levied by Mike Gravel, for voting for the Lieberman-Kyl amendment that arguably takes us a step closer towards attacking Iran.
Edwards jumped in forcefully. Noting that both he and Clinton voted for the Iraq war authorization, he said of Clinton’s new Iran vote:

We [each] learned a very different lesson from [Iraq.] I have no intention of giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran.
And I think that vote today — which Senator Biden and Senator Dodd voted against, and they were correct to vote against it — is a clear indication of the approach that all of us would take with the situation in Iran.
Because what I learned in my vote on Iraq was you cannot give this president the authority, and you cannot even give him the first step in that authority, because he cannot be trusted.

So we may have the beginning of an effort to convince voters that Clinton would not represent a substantive change in our foreign policy.
And if primary voters are convinced of that, making Clinton lose her frontrunner status, the whole race opens up again.
Side note: Russert also asked Clinton about Israel’s air strike on Syria. Both Russert and Clinton generally accepted the neocon-backed line that Israeli was thwarting a nuclear program in Syria backed by North Korea, and Clinton went as far to say, “What happened in Syria, so far as we know, I support.”
While no one knows the full story yet, in my recent LiberalOasis Radio Show interview of Steve Clemons, he cast significant doubt on the nuclear story.

Quote Fishing

Kristen Breitweiser, Sept. 11 widow and one the influential “Jersey Girls,” writes in the Huffington Post today:

This morning I was bombarded by a series of phone calls from the press. Breathlessly, they all asked how I felt about Ahmandinejad, the president of Iran, visiting Ground Zero.
Wasn’t I outraged?
Didn’t I want to protest such a flagrant act of disrespect by this world outcast toward one of our country’s most sacred sites?
How could a “terrorist leader on the level of UBL” have the audacity to visit Ground Zero?

However, a search of Google News and Nexis indicates that no media outlets actually quoted Breitweiser.
Perhaps that’s because her opinion was that he should be able to go:

Real statesmanship would be a presidential candidate with the courage to encourage potentially dangerous, misinformed leaders like Ahmandinejad to visit Ground Zero, in the hopes that they might learn something.
Real statesmanship would mean proposing a new dialogue with Ahmandinejad and other Iranian leaders, searching for some common ground between America and Iran while there’s still time to avert disaster.

Reporters apparently did not call her to get her informed opinion, but were fishing for an “outrage” quote to fill in a pre-written story.

And when they didn’t get it, they moved on and fished around some more.

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