11 December, 2008

Stupidity and arrogance

So my public transportation reading (PTR?) recently has been diplomat Peter W. Galbraith's (son of John Kenneth) outraged little book, Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies, about the Bush Administration's conduct of the Iraq War. The book tracks the basic realist/Obama argument that the war was a strategic gift to Iran and al-Qaeda while damaging our important relationships in the region, especially with Turkey. The value-added is the level of detail which which he describes the venality, arrogance and stupidity of the Administration's decision-making and decision-implementing processeses. There's also a lot basic substance as to who the various political parties, militias, and governments are, where they came from, what their positions are, etc. Basically: if you're really interested in how diplomacy happens at a more granular level, read it. This is the book you want to have read if you are going to be arguing about which Shiite political party we should be supporting, or which iteration of the revenue-sharing law is more conducive to political reconciliation. Otherwise, if you've been paying attention you probably already know many of the broader points, or could get them out of an essay rather than a book.

But as the question of negotiations with Iran take center stage, I do want to highlight one tragic episode that really sums up the whole of the Bush Administration:


In 2003 there was enough common ground for a deal [with Iran]. In May 2003, the Iranian authorities sent a proposal through the Swiss embassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, for negotiations on a package deal in which Iran would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for an end to U.S. hostility. The Iranian paper offered "full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD [and] full cooperation with the IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments." The Iranians also offered support for the "establishment of democratic institutions and a non-religious government" in Iraq; full cooperation against terrorists (including "above all, al-Qaeda"); and an end to material support to Palestinian groups such as Hamas. In return, the Iranians asked that their country not be on the terrorism list or designated part of the "Axis of Evil"; that all sanctions end; that the United States support Iran's claims for reparations for the Iran-Iraq War as part of the overall settlement of the Iraqi debt; that they have access to peaceful nuclear technology; and that the United States pursue anti-Iranian terrorists, including "above all" the MEK [an Iranian opposition terrorist group based in Iraq and tacitly supported by the US]...

Basking in the glory of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, the Bush Administration dismissed the Iranian offer and criticized Guldimann for even presenting it. Several years later, the Bush Administration's abrupt rejection of the Iranian offer began to look blatantly foolish and the administration moved to suppress the story. (77-78)

This a the fundamental difference: neoconservatives and their liberal hawk fellow travellers (who have donned the mantle of idealism in foreign policy) believe that Iran is evil and irrational. Realists, on the other hand, hold that while states may be bad they are rational and seek what is in their self-interest. It follows that even two "enemy" states may have common interests that can be agreed upon to the benefit of both. Iranian leadership may believe that America is the great Shaitan or they may not, but they don't like sanctions, and they don't like the idea of being bombed or invaded by the United States. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are two of Iran's worst enemies. Just like us! There is common ground here, but Bush decided it would be a better idea to piss it away while Tehran gets closer and closer to actually developing a nuclear weapon. And, of course, for good measure, moving "to suppress the story." Someday we'll look back on all this and laugh...

4 comments:

Cassady said...

So, I'm not saying that I don't find the out-going Administration culpable for a great many acts of immense stupidity, but can this issue really be so cut and dry as all that?

I mean, to say that Iran made completely capitulating overtures of peace and reconciliation seems a bit far-fetched...unless of course that sneaky East Coast Media Cartel has been skewing the facts again...

spencer said...

The deal mentioned in the paragraph hardly seems like a complete capitulation on Iran's behalf. They seems to be getting a lot of goodies--oil money from Iraq, our help defeating their terrorist enemies, nuclear power, etc. Basically what they've been asking for the whole time.

Elliot said...

There are a couple of points here. First of all, regarding our media, they cover foreign affairs about as well as I could cover LeBron James - even if this had been public knowledge, you probably wouldn't have heard about it. But it wasn't public knowledge. Iran's official stance is hostility towards the US, and as such they don't trumpet such an offer, they send it, confidentially, in the hands of the Swiss ambassador (which is, incidentally, how many nations without diplomatic relations communicate with one another.)

We know about the "Iranian paper" because a) Galbraith worked in the Administration until 2003, when he quit in disgust, b) the National Security Council director for Iran from the time later wrote a NYT op-ed referencing it and c) Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador, leaked the paper to a member of Congress.

Second, you have to realize that the political context of Iran in 2003 was much more moderate than it has been since the election of Imadinnerjacket in 2005. While he has pushed the idea of a nuclear Iran being non-negotiable, that really wasn't the case or the atmosphere in 2003.

Third, and most importantly, this isn't a capitulation, its a deal in which both sides get something they want but also have to give something up. Basically, what Iran would achieve is de facto recognition of the legitimacy of their regime by the US, a security pact insuring them against US regime change, the end to the sanctions against them (and the implicit promise of no future sanctions), more help in fighting their most hated enemies (which happen to be our most hated enemies as well), and access to nuclear power.

That's not capitulation; that's quite a lot. But in return the US gets two things that are critical to us: comprehensive, unhindered review of Iran's nuclear program by the IAEA, and Iran stopping its support for Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Shiite militias that are killing our troops in Iraq.

Of course, even if Bush had taken this seriously, that overture would have only been the first step in a long and probably contentious set of negotiations. But the point is that now, as we are in a much weaker position and Iran has taken a much harder line, a deal of this sort seems far-fetched, in your words, Cassady. And maybe, now, it is. But back when it wasn't, Bush was too arrogant to take advantage of the opportunity.

Cassady said...

Right, that's all I was saying--that the original post seemed to make Iran out to be a victimized good-guy, when the reverse is pretty well-documented.

Thanks for clarifying those really important points, though.