Elizabeth Sprio Clark is a retired foreign sevice officer who writes extensively on issues of global democratization.
All elements of the administration’s dysfunctional foreign policy behavior patterns were in high profile this week. There is some hope that agreeing to take part in talks with Syria and Iran without preconditions can change those patterns, and that the administration can be pushed and led into dropping its public goal of regime change in Iran, its knee-jerk aversion to negotiating, and, most importantly, abandoning the option of war with Iran. That will only happen if the administration's reasons for its policy change on talks with Iran and Syria get careful attention.
At one level it is no surprise that the administration scrambled to explain the reasons it suddenly said yes this week to participating in talks. Its current scramble is clearly to control the damage of embarrassing headlines highlighting yet another major policy course correction.
Some of the reasons the administration gave initially for joining negotiations were dropped almost immediately. The day after the announcement The New York Times (but not The Washington Post ) reported that the administration’s decision to participate was because the Iraqi government had moved on one of the prime U.S. “benchmarks for progress,” passing legislation governing the Iraqi oil industry.
That rationale quickly disappeared as the administration settled on the more macho rationale that its various threatening actions against Iran (dispatching U.S. carriers to the Gulf, arresting and kidnapping Iranians in Iraq; trumpeting of Iranian manufacture of weapons used against Americans etc…) had worked. U.S. policy had been successful (there is never another adjective). Iranians had been softened up enough by our saber rattling to justify our participation, with suitable caveats issued by press spokesman Tony Snow that we weren’t “really” going to talk to them.
The scramble suggests that the administration was actually taken by surprise by the initiative (and self-interest) of the government in Baghdad that it is so quick to denigrate as incompetent. One can only imagine the backing and filling is also designed to cover differences in the administration between the evidence-based approach to policy at the State Department and the remaining true believers at the NSC.
It is a relief that diplomacy is back in the U.S. game. For this course to last, however, the rationale that threats against Iran worked must be quietly dropped. Those threats routinely include the mantra that all options, including military, are “on the table.” Iranians will not talk to the U.S. about its nuclear program as long as the U.S. is publicly promoting a policy of regime change in Iran, by military force if necessary. That is the same as telling the American people that war with Iran would be justified. The administration has not promised that the war option would be a last resort, after all other options have failed, giving itself great flexibility should it decide to go ahead with military action.
A future Iran with nuclear weapons is a highly, highly undesirable endpoint. Now is the time, however, to ask whether a preemptive war on Iran to avoid this endpoint is a better endpoint. Is dropping regime change and negotiating security guarantees with Iran a comparable evil to the disaster for the U.S. of a war with Iran? Even if taking those actions were not successful, would, say, an effective containment policy be worse for the U.S. and the world than the consequences of war with Iran? Among the long list of the economic, political and military catastrophic outcomes of a preemptive attack by the U.S. on Iran would be the loss of U.S. global leadership, perhaps forever.
A fixation on worst-case scenarios is the only reason to contemplate war with Iran. The worst case in Iran is a nuclear attack by Iran on the U.S. (or Israel). How probable is that scenario, given the certain retaliation? What proposals to solve actual problems are skewed by this worst-case mindset and therefore less likely to be effective? Iran is a state that can be attacked in various ways, not a nebulous movement such as al-Qaida.
The revelation this week that in 2002 the administration oversold “intelligence” that North Korea was producing highly enriched weapons-grade uranium revealed the same dysfunctional behavior patterns as U.S.-Iranian relations. Bizarrely, the administration used the intelligence on highly enriched uranium to quit talks in favor of threats as the preferred path to “success”—exactly our stance with Iran. Now the chief U.S. negotiator for disarmament talks with North Korea says we “can have a discussion” with the North Koreans on what happened to the uranium. One hopes that North Korean and Iraq talks reset the administration’s default positions in favor of a common sense appraisal of opposing interests and of discussion. With diplomacy in the spotlight, this is the moment to take war with Iran off the table.