Members of Washington's band
of foreign policy realists are high-fiving each other these days. First there
was the news that the Bush administration decided to have Undersecretary of
State William Burns sit in the same room in Geneva with Iranian nuclear envoy
Saeed Jalili and high-ranking diplomats from five other countries and try to
negotiate a deal to suspend Tehran's plan to continue with uranium enrichment.
And then came reports that Bush agreed to set
a general "time horizon" for the withdrawal of U.S.
combat troops from Iraq as part of a long-term security accord that
Washington is trying to negotiate with Baghdad.
If these moves seem odd, it's probably
because they came from the administration of President George W.
Bush, the man who just recently compared those who would engage
Iran to the "appeasers" who talked to Adolf Hitler in
Munich. In the past, both Bush and the presumptive Republican presidential
candidate, Sen. John
McCain (R-AZ), have taken swipes at presumptive Democratic presidential
candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), for proposing that the United
States and Iran hold direct negotiations – the same kind now
being conducted in Geneva. And Bush and his supporters in Congress
and the media have also long derided as dangerous any timetable
for troop withdrawal, adamantly fighting efforts by congressional
Democrats and other "defeatists" to impose what he described
as "artificial" timelines for a U.S. force pullout that
would supposedly play into the hands of al-Qaeda and deprive America
of its "victory" in Mesopotamia.
These surprising moves by Washington took place
just after Israel in an uncommon step exchanged Lebanese prisoners
with Hezbollah for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. And there
have been other indications that diplomacy may be replacing military
force as the tool of choice in the Middle East. Israel and Syria
have been holding talks under Turkish auspices that could lead to
a peace agreement under which Israel will return the Golan Heights
to Syria. Egypt has succeeded in brokering a temporary cease-fire
between Israel and the Hamas-led government in Gaza. And Hezbollah
and the pro-Western government in Beirut have agreed, thanks to
Qatar's mediation efforts, to cooperate in bringing political
stability to Lebanon.
But despite all the recent progress in the Middle
East, there is no real reason to think that peace is anywhere near
at hand. The important common denominator of all these diplomatic
openings in the Middle East has been the Bush administration's
strong resistance to them, based on the principle that the United
States and its allies don't negotiate or make deals with what
Bush might describe as "Hitler equivalents" – members
of the axis of evil, terrorist groups, or rogue states. Hence, talking
with Iran and its partners – Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas – equals
appeasement, while setting a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops
from Iraq is tantamount to defeatism. That Israel was engaging in
this kind of behavior was remarkable, but that Bush administration
officials have been pursuing the same kind of policies that the
president decried is nothing short of startling.
Indeed, pundits in Washington are also intrigued
by the fact that these officials were pursuing diplomacy with Iran
and discussing dates for troop withdrawal from Iraq in the same
week that Obama, whose support for such approaches was decried by
both Bush and McCain, was visiting the Middle East. Some pundits
suggested that the views of the two presidential candidates on Iraq
and Iran were converging in the form of a consensus on the need
to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and deal diplomatically
The signs that the realists may be winning the
foreign policy debate in Washington, including in the Bush administration – where
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice pushed for talks with Iran despite opposition from Vice
Cheney – came as very bad news for the neoconservatives.
"Just when you think the administration is out of U-turns,
they make another one," said former U.S. ambassador to the
United Nations John
Bolton, who was critical of the administration's change
in policy on North Korea. Bolton adding: "This is further
evidence of the administration's complete intellectual collapse."1
Rubin, a leading neoconservative intellectual with the American
Enterprise Institute, opined in the Wall Street Journal
that, "President Bush's reversal is diplomatic malpractice
on a Carter-esque level that is breathing new life into a failing
But it's too early for realists in Washington
to celebrate victory or for neoconservatives to mourn. Realism is
not necessarily on the march, and peace is hardly breaking out in
the Middle East. First, much of the regional news from earlier this
summer – including Israeli and Iranian war exercises, Israeli
threats to strike Iranian nuclear military sites, and Tehran's
counter-threats of retaliation – indicates that the chances
for a new war in the Persian Gulf remain quite high. Indeed, in
an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Bolton advised
policymakers in Washington to give a green light to an Israeli strike
while Israeli historian Benny Morris insisted in the New
York Times that such an Israeli military move was all but certain.4
Although Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Adm. Mike Mullen and other members of the national security bureaucracy
may be opposed to a U.S. seal of approval on an Israeli attack against
Iran, it's important to remember that President "Buscheney"
retains enormous power in foreign policy decisions and setting the
political agenda in Washington. It's also unlikely that Democrats
would be willing to oppose an Israeli decision to attack Iran that
would be spun as a necessary defensive move against the Holocaust-denying
mullahs in Tehran.
Unlike the Bush administration decision to resolve
the nuclear crisis with North Korea through a broad diplomatic accord,
it's not clear that the White House is ready to take that
step with Iran. The administration is still demanding that Tehran
freeze its uranium enrichment program as a precondition for broader
negotiations that would include, in addition to the nuclear problem,
discussion over the future of Iraq and Afghanistan (where Iran maintains
enormous influence) as well as the two governments' interests
in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. When Bush and Rice decided to make
a diplomatic deal with Pyongyang, they dispatched Amb. Charles Hill
to hold face-to-face talks with a North Korean diplomat in Europe.
A similar move toward Iran on the part of the administration would
amount to the kind of "reversal" that Bolton and other
hardliners and neoconservatives are decrying.
Hence, it's quite possible that Bush and
his aides have decided that they don't have enough political
support to pursue either a grand diplomatic bargain with Tehran
or a military confrontation with Iran, concluding that a short-term
deal with Iran is the most cost-effective way of managing the current
crisis and leaving the next U.S. president to deal with the issue
in the context of his own strategy for the Middle East. Combined
with the news that the United States plans to establish a diplomatic
presence in Iran for the first time since the 1979-1981 U.S. Embassy
hostage crisis, it suggests that there won't be a U.S. and/or
Israeli strike against Iran before the Oval Office sees a new occupant.
Or perhaps Washington's apparent symbolic
concessions toward Iran are nothing more than a diplomatic smokescreen
that will allow the Bush administration to claim – before it
takes military action against Iran – that it had gone out of
its way to placate Iran and give it a chance to reach a peaceful
agreement; Tehran, therefore, would be responsible for any ensuing
Similarly, the notion of a time horizon for withdrawing
U.S. troops from Iraq is very different from drawing up a concrete
timetable for pulling out U.S. forces. The idea is probably part
of an effort to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki burnish his
nationalist credentials before the upcoming Iraqi provincial elections.
Moreover, much of the diplomatic steps taken
by the various Middle Eastern players in recent weeks should not
be confused with a search for peace. After all, the Middle East
is an area of the world where nothing is what it seems to be, where
yesterday's enemy is tomorrow's ally, where commitments
are made to be broken, and where "peace" is nothing
more than a long cease-fire. It's not a pretty picture, but
it's reality, and outsiders should not impose their wishful
thinking on it.
In a way, much of what is happening in the Middle East should
be regarded as efforts made by regional players to fill the diplomatic vacuum
resulting from the erosion in the U.S. influence in the region, as they wait
for the U.S. presidential election and the subsequent policy decisions of the
new White House. It's part of a game of wait and see – waiting, in part,
to see if Bush will attack Iran – and not a sign that peace is imminent.
Elaine Sciolino and Steven Lee Meyers, "Policy Shift
Seen in U.S. Decision on Iran Talks," New York Times,
July 17, 2008.
Michael Rubin, "Now Bush Is Appeasing Iran," Wall
Street Journal, July 21, 2008.
John R. Bolton, "Israel, Iran, and the Bomb," Wall
Street Journal, July 15, 2008.
Benny Morris, "Using Bombs to Stave off War," New
York Times, July 18, 2008.
Reprinted with permission from Right Web