The assumption that the US should exploit its
military dominance to exert pressure on adversaries has long dominated the thinking
of the US national security and political elite in the past. But this central
tenet of conventional security doctrine was sharply rejected this week by a
senior practitioner of crisis diplomacy at the debut of a major new centrist
foreign policy think tank.
At the first conference of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Ambassador
James Dobbins, who was the Bill Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia,
Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and the George W. Bush administration's first special
envoy to Afghanistan, sharply rejected the well-established concept of coercive
Dobbins declared in a panel on Iran policy, "I reject the theory that
the implicit threat of force is a necessary prerequisite to successful diplomacy."
Looking back on 40 years of US diplomacy, Dobbins, now director of the Rand
International Security and Defense Policy Center, concluded that the conventional
wisdom about the need to back up diplomacy with adversaries with force is wrong.
"I can say that most of it was not conducted against a background of threat
of force," said Dobbins, and when the threat of force was introduced, "diplomacy
In diplomatic dealings with the Soviet Union, however, Dobbins said, "We
never threatened to use force."
Dobbins complained that the debate over diplomacy with regard to Iran has been
between those who are ready to use military force now and those "say we
should talk with them first." Advocates of diplomacy, he said, have to
"meet a high threshold they have to offer the reversal of all Iranian
positions." In effect, they have to deliver Iranian "capitulation",
Although very different from the Soviet Union as a threat, Dobbins observed,
Iran is similar in that "we can't afford to ignore it and we can't overrun
it." Real diplomacy in regard to Iran, he argued, would result in "better
information and better options."
In a line that got applause from the more than 750 people attending the conference,
Dobbins said his solution was to "deal with Iran."
The Dobbins argument represents the first high-profile challenge by a veteran
of the US national security community to a central tenet of national security
officials and the US political elite ever since the end of the Cold War.
The recently established CNAS has strong connections with former Clinton administration
national security officials and the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. CNAS
president Michele A. Flournoy and CEO Kurt M. Campbell both held positions in
the Clinton Defense Department. William J. Perry and Madeleine K. Albright,
Clinton's secretaries of defense and state, respectively, gave opening remarks
at the conference.
The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and of the national security elite
has long associated itself with the idea that the threat of military force
and even force itself should be at the center of US policy in the Middle
East. Key figures from the Clinton administration, including Perry, Albright,
former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, former assistant secretary of state
James P. Rubin and former deputy national security adviser James Steinberg,
lined up in support of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Flournoy and Campbell have already made it clear that CNAS' orientation will
be to hew to the common ground uniting the national security professionals who
have served administrations of both parties. Flournoy co-authored an op-ed with
former Bush administration deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage two days
before the NCAS conference, and Armitage also introduced the conference.
A paper by Flournoy and two junior co-authors ostensibly calling for a new
US "grand strategy" is notable for its reluctance to go too far in
criticizing the Bush administration's policies. It argues that the current US
positions in Iraq and poses the "real threat of strategic exhaustion"
and calls for "rebalancing risk", but offers no real alternative to
indefinite continuation of the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Instead it urged the "rearticulation" of goals in both Iraq and Afghanistan
by replacing the "maximalist language used in past years" with "pragmatism."
But the choice of Dobbins to anchor a panel on Iran indicates that the Clinton
wing of the Democratic Party and of the national security community now has
serious doubts about the coercive diplomacy approach to Iran that has dominated
policy thinking since the beginning of the Clinton administration.
A paper on Iran policy coauthored by Campbell and released at the conference
Wednesday reflects a new skepticism toward the threat of an attack on Iran as
a way of obtaining Iranian cooperation. It argues that US military threats against
Iran "have had the opposite effect" from what was desired, hardening
the resolve of Iranian leaders to enrich uranium and giving the Islamic regime
greater credibility with the Iran people.
The paper also reflected an unwillingness to dispense entirely with the military
option, however, proposing that the United States "de-emphasize, but not
forswear, the possibility of military action against Iran."
The paper advised against even taking the military threat off the table in
return for Iran's stopping its nuclear program, on the ground that Washington
must be able to use that threat to bargain with Iran over "stopping its
support for terrorism."
The principal author of the paper, James N. Miller, who is senior vice president
and director of studies at CNAS, explained in an interview after the conference
that he believes Dobbins' assessment of the problem is "about right."
Miller said the threat to use force against Iran to coerce it on its nuclear
program"is not useful or credible now."
But Miller said he would not give up that threat, because the next president
might enter into serious negotiations with Iran, and Iran might refuse to "play
ball" and go ahead with plans to acquire nuclear weapons. If the president
had a strong coalition behind him, he said, "The use of force is an option
that one should consider."
The idea that diplomatic negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program must
be backed by the threat of war is so deeply entrenched in Washington that endorsement
of it seems to have become a criterion for any candidate being taken seriously
by the national security community.
Thus all three top Democratic hopefuls supported it during their primary fight
for the Democratic nomination.
Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in early
2007, Clinton said that, in dealing with the possibility of an Iranian nuclear
capability, "no option can be taken off the table." Obama and Edwards
also explicitly refused to rule out the use of force against Iran if it refused
to accept US demands to end its uranium enrichment program.
(Inter Press Service)