EDITORIAL: The diplomatic shift

The who-knew-what-when questions and the larger story

According to President Bush, “it wasn’t until last week that I was briefed on the NIE that is now public.” National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, was yesterday even more specific: “…the intelligence community finally came to the judgments that they came to on this issue Tuesday of last week. The President was briefed on Wednesday.” Was that before or after Israel’s foreign delegation in Washington had been briefed?

Haaretz today reports that the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate, “did not catch the Israeli leadership by surprise. During their visit to Washington last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were briefed on the report.” The Israelis arrived on Sunday and left on Wednesday evening.

So, given that the subtext for the Annapolis Conference was the configuration of an alliance aimed at containing Iran, are we to believe that just before Olmert left Washington (and just after Bush had been briefed), the Israeli prime minister was pulled aside by administration officials who said, “Oh, by the way, we’d like to share our latest intelligence findings on Iran’s nuclear weapons program – or lack thereof. We think you’ll find them interesting.” I suspect that didn’t happen. When Hadley says Bush was briefed on Wednesday, he’s probably being economical with the truth and might under cross-examination concede that “briefed” merely means being shown the final draft of a text with which Bush was already familiar. I’ll leave it to bloggers more tenacious than me to get to the bottom of this. It’s not that these aren’t interesting questions, but they risk generating more heat than light.

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The hyperfocus on a major news day in Washington has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the kinds of perception that were summed up today in the New York Times by the line, “Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here.”

There has actually been a build up to this watershed event, but because the build up didn’t fit the conventional wisdom, it has largely been unnoticed. The conventional wisdom has been that the administration — until yesterday — was on a fairly steady trajectory in the direction of a military confrontation with Iran. But over the last few months there have been a number of signs that inside the administration, the proponents of military action had in fact already lost the argument.

The resurgence of diplomacy has been quietly driven by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates’ low-profile approach has meant that his efforts have frequently escaped the attention of the media. Even so, to be neither the focus of cable news nor blogosphere banter, is not to be politically ineffective. The pivotal role Gates has played in shifting the administration’s approach is described in Newsweek:

Late this summer, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to the Middle East, to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. At each stop, high-ranking Arab officials anxiously asked him: was the United States preparing to attack Iran? Gates reassured them all that the United States had no plans to do so, at least any time soon. He wasn’t dramatic about it, says a Defense Department official who accompanied Gates on the trip but declined to be identified discussing secret talks. “He didn’t grab anyone’s arm and say, ‘I’ve got Cheney under control, wink, wink’,” says this official. But Gates was low-key, straightforward, steadying—calming, even soothing in a dry and matter-of-fact way. A little later, at the end of September, Gates met with the Democratic Senate Policy Committee (something his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, would never do). One of the senators nervously asked if the Bush administration was looking for a reason to bomb Tehran. “It would be a strategic calamity to attack Iran at this time,” Gates replied. Sen. Evan Bayh, who was at the meeting, told Newsweek: “You could almost feel the relief around the table. It was, ‘Well, I guess he’s not here just to repeat the party line.’ It was just such a breath of fresh air from Rumsfeld and the ‘my way or the highway’ attitude of others.”

While among Bush critics it has often been assumed that the so-called reality-based community only exists outside the administration, it seems clear that Gates belongs to this community and that while Bush and Cheney are unlikely to admit as much, it is under Gates’ tutelage that they are now willing to give diplomacy a chance. Cheney might remain a skeptic but the ball — at least for now — is out of his hands.

The time is now ripe for an initiative. Bush alluded to such a possibility today when he said, “There has been a moment during my presidency in which diplomacy provided a way forward for the Iranians. And our hope is we can get back on that path again.” He was harking back to 2003 but engaging in a bit of revisionism by neglecting to mention that it was he and the vice president who then refused to receive the diplomatic ball when it was being tossed in their direction by Iran. Is it now possible — even with Khatami partially out of the picture — that the administration is hinting that it might be open to another grand bargain?

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Comments

  1. Perhaps Bush knew as early as mid-October? That’s when his rhetoric noticeably changed and he began talking about keeping from Iran the “knowledge” in his famous war hawk line:
    “So I’ve told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

    After all, Cheney had been resisting releasing the NIE for months, and must have known what its contents were. Why else want to suppress it?

  2. Joseph Harris says:

    I believe it’s safe to assume the President knew things had changed in Iran many months ago. Really seems a silly thing to speculate on, of course he knew. If the president doesn’t get assessments on all important nations pretty much daily, somethings extremely wrong in that organization.