Petraeus: diplomacy, not force, with Iran

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, President Bush’s nominee to lead U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, supports continued U.S. engagement with international and regional partners to find the right mix of diplomatic, economic and military leverage to address the challenges posed by Iran.

In written answers to questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he will testify today, Petraeus said the possibility of military action against Iran should be retained as a “last resort.” But he said the United States “should make every effort to engage by use of the whole of government, developing further leverage rather than simply targeting discrete threats.”

Petraeus’s views echoed those expressed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who this month said that talks with Iran could be useful if the right combination of incentives and pressures could be developed. [complete article]

Straw-man diplomacy

On the Friday before the 2004 presidential election, Osama bin Laden released a videotape slamming George W. Bush, which more than a few people took as a tacit endorsement of John Kerry. The CIA saw it differently, though. According to Ron Suskind’s fine book, The One Percent Doctrine, Deputy Director John McLaughlin said, “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President.” It seemed obvious to the top CIA analysts that bin Laden wanted to keep Bush — who had let the terrorists off the hook in Afghanistan and launched the war in Iraq, a great recruiting tool for al-Qaeda — in power.

Which raises the question: Who are the bad guys rooting for in 2008? John McCain would have you believe the answer is clear. Barack Obama wants to meet with the leaders of enemy states, especially Iran, “which would increase their prestige,” McCain says, and convey the impression of American weakness. To punctuate the point, McCain persistently barks that Obama wants to meet with the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a flagrant anti-Semite but a relatively powerless figurehead. Obama did say during a debate last summer that he would meet with foreign leaders without preconditions. “He shorthanded the answer,” Senator Joe Biden recently said. Ever since, Obama has been creatively fuzzy when asked directly if he would meet with Ahmadinejad — and he has begun to point out that the real leaders of Iran are the clerics led by the Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who controls Iran’s foreign policy and its nuclear program. Obama has also been explicit about the need to start with lower-level talks, a presidential summit coming only if there were progress in those negotiations. In his previous, straight-talking incarnation, McCain would have allowed Obama the modifications to his shorthand answer and debated the issue on the merits. Not this year.

When I asked McCain on May 19 why he kept linking Obama to Ahmadinejad, he said that Ahmadinejad represents Iran at the U.N., which is a fair point, and that the “average American” thinks he’s the leader of Iran, which he isn’t. Indeed, it could be argued that McCain’s Ahmadinejad obsession “increases the prestige” of a relatively powerless loudmouth for domestic political gain. Linking Obama to the world’s most famous anti-Semite certainly doesn’t hurt McCain among Jewish retirees in Florida, a swing state. In any case, don’t be surprised if Ahmadinejad pulls a bin Laden and “denounces” McCain just before the election this year.

Why? Because the last thing Iran’s leaders want is an American President who doesn’t play the role of the Great Satan. They need the mirage of an implacable, saber-rattling foe to distract their population from the utter incompetence of their government. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — The question about whether President Obama should or shouldn’t be willing to meet President Ahmadinejad is in large part a product of the trivialization of politics as practiced by George Bush.

Because Bush liked to make trite remarks like, “I was able to get a sense of his soul,” after meeting Vladamir Putin, and because Bush liked to suggest that a handshake could be worth as much as a treaty, we’ve been led to entertain the comic book notion that once the big guys get along then everything else can be worked out.

If the US engages Iran, the presidential photo-op will most likely come only after a lion’s share of the serious work has already been done. The real question is this: Is the United States ready to swallow its pride and engage with representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran, thereby implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of the Islamic state? In other words, thirty years after the Shah’s ouster, is America able to come to terms with the fact that it no longer has any say in how Iran is governed?

If and when representatives of the two governments meet, initially the only issue each side should be trying to determine about the other, is whether these particular representatives have been duly empowered to speak for their government. This, perhaps more than anything else, is what the US government will have difficulty figuring out.

Joe Klein says, “the last thing Iran’s leaders want is an American President who doesn’t play the role of the Great Satan,” but Klein should know better than to talk about what “Iran’s leaders want” — as though there was a clear consensus. The Great Satan works well for Ahmadinejad but the same cannot be said of his strongest political adversary, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Indeed, whoever happens to wield the most political power in Iran by late 2009, their posture towards the United States is clearly going to be strongly influenced by how many thousand American troops remain in Iraq and how many US warships are cruising the Gulf.

If we can get past the comic book language and stop using the phrase, “talking to the enemy,” we might then be able to discuss the real but less catchy issue: diplomatic engagement with unfriendly states.

It really should be a non-issue. If diplomats aren’t employed to engage unfriendly states, what on earth is the function of diplomacy? Just to arrange cocktail parties for visiting dignitaries?

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