Friday, June 29, 2007

The Latest New Version of Hitler/Munich/Whatever

Those people beating the drums for military action need to tell us if the model for US policy with Iran should be Cuba or Libya. We have and have had strikingly different policies toward two similarly-odious regimes, but in one case, we've had essentially no effect for decades and in the other, we held our nose and actually made progress. The difference is the domestic politics; there isn't much of a swing Libyan-American voting block in a key state with a lot of electoral votes. It was James Taranto who gets credit for saying that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as Farsi.

I bring this up, for those of you who know my past columns on this topic, in a week when 164 GOP members of Congress voted against the foreign operations appropriations bill, the bill that provides foreign aid to Israel, because the bill also overturns the Bush administration's "Mexico City" policy against supporting international family planning--and AIPAC has said absolutely nothing. Apparently, AIPAC is all about support of Israel, unless condoms are involved. Then, not so much.

East Valley Tribune, June 24, 2007

This week's problem doesn't affect Republicans, who believe that if another country doesn't do what we want, then attack 'em. Well, we first ask politely (that's "diplomacy"), but if they don't obey, it's bombs away.

For people who confuse the real world with the TV show 24 (like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia), the military option is never "off the table." "Pounding the [bleep] out of whatever country you last mentioned" doesn't always work, but it's attractive to people who think the only problem with torture is that the U.S. doesn't do enough of it. Short and -- if you personally don't have to suffer the consequences -- sweet.

Democratic candidates face a more complex calculation. The majority of Americans, and vast majority of Democratic primary voters, recognize that torture and preemptive war haven't worked. But Democrats have to tread carefully in noting the emperor's taste in clothes.

It's a pincers movement, because in addition to GOP bluster, there also are those Democrats who supported the Iraq war. They keep demanding that Democratic presidential candidates not let disgust with the Bush administration turn progressives away from new foreign adventures.

You expect the GOP soundbites, but the "liberal hawk" argument is much more frustrating. It's a neat rhetorical trick, an attempt by people who were so wrong on Iraq to shift the burden to those who got Iraq right. It also distracts the reader from the fact that the liberal hawks really don't know what's right; they don't want to actually endorse bombing Iran, but they simply can't bear saying that we shouldn't bomb Iran.

In politics today, you can be an out-and-out warmonger (Quick! Name one country John McCain won't attack!), but people who weigh evidence and conclude that military action would do more harm than good in Iran are "extremists." Worse, if you oppose military action, you're "blinded by Bush hatred" but the liberal hawks can ignore that for the next 19 months, any attack on Iran will be managed by those wonderful people doing oh-so-well with our existing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nice trick, that. Conclude war not justified? Blinded by Bush hatred. Endorse war? Get to pretend that the current administration is suddenly competent to wage three separate Asian land wars. Who's blind here?

Who doesn't want to be "robust" and "forceful," much less "manly?" And some argue we can't rule out force for effective diplomacy. We'll need to bluff the military option in our negotiations.

But there are two problems with the "I don't really want war but won't rule it out" approach. The first is that it's an argument better suited for U.S. domestic politics than for making progress in reining in Iran. We like threatening other countries. Democratic politicians can't use cost-benefit analysis on war; people would think (because the pundits would tell them) that even telling the truth is no justification for seeming "soft" or "weak."

Moreover, people who have studied the military options and Iranian society, like Ray Takeyh and Vali Nasr (Council on Foreign Relations), Joseph Cirincione (formerly with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Kenneth Pollack (Brookings Institution), Flynt Leverett, and author James Fallows, all conclude that attacking Iran won't work militarily, and would rally Iranians around their unpopular regime.

The second problem is that people thinking about these issues who aren't running for office, and who aren't U.S. diplomats who may need the occasional bluff, shouldn't be narrowing the field of debate. When the time comes to authorize military action, it's unlikely that cooler heads suddenly prevail after months of insisting that we "may" need to attack at some point. Even a president with a 29 percent approval rating gets to go on TV and say we've reached that point.

Talk about "keeping military action on the table" makes sense in theory, but so long as Vice President Cheney is around, it makes as much sense as lecturing teenage male Maxim readers that they shouldn't overdo worthless politeness and formality. Sure, that could be correct, but in practice? That's most definitely not the problem.

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