In the Arena

Disappointing Column

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David Brooks has been on a roll lately, column after column filled with smart, independent thinking. Not today. Using the guise of “realism,” Brooks essentially sings from the neoconservative hymnal on the problems the next President will face in dealing with Iran. Now, no one thinks this will be easy–for the reasons I described in my print column last week. But it is not impossible. Indeed, there was real cooperation between the U.S. and Iran when it came to removing the Taliban from power in 2001. Iran was, by all accounts, a positive force in the “six plus two” process that involved Afghanistan’s neighbors in the post-Taliban stabilization of that country. The Mullahs became somewhat less congenial after Bush identified them as part of his foolishly bombastic “Axis of Evil” in early 2002. But even then, there was a real opportunity for negotiations in the Spring of 2003, when the Iranians reached out and requested that negotiations begin (in large part because they were daunted by the astonishing U.S. military success in taking Baghdad).

Brooks says that the Iranian regime faces the choice of acting as a revolutionary jihadist power or a regional hegemonist power, but there’s no difference between those two “options” and that’s not the real choice here. The real choice is between being regional hegemonist power–running Hizballah in Lebanon, arming Hamas, covertly using its influence to control Iraq–and becoming a normal country, part of the international fabric of nations, which is what the Iranian people overwhelmingly want. The question is, how does the next President encourage Iran to choose the latter course? By threats and bluster, and the insistence on regime change–Bush’s way–or through a more nuanced, respectful posture, that includes carrots and sticks?

One way to get Iran to think twice about hegemony is to peel Syria away from its close, and uncomfortable–if you talk to Syrian officials–alliance with Iran. Brooks is just wrong about this:

You’ll spend hours, as the Bush administration has, wondering whether Syria’s Bashar al-Assad can be turned in a more Western direction. Nobody can make an educated guess about that because no outsider understands Assad’s mind.

The real why the Administration is “wondering” so much is that it foolishly decided to stop talking to Assad after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in early 2006. As one prominent Republican foreign policy expert told me, “It’s the stupidest [flaming] thing I’ve ever seen in American diplomacy.” Assad has sent signals far and wide, to all comers–including me, in a 2005 interview–that he wants to rejoin the community of nations.

In the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah, Syria sent several positive signs–first, it lifted all visa requirements for U.S. citizens trapped in Lebanon. Then, it contacted the State Department and offered to provide a motorcade of buses to evacuate U.S. citizens from Beirut and bring them to Damascus–a two-hour ride. There was no State Department response (indeed, the State Department never responded to my inquiries about this Syrian initiative). “Do you people really think that we want to be this close to the Iranians?” A prominent Syrian official asked me at the time. “We’re trying to send you a signal.”

The Bush Administration has been stone blind to signals from those the President, an international infant, considers to be bad guys. In fact, it is impossible to say just what sort of situation the next President will face until the Bush cancer is excised from the White House and a new team begins to explore the middle east for the diplomatic possibilities that may well have been ignored, quashed and generally stomped on by this sad, overmatched Administration.