Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Getting into the Iran Mess

In "Iran: The Threat," his latest piece for The New York Review, author Thomas Powers provides us with a terse statement of historical context that explains much of how the current Administration has made such a mess of foreign affairs, both diplomatic and military:

Sometime during the Clinton years a faction of the Republican Party in exile lost patience with the accepted way of conducting foreign relations. Talking, negotiating, proposing alternatives, cajoling allies with economic and military aid, taking conflicts to the United Nations, convening conferences, sitting on commissions and issuing, repeating, and underlining warnings—in short, all the other "options on the table"—came to be seen in certain Republican circles as time-wasting, irresolute, and futile—a pattern of weakness that invites defiance.

Powers' context may be further elaborated with the observation that his laundry list of "options" aligns very nicely with the principles that Dennis Ross articulated and discussed in his book, Statecraft: And How to Restore America's Standing in the World. Ross was, of course, one of the active agents during those "Clinton years," serving as a special Middle East coordinator, which was probably enough to make that Republican faction forget (or, more likely, ignore) the fact that he had also served in the State Department of the Bush I Administration as a director of policy planning.

However, as Powers continues his own discussion, it is clear that the Republican faction he is discussing in one that believed firmly that such matters as statecraft and policy planning were only for wimps:

The argument of the neoconservatives, stated in its nakedest form at the outset of the Bush administration, notes that the United States is the world's sole great power. We have a military capability that dwarfs all others. We need not defer to weak and corrupt governments that treat us with disdain.

It goes without saying that, as a foundation for such concepts as "statecraft" and "policy planning," the fundamental principle of understanding those with whom you must engage is also for wimps. The last time I explored this matter, I compared our current President to Pentheus in Euripides' play, The Bacchae; but perhaps it might be fairer to say that neoconservatism adopted Pentheus as their standard-bearer, forgetting (or, again, ignoring) Euripides' lesson of what happens to those who use power to enforce an ideology without taking due stock of their opposition. However, there is one important difference between George W. Bush and Pentheus. Pentheus could exercise his power directly; Bush must exercise power through our country's military, which means, at the very least, through the mediation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As Powers has observed, more and more of our most senior military leaders are feeling more and more skeptical about how this Administration would exercise power; and they are getting more and more vocal about that skepticism. This may not sway the ideological fixations of the Executive Branch, but perhaps it will have a more beneficial effect on both the general public and their elected representatives in the Legislative Branch.

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