Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Can We Bomb Them Yet, Dad?

WaPo's Michael Gerson sits in the back seat of the car, making faces at Obama's engagement policy and wondering when we're going to stop wasting time and get into another war or three.
The problem is not engagement itself -- which was, after all, attempted in various forms by the previous administration. The difficulty is that the Obama foreign policy team has often argued that the reason for tension and conflict with nations such as North Korea and Iran is a lack of adequate American engagement -- which is absurd, and which has raised absurdly high expectations.

During the 2008 campaign, for example, Obama adviser P.J. Crowley (now State Department spokesman) argued, "Hard-liners on both sides have dominated that relationship and made it very difficult for the United States and Iran to come together and have a serious conversation." But can the lack of a serious conversation with Iran -- or with North Korea -- now credibly be blamed on the previous administration? Obama's diplomatic hand has been extended for a while now. Fists remain clenched. This is not because some magical diplomatic words remain unspoken. It is because of the nature of oppressive regimes themselves.

Such regimes are often internally preoccupied. Precisely because they lack genuine legitimacy, they spend large amounts of time and effort maintaining their fragile authority, consolidating power and managing undemocratic transitions. North Korea confronts a succession crisis. Iran deals with growing dissent and clerical division. Both tend to make calculations based on internal power struggles, not some rational calculation of their external image and interests. They are so inwardly focused that they do not have, as Clinton said, "any capacity" to respond to engagement. It is questionable in these cases whether we currently have any serious negotiating partners at all.

And the inherent instability of oppressive regimes also leads them to tighten control by invoking threats from abroad -- particularly from the United States. Because anti-Americanism is a central commitment of North Korean and Iranian ideologies, any softening of this resentment requires a kind of voluntary regime change. Pyongyang and Tehran would need to find a new source of legitimacy -- a new prop for their power -- other than hatred for America. Not easy or likely.

A couple of observations:

First, Gerson is working off the prime neocon directive here, that Iran and North Korea are implacable enemies of the US and that the only solution is regime change. Anything else is a waste of time.

Second, it's been six months, and Gerson's already throwing in the towel on diplomacy. That's laughable, as we were told time and time again under Bush that the regime change we engineered in Iraq required "another six months" and that paradigm went on from 2004 until the present. We still need another year to withdraw our troops out of Iraq, for instance. Always. more time is needed for regime change when "unforseen consequences" appear. Engagement? Six months and it's dead, let's get back to belligerence.

Third, if you take Gerson's next-to-last sentence up there and replace the words "Pyongyang and Tehran" with "The Republican Party" and "hatred for America" with "hatred of Obama", you'd have an equally over-simplified picture of our own political system here as described by a cynical realpolitik observer from outside the United States.

So what does Gerson want to do since he has decided America's foreign policy has failed?

The Obama administration's public campaign of engaging enemies is headed toward an entirely unintended consequence. Eventually it will raise expectations for action. As the extended hand is slapped again and again, the goals of North Korea and Iran will be fully revealed and the cost to American credibility will rise. Already the administration has given Iran a September deadline to respond to the offer of talks and has threatened "crippling action" if Iran achieves nuclear capabilities. Congress is preparing sanctions on Iranian refined petroleum, which would escalate tensions significantly.

This is the paradox of the Obama doctrine. By attempting to engage North Korea and Iran so visibly, Obama is dramatically exposing the limits of engagement -- and building the case for confrontation.

Got that?

Gerson declares engagement has failed, the only logical solution left is military confrontation, when are we going to attack them already? It's the same song the neocons have been playing since 2004...Iraq's done, time to move to Iran.

What kind of confrontation can we afford militarily and economically right now? Besides, Gerson is actually right when he says that Iran and North Korea are coming apart themselves, Tehran through its decreasing internal credibility and Pyongyang with Kim Jong-Il's pancreatic cancer. Exactly what should we do militarily that won't galvanize the remaining populace to use the same "death to America" card to prop up the failing regimes now or the replacement governments in the future?

Have we already forgotten the lessons of 1979, or in fact the last decade when it comes to the issue of the law of unintended consequences? How many unstable, hostile regimes do we need to handle right now? How many of them will we make worse by confronting them militarily? It's not the fading, failing regimes we're trying to deal with, but their eventual replacements. One would think getting in nice with the new management would be the smart thing to do. I don't give either regime much time at this point.

Let them fail under their own sins. Then let us offer them a hand to pull them up out of the rubble.

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