In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The “redirection,” as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration’s perspective, the most profound—and unintended—strategic consequence of the Iraq war is the empowerment of Iran. Its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made defiant pronouncements about the destruction of Israel and his country’s right to pursue its nuclear program, and last week its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television that “realities in the region show that the arrogant front, headed by the U.S. and its allies, will be the principal loser in the region.”
One of the great challenges facing America in the post-Bush era will be whether the credibility loss we've suffered globally will be limited to Bush, or will permanently hamper our efforts aboard.
The LA Times has a front page story today that once again questions the credibility of the American government on a major issue of the day:
VIENNA — Although international concern is growing about Iran's nuclear program and its regional ambitions, diplomats here say most U.S. intelligence shared with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has proved inaccurate and none has led to significant discoveries inside Iran.
The officials said the CIA and other Western spy services had provided sensitive information to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency at least since 2002, when Iran's long-secret nuclear program was exposed. But none of the tips about supposed secret weapons sites provided clear evidence that the Islamic Republic was developing illicit weapons.
"Since 2002, pretty much all the intelligence that's come to us has proved to be wrong," a senior diplomat at the IAEA said. Another official here described the agency's intelligence stream as "very cold now" because "so little panned out."
The reliability of U.S. information and assessments on Iran is increasingly at issue as the Bush administration confronts the emerging regional power on several fronts: its expanding nuclear effort, its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq and its backing of Middle East militant groups.
The CIA still faces harsh criticism for its prewar intelligence errors on Iraq. No one here argues that U.S. intelligence officials have fallen this time for crudely forged documents or pushed shoddy analysis. IAEA officials, who openly challenged U.S. assessments that Saddam Hussein was developing a nuclear bomb, say the Americans are much more cautious in assessing Iran.
American officials privately acknowledge that much of their evidence on Iran's nuclear plans and programs remains ambiguous, fragmented and difficult to prove.
Governor Bill Richardson, one of America's most experienced diplomats, weighs in today with a thoughtful op-ed on Iran in the Washington Post:
The recent tentative agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program illustrates how diplomacy can work even with the most unsavory of regimes. Unfortunately, it took the Bush administration more than six years to commit to diplomacy. During that needless delay North Korea developed and tested nuclear weapons -- weapons its leaders still have not agreed to dismantle. Had we engaged the North Koreans earlier, instead of calling them "evil" and talking about "regime change," we might have prevented them from going nuclear. We could have, and should have, negotiated a better agreement, and sooner.
As the International Atomic Energy Agency just confirmed, Iran has once again defied the international community and is moving forward with its nuclear program, yet the Bush administration seems committed to repeating the mistakes it made with North Korea. Rather than directly engaging the Iranians about their nuclear program, President Bush refuses to talk, except to make threats. He has moved ships to the Persian Gulf region and claims, with scant evidence, that Iran is helping Iraqi insurgents kill Americans. This is not a strategy for peace. It is a strategy for war -- a war that Congress has not authorized. Most of our allies, and most Americans, don't believe this president, who has repeatedly cried wolf.
Saber-rattling is not a good way to get the Iranians to cooperate. But it is a good way to start a new war -- a war that would be a disaster for the Middle East, for the United States and for the world. A war that, furthermore, would destroy what little remains of U.S. credibility in the community of nations.
A better approach would be for the United States to engage directly with the Iranians and to lead a global diplomatic offensive to prevent them from building nuclear weapons. We need tough, direct negotiations, not just with Iran but also with our allies, especially Russia, to get them to support us in presenting Iran with credible carrots and sticks.
Having already made a name for herself for her flirtatious behavior at the State of the Union, Congresswoman Michele Bachman (R-MN) is now claiming that there is a secret agreement to partition Iraq. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has more:
“Iran is the trouble maker, trying to tip over apple carts all over Baghdad right now because they want America to pull out. And do you know why? It’s because they’ve already decided that they’re going to partition Iraq.
And half of Iraq, the western, northern portion of Iraq, is going to be called…. the Iraq State of Islam, something like that. And I’m sorry, I don’t have the official name, but it’s meant to be the training ground for the terrorists. There’s already an agreement made.
They are going to get half of Iraq and that is going to be a terrorist safe haven zone where they can go ahead and bring about more terrorist attacks in the Middle East region and then to come against the United States because we are their avowed enemy.”
Bachmann did not say how she knew about this plan,nor with whom Iran has made this deal.
The interview, with St. Cloud Times reporter Lawrence Schumacher, is available in its entirety as a podcast.
The Post reports this morning on some new, interesting thinking by Senator Biden and other Senate Democrats to revisit the original Congressional authorization of our war in Iraq.
While I think there is a lot of merit in this emerging approach, I am not convinced that describing what is happening in Iraq as a "civil war," or "sectarian violence" is the most accurate way to be describing the complexity of what is happening there today. For example, the importance of rising regional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites - a major new dynamic in the Middle East, and one that I'm not convinced we have come to terms with yet - is captured yet again in this story in the Times.
The Times also features an op-ed today by Abbas Milani that lays out a very plausible path forward for our policy towards Iran. It concludes with this strong graph:
War and peace with Iran are both possible today. With prudence, backed by power but guided by the wisdom to recognize the new signals coming from Tehran, the United States can today achieve a principled solution to the nuclear crisis. Congress, vigilant American citizens and a resolute policy from America’s European allies can ensure that this principled peace is given a chance.
Wherever we go from here, I am proud of those leaders in both parties who have not accepted the failed approach of the Administration, and working, diligently, to chart a better course for our policy in the Middle East.
For the last several years, with the economy growing more than 3 percent a year, job creation has been slow and most people’s wages and incomes have hardly gained at all. So, what can we expect now, with the overall economy slowing down? Industrial production is falling, so business investment is likely to lag; retail sales are flat, so consumer demand and spending will also slow; and home construction has plummeted. It looks like we’re in for a spell of much slower overall growth -- 1.5 to 2 percent growth is a good guess. And that will mean even slower job gains and, in all likelihood, lower real incomes for average families. What does the administration propose to do about it? In a word, nothing.
A second shoe is also dropping: Inflation is up, even with energy prices generally behaving themselves. A lot of it is fast-rising health-care costs, which again this administration has ignored for six years. Some of it is the impact of last year’s higher energy prices now making their way through the economy – for which, again, this administration has no answer. Some of it is food prices, driven up by bad weather and the unintended effect of government-directed demand for ethanol, which drives up the price of corn that goes into animal feeds and sweeteners, as well as the price of other gains as farm businesses shift from them to corn. And some of it is higher import prices from last year’s weakening dollar.
The upshot of this inflation that even as growth slows, the Fed can’t cut interest rates – which means no relief from the slowing growth.
If the administration won’t take this seriously, Congress can do so. Let’s not wait for the next election to see those who would be president submit real plans to contain rising health care costs, reduce our economy’s fossil-fuel dependence, and increase opportunities for average workers to improve their IT skills.
From nationally syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman:
The Perils of Cyberbaggage Posted on Feb 21, 2007 By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—I suppose you could describe these two women as cybertrailblazers. But their cybertrails, alas, followed them from a checkered past, not to the glorious future. And the blaze they created was a bit more like a flameout.
Bloggers Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan came in from the heady environment of the blogosphere to the more staid climate of presidential politics, to work for John Edwards.
The political cyberspace where they were known as Pandagon and Shakespeare’s Sister is usually described with euphemisms such as raucous and freewheeling. On that terrain, no weasel wordsmiths need apply. You win attention with controversy and get hits with an over-the-top persona and a vivid vocabulary. A campaign, on the other hand, no matter how much it wants netroots, is, well, controversy-averse.
Marcotte’s blog style was described by Time magazine as “issues-based but not above snark and a healthy dose of profanity.” McEwan describes herself as a “firebrand” opponent of theocracy: “I am, however, vulgar. And I am trash-talking.”
I doubt these descriptions were in their job interviews with the Edwards campaign, but it didn’t take long for a conservative watchdog to glean through the 24/7 postings of the two bloggers and come up with the sort of sound bites that leave teeth marks on a campaign. There was McEwan’s description of Bush’s “wingnut Christofascist base.” There was Marcotte’s slam on the Catholic prohibition on birth control as a way to force women to “bear more tithing Catholics.” Within days, the two women resigned from the campaign and returned to the briar patch of their blogs.
This may be the first certifiable staff flameout of the 2008 campaign. But it’s also about a clash between two cultures and two languages.
We are living now in both the blogosphere and the mainstream. One is ironic and edgy, challenging and partisan. The other is cautious and modulated. Marcotte’s and McEwan’s fate raises the question about whether it’s possible to move from the world of AnkleBitingPundits to presidential politics without every word sticking to your shoe.
We already know that in the digital world, the past is never past. As Simon Rosenberg of NDN, a progressive advocacy group bridging these two worlds, says, “All of us are going to be living every moment of our past lives. People are living with things they did and said in their youths in a way they never did before.”
President Bush once famously said, “When I was young, I did a lot of foolish things.” Bill Clinton said he smoked marijuana but didn’t inhale. Barack Obama admitted doing “a little blow.” But we didn’t have postings of the partying George, the smoking Bill or the snorting Barack.
These days politicians are one “macaca” away from videotaped disaster. If you don’t believe it, see Rudy Giuliani as a drag queen flirting with Donald Trump on YouTube.
Meanwhile, the cybertrail doesn’t just track bloggers. Five million college students use Facebook. When Bob Corker was running for the Senate, voters in Tennessee were treated to his daughter kissing a girl on Facebook. California Rep. Brian Bilbray’s underage daughter Briana posted a picture of herself on MySpace with a cooler of Miller High Life.
Postings come down but never really disappear. They sit, like land mines, in the digital archives.
Last year, a college administrator in Boston sent out a campuswide warning: “Digital Dirt May Hurt.” But how many students working on their grade point average think that an employer may also be checking their booty calls and keg parties? Will recruiters get the joke when they see Bill Frist’s son Jonathan in Facebook claiming membership in a group where there were “No Jews Allowed. Just Kidding. No seriously’’?
“The culture is going to be confronting this,” says Rosenberg. “Can you have youthful indiscretions? Can you evolve, grow up? In recent years the culture has been more forgiving of youthful indiscretions. Will it continue?’’ Which culture will decide?
I have no fear for Shakespeare’s Sister or Pandagon, who are both up and writing with great energy. But as Marcotte has written, “even the more even-keeled bloggers are likely to have something in their archives that could be taken out of context and bandied about on the cable news networks.” It will be a loss if only the most buttoned-up bloggers can make the transition from uncompromising critic to campaign staff or even candidate.
As for young people who are increasingly on the Internet side of this cultural divide? Parents, it’s 11 p.m. Do you know where on the Internet your children are—and what they are doing to mess up their résumé? Follow the cybertrail.
NDN is pleased to announce that our Annual Meeting will be held May 21-22, 2007 at the Capitol Hilton here in Washington, DC. We'll be sharing more details with you soon. For now, please mark the dates on your calendar and we hope to see you in May.
SAVE THE DATE NDN Annual Meeting Capitol Hilton 1001 16th Street, NW May 21-22, 2007 Washington, DC
You can stay up to date on the annual meeting by visiting our website. If you have any ideas/suggestions on who we should invite to speak, please feel free to leave a comment here on the blog.