December 13, 2007
The NIE, Iran, presidential politics and the Jews
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Intimidated Democrats have always depended on external information like the NIE for the confidence to challenge Bush in the global arena. Democrats have every right to use this teachable moment about the administration's lack of credibility.
Make no mistake, though. This is also about the deceptions that led to the Iraq War and that have never been fully aired. It is also about a fear among Democrats and within the intelligence and military communities that the president might launch an attack on Iran without any consideration of the consequences.
Andrew Lachman addressed the need for progressives to avoid being naïve about Iran in an article a month ago in these pages ("Progressives Should Join Jews on Iran Strategy," Nov. 11). His advice that progressives should reach out to the Jewish community, acknowledging the dangers of nuclear proliferation and terrorism and supporting sanctions, is even more timely now.
The NIE casts grave doubt on arguments that call for war with Iran now. But every Democratic candidate should consider the following scenario, which somebody ought to ask at the next debate: "What if you are inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009, and the next day, Iran announces that it has constructed a nuclear weapon. What would be your response?"
Every candidate must be able to answer that question now. Will you accept a nuclear-armed Iran, and if not, what would you do about it? What if diplomacy fails to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Can you make a case for strategic ambiguity along the lines of our policy regarding a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?
You'd better have a serious answer.
If her Democratic rivals attack N.Y. Sen Hillary Clinton's vote for a congressional resolution on Iran that seemed to empower Bush's Iran policy and argue that diplomacy is the only way to go, they may have a hard time answering the questions above.
Democrats can say, "The best approach now is caution. We do not know what Iran has or what it intends. We have a credible intelligence estimate, and it's time for the president and vice president to stop popping off. We know war is off the table for now. We should talk with our adversaries, and Iran is still our adversary. We should therefore begin direct talks with Iran. But we are not ready to assume the best about Iran's intentions. And we must send the message that a nuclear Iran would be an urgent matter."
While this approach may hurt a candidate with the Democratic base, it would make him or her a better candidate and president. It would reassure Israel that American domestic politics have not left Israel out on a limb. It would also assure America's allies in the Mideast that the United States is not executing a complete 180-degree turn on Iran, a nation whose expansive ambitions have alarmed its neighbors.
America should constructively engage Iran, because that is the only thing that threatens the rule of the mullahs. American culture, in the name of a better-liked and more credible America, will be a more subversive force in Tehran than an isolated American leadership.
This may not be the best time to talk exclusively about diplomacy while Iran crows at America's expense. If Democrats want to run our foreign policy in 2009, they need to remember John F. Kennedy's words: "We must never negotiate out of fear. But we must never fear to negotiate."
The NIE is the beginning, not the end, of the real debate on Iran. Until now, it's been reason against the administration's hype. Now it can be reason vs. reason, evidence vs. evidence. Israel and its supporters will have their say and their chance to make their case. They can no longer hope that Bush and Cheney will take action, regardless of the facts.
By forcing into public view, at great personal risk, the first serious attempt by our government to publicly address what is known about Iran's nuclear program, the American intelligence community has done a public service. The immediate danger of an ill-advised war is past, but the decision about what to do about Iran is still an urgent work in progress.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.
1 | 2