Sunday, June 04, 2006

Read My Flips

(This piece is a continuation of thoughts I posted Friday over on guy2k.)

At first, I could not help but laugh. David Sanger, writing last week in the New York Times, told of a recent White House confab where Vice President Cheney was initially opposed to any diplomatic warming toward Iran:

"Cheney was dead set against it," said one former official who sat in many of those meetings. "At its heart, this was an argument about whether you could isolate the Iranians enough to force some kind of regime change." But three officials who were involved in the most recent iteration of that debate said Mr. Cheney and others stepped aside — perhaps because they read Mr. Bush's body language, or perhaps because they believed Iran would scuttle the effort by insisting that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gives it the right to develop nuclear fuel. The United States insists that Iran gave up that right by deceiving inspectors for 18 years.

What’s so funny? The image of administration officials trying to read the President’s “body language” reminded me so very much of Bush 41’s famous flip-flop. The 1988 “Read my lips: no new taxes” became “Read my hips” to many a comic and critic after GHWB agreed to a budget deal in 1990 that did indeed raise taxes. The inherent warning was clear in the joke: “Don’t listen to what I say, watch what I do.”

And that’s the lesson that makes all of the hoopla over Bush 43’s supposed Iran flip-flop even more funny than the image of Vice President Cankles playing twister with Lord Smirksalot. . . but that’s funny-strange, not funny-ha-ha.

As that former official said above, “At its heart, this was an argument about whether you could isolate the Iranians enough to force some kind of regime change.” Really? Because if that’s so, that doesn’t really seem like much of a change in administration policy—certainly not a flip-flop. If there are any doubts about this (any wiggle room—get it?), look no further than the next paragraph in the Times article:

In the end, said one former official who has kept close tabs on the debate, "it came down to convincing Cheney and others that if we are going to confront Iran, we first have to check off the box" of trying talks.

“Check off the box”—does that sound like a sincere attempt at diplomacy (verbal diplomacy, not gunboat diplomacy)? It sounds to me like this “policy shift” is more like the pro-forma claptrap the administration was mouthing during the run-up to the Iraqi incursion. In fact, many administration officials categorize this opening as “a test” to see if Iran wants engagement more than a bomb, and Bush and Secretary of State Rice have made it clear that this is a limited time offer. Again, does that sound like diplomacy, or a Potemkin diplomacy designed to collapse before US battleships set sail for the Strait of Hormuz?

Need more evidence? Perhaps we should read more lips. (Oh, look! This lip has a big, bushy mustache!) UN Ambassador John Bolton was asked last week on CNN if, as far as President Bush saw it, unilateral military action was still on the table:

That’s why he says no option is taken off the table. But it’s also why he has, the President, has reached out [to] President Putin and other leaders in the past couple of days to say, “We’re making a significant step here,” that will be criticized by many of the president’s staunchest supporters here at home. But he’s taking this step to show strength and American leadership and to say he’s willing to do something that may be unpopular even with some of his supporters, to remove all excuses from Iran and its supporters to say, “We went the extra mile. We gave Iran really, this last chance to show that they are serious when they say they don’t want nuclear weapons.” This is put or shut up time for Iran.

Showing other world leaders that he is willing to do “something” while telling Iran “put up or shut up.” Again, I fail to see real diplomacy here.

Meanwhile, the administration’s unofficial backchannel, AKA the Wall Street Journal editorial page, argues that increased sanctions and an international trade embargo are the surest way to Iranian “regime change.”

As delusional as that theory is, when combined with the words and actions of Bush, Rice, Bolton, et al., it paints a very full picture of the administration’s flipless flip-flop. Words, posturing, empty gestures, and threats, all choreographed to show the world that there is no getting along with the current Iranian leadership. While stating a desire to end Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, the White House “policy” (strategy, really) is designed to “prove” that there is no changing the Iranian nuclear program without changing the Iranian government.

The Iranian government, however, has a different idea. Proving he can play diplomacy with the big boys, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called up UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and said he’d be happy to talk if the UN would guarantee Iran’s right to use nuclear energy. Ahmadinejad likes to remind the world that as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is allowed to pursue atomic energy for peaceful purposes. That well might be a lot of posturing on Ahmadinejad’s part, but it seems to put the ball back in Bush’s court.

Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, says that both sides’ objectives—Iran’s desire for a few A-bombs and the Bush Administration’s desire to destabilize the Iranian government—are in the way of any real negotiations.

. . . unless both sides take a few more steps—unless they both change their attitudes and their goals—the overtures will amount to nothing.

Kaplan is probably right, but what seems more evident to me is that if the Bush Administration hasn’t changed its goals then it hasn’t changed its mind. Its “new” policy is a flip-flop designed to flop. . . if it’s a flip-flop at all.

(t.o.t.h. to Jerome a Paris for the WSJ OpEd)


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