Baker Strikes Again

james baker, former US Secretary of State AP

This column was written by Saul Singer.
If the Democrats have a bogeyman in American politics, it's James Baker. Many Democrats blame Republican super-fixer Baker for "stealing" the cliffhanger 2000 election from Al Gore by masterminding the Florida recount. So why are they letting him toss the election for them again?

The Democrats know they have a shot at competing with Republicans for a critical prize: the party that Americans believe will make them more secure. Democratic instincts, such as an aversion to the use of force and to confronting rogue regimes, seem to be squaring neatly with the current Iraq-driven American zeitgeist.

Yet there is a fly in the Democrats' ointment, and that is the situation with Iran. Iran is not really on the political radar screen now, but it surely will be in '08.

One scenario is that President George Bush launches a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites. There is no point in speculating on the politics of such a scenario now, because there are too many variables regarding the strength of Bush's case for action at the time, and the outcome of the operation.

The more relevant scenario for Democrats formulating their current stance is a continuation of the status quo: Iran's nuclear program forges ahead while sanctions marginally tighten, but not enough to force the regime to back down.

We must assume that as the U.S. election nears, Iran will either have been confronted militarily (by the U.S. or Israel) or that the threat from Iran is still on the rise. Even if the regime embarks on a last-minute peace offensive — perhaps offering a suspension of enrichment in exchange for negotiations — the sense of growing threat is unlikely to decrease much, and may even increase in response to Western vacillation.

In this context, the Democrats have a basic decision to make: Should they support the administration's approach toward Iran, or should they signal they want to go in a different direction, as they are doing on Iraq?

So far, the Democrats' short answer is: Both. Speaking to the Herzliya Conference last month, John Edwards said: "Let me be clear: Under no circumstances can Iran be allowed to have nuclear weapons. For years, the U.S. hasn't done enough to deal with what I have seen as a threat from Iran…To a large extent, the U.S. abdicated its responsibility to the Europeans. This was a mistake."

This tough statement, if anything, comes at the administration from the Right.

Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton said to AIPAC two weeks ago: "We cannot, we should not, we must not, permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons. And in dealing with this threat, as I have said for a very long time, no option can be taken off the table."

So far, no partisan daylight can be seen. But listen to Edwards just a few days later, in a February 2 interview with The American Prospect:
Q. Can we live with a nuclear Iran?

A. "I'm not ready to cross that bridge yet... When [Bush] uses this kind of language 'options are on the table,' he does it in a very threatening kind of way — with a country that he's not engaging with or making any serious diplomatic proposals to. I mean I think that he's just dead wrong about that."
How else should a military threat be made? What option does Edwards mean to leave on the table — a bouquet of flowers?

On the February 4 edition of "Meet the Press," Edwards was asked, "Would President Edwards allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons?" His response: "There's no answer to that question at this moment... We ought to negotiate directly with the Iranians, which has not been done...."
Q. But they may get one.

A. "I think we don't know, and you have to make a judgment as you go along."
Farther on, Edwards said the U.S. should "engage directly with Iran and Syria because both Iran and Syria have an interest in Iraq not going totally chaotic."

In just a few days, Edwards's supposedly unequivocal stance has turned to incoherent mush. Though Hillary is sticking with her "no nukes" position, she too is pushing for talks with Iran. In the same AIPAC speech, she said: "I have advocated engagement with our enemies and Israel's enemies because I want to understand better what we can do to defeat those who are aiming their hatred, their extremism, their weapons at us."

This makes about as much sense as the Baker-Hamilton-Edwards line that Iran and the U.S. share an interest in regional stability.

Now it emerges that it was the Saudis who buried Baker's idea of talking to Iran, arguing that "any U.S. deal that would strengthen Iran's hold over the Gulf region would be seen as a hostile act," according to a diplomat. How funny that idiocy can be confused with hostility, and how ironic that Baker, often thought of as a shill for the Saudis, would be upbraided for out-shilling them to such an extreme that even Saudi interests are threatened.

Yet the real mystery here is not Baker's behavior, but the Democrats'. Baker's hara-kiri is his problem, but how did he get the Democrats' top presidential candidates to introduce a possibly fatal weakness in their politically soft foreign-policy underbelly?

There is an alternative. The Democrats could suppress their instinct to differentiate themselves from Bush on every issue, and instead show that on Iran they can work together in the national interest. They can stick to their pro-talks position, but only for the purpose of ratifying a Libyan-style capitulation on nukes and terror, which can only happen after the Democrats have joined Bush in persuading Europe to impose draconian sanctions.

There is nothing wrong with talking to the mullahs once they have decided to capitulate. What's wrong is to expect Iran's defeat in the wake of Western failure to impose serious sanctions.

Why should the regime give up nukes if it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by building them?
By Saul Singer
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online
  • Arnie Seipel

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