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An Iranian Misadventure

This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
What to do about Iran is a genuinely difficult question. Neoconservatives tend to overstate the threat posed by the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, but the truth is bad enough. Sanctions seem unlikely to deter the Tehran regime, currently cushioned by sky-high oil revenues. Air strikes seem likely to produce deeply problematic political and military consequences, while remaining rather limited in their capacity to actually halt the Iranian program. Nobody quite knows what to do.

It's cliché to say it, but this is one of those problems with no good answers. Which is why some of the more ingenious minds on the right – Bill Kristol, Stanley Kurtz, and Victor Davis Hanson to note a few I read over the weekend – are gearing up to blame the Democrats for a sure-to-be-unsatisfactory outcome. As their theory goes, things would be better if mean ol' liberals hadn't been so insistent on not offering unconditional support to all and every foreign-policy initiative undertaken by the Bush administration.

If liberals have any intention of playing politics to win, it's absolutely vital to start making sure that when the broad public catches wind of the finger-pointing and recriminations, the fingers wind up pointing in the right direction – squarely at the face of George W. Bush.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the last time Democrats were actually in a position to make American foreign policy, this problem didn't even exist. Unlike Iraq or North Korea, the entire drama has played out during the George W. Bush era, all the decisions have been made by George W. Bush, no Democrats have been involved in any way, and everything Bush has done has worked out poorly. There are some ins-and-outs and complexities to the story, but the short version is that the White House has, turning Theodore Roosevelt's wise principles on their head, chosen to talk loudly without carrying a stick of any sort.

From the day the words "axis of evil" first passed through the president's lips, the administration has consistently and bizarrely followed a policy of implying that the United States has a long-term ambition of to overthrow the Tehran regime while doing everything in its power to make it impossible for us to actually accomplish this. Faced with unambiguous military threats and a medium-sized window of opportunity in which the threats cannot be carried out, Iranian policymakers are doing what anyone with a functioning brain would do: try to take advantage of the window to build the nuclear weapons that will eliminate any long-term American threat. The "charitable" explanation, if you can call it that, for the administration's behavior is that they're once again elevating domestic politics over national security and have been trying to gain partisan advantage over the Democrats. The uncharitable explanation is that they're just really, really, really dumb.

While the administration's big-picture policy seems designed to make a nuclear Iran as likely as possible, its small-picture policy seems designed to, well, make a nuclear Iran as likely as possible.

Immediately after 9-11 it was apparent that it would be good to change our energy policies so as to make it harder for oil-rich radicals to hold the world economy hostage. The administration has done nothing to change things.

Immediately after 9-11 it was apparent that the non-proliferation treaty contains large loopholes that it would be in the American interest to close. The Bush administration, irrationally averse to treaties and hard work alike, did nothing to change things.

Immediately after 9-11 it was apparent that it might be possible to achieve rapprochement with Iran, based on our cooperation against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Bush administration rejected this approach, hinting instead at regime change in Iran.

But while hinting darkly, the Bush administration implemented an invasion of Iraq that has massively strengthened rather than weakened Iran's hands. That this would be a likely consequence of invading Iraq was well understood by everyone who'd considered the issue. No less a figure than Dick Cheney observed years ago that precisely this fear helped dissuade Bush's father from pressing forward to Baghdad in 1991. The administration could have avoided this program by not invading. They didn't. They could have mitigated the problem either before or after the war by seeking a "grand bargain" with Iran based on common animosity toward Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein alike. They didn't. In early 2005, the elections in Iraq provided us with an opportunity to bring our military involvement in that country to a close on a high note. Instead, the administration chose to make an open-ended military commitment to a new Iraqi government dominated by a political party that's more friendly to Tehran than it is to Washington. Today, more than 100,000 American soldiers are still in Iraq, as tensions escalate with its neighbor, vulnerable to attack by Iranian agents who couldn't possibly reach them if they were at their home bases, deployed in order to fight on the pro-Iranian side of a civil war.

Needless to say, along the way the administration has also managed to wreck the credibility of American intelligence claims, making it essentially impossible to round up the support of world opinion for any sort of action. To make sanctions against Iran work, we need the cooperation of China. Meanwhile, the administration has financed its tax cuts so heavily with borrowing from the Bank of China that we have no leverage over Beijing. They've also made "spreading democracy around the world" – entailing, needless to say, the overthrow of the government of China – the alleged cornerstone of our grand strategy, naturally leaving the Chinese ill-disposed to cooperate with us. To top things off, in recent months they've taken to framing the Iranian nuclear problem in terms of its threat to Israel, which will make it impossible for any Muslim government in the world to publicly support anything we choose to do.

The responsibility for this baffling series of moves rests wholly and entirely with the White House. At every turn, the Iranian government has been moderately intelligent, doing what you would expect people in their position to do, and the American one has been idiotic. Now we have bad options and worse ones, and it's hard to say what the least-bad thing to do would be. Bush will have to try and work it out. Based on his track record, he'll almost certainly make the wrong choice. But even if he chooses wisely from here on out, things will be much worse than they could have been if he'd been smart from the beginning. It's time to start saying so.
By Matthew Yglesias
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved