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ICG Risk Blog - [ Demeanor aside, it's hard to imagine Gates being less than incendiary in regards to Iran ]

Demeanor aside, it's hard to imagine Gates being less than incendiary in regards to Iran


A foundation piece for a forthcoming item on the less than monolithic Iranian bogeyman, this note deals with Robert Gates' policy leanings towards Iran.

While I would not go so far as McMahon's Resetting U.S. Policy in the Middle East in saying that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) report is creating "an intense round of consultations" within the administration, I do agree that Bush43 is "hearing from top advisers and Iraqi leaders that the path to this goal involves everything from "surging" U.S. military forces into the country to massive increases in reconstruction aid to turning over large areas of control to Iraqi forces" but in the absence of extreme outside drivers expect changes "to be tactical rather than tectonic." If that conclusion is correct, I expect the regional situation in Iraq and Iran to deteriorate for the administration.

With glib conclusions flying, I recommend Jay Rosen's Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop to quantify the administration's resistance to outside stimuli. A "press critic, an observer of journalism’s habits," Rosen drew off Ron Suskind's Without a Doubt: Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush which has been called an "intellectual scoop" or what I would call pattern detection from the parts:

Suskind was not talking about an age old conflict between realists and idealists, the sort of story line that can be re-cycled for every administration. It wasn’t the ideologues against the pragmatists, either. He was telling us that reality-based policy-making—and the mechanisms for it—had gotten dumped. A different pattern had appeared under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. The normal checks and balances had been overcome, so that executive power could flow more freely. Reduced deliberation, oversight, fact-finding, and field reporting were different elements of an emerging political style. Suskind, I felt, got to the essence of it with his phrase, the "retreat from empiricism."

Rosen believes that Suskind's interview with "a senior adviser to Bush" was seminal:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality."... "We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Rosen describes this as "Action vs. behavior":

The alternative to facts on the ground is to act, regardless of the facts on the ground. When you act you make new facts. You clear new ground. And when you roll over or roll back the people who have a duty to report the situation as it is—people in the press, the military, the bureaucracy, your own cabinet, or right down the hall—then right there you have demonstrated your might...

The contrast I would draw is between the actions of Bush, a political innovator, and the behavior of previous presidents, Republican and Democrat. (The distinction between action and behavior is originally Hannah Arendt’s.) In everything bearing on national security, the Bush Government has been committed to action first, to making the world (including the map of the Middle East) anew, to a kind of audacity in the use of American power. It simply does not behave as previous governments have behaved when presented with the tools of the presidency, which includes the media, and the greatest public address system in the world: the White House podium and backdrop.

While I believe this analysis has merit to POTUS and newer members of the White House, I think that it does a disservice to VPOTUS as it does not fully explain his position, bureaucratic mastery and defense of the executive branch and its privilege at the expense of congress. See Cheney: an extraordinary Vice President for a deeper dive.

Also outside the scope of this note is Rosen's observations as to how the administration discredited the press in ways that "the press has not fully appreciated." Rosen's suggestions on things that "the press have done differently" is recommended.

Robert Gates is a new outside stimulus; many are wondering how he will respond to external events and to administration figures such as Cheney. I noted in Implications of Gates I and Gates II at CIA on Gates as SecDef:

Gates has been "privately critical of the administration’s failure to execute its military and political plans for Iraq, and he has spent the last six months quietly debating new approaches to the war, as a member of the Iraq Study Group." Although Gates left ISG upon his nomination as SecDef, I find it hard to believe that ISG will present recommendations at odds with Gates' thinking. Co-chaired by Brzezinski and Gates in 2004, Iran: Time for a New Approach offered a then refreshing approach to negotiating with Iran, suggestions that have yet to be implemented. Gates noted that, "One of our recommendations is that the U.S. government lift its ban in terms of nongovernmental organizations being able to operate in Iran… Greater interaction between Iranians and the rest of the world sets the stage for the kind of internal change that we all hope will happen there."

McMahon believes that the substantive Middle East issues up for discussion in the wake of the ISG report are Iraqi security, Iraq’s economy, Iraq’s politics, Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran and Syria.

I thought it useful to return to the 2004 Iran: Time for a New Approach co-chaired by Brzezinski and Gates, as if Gates remains true to its vision, he will clash with both Bush43 and Cheney. Change will have to "tectonic" unless Gates departs prematurely. From Iran: Time for a New Approach:

The United States’ long lack of direct contact with, and presence in, Iran drastically impedes its understanding of Iran’s domestic, as well as regional, dynamics. In turn, this reduces Washington’s influence across the Middle East in ways that are manifestly harmful to its ultimate interests. Direct dialogue approached candidly and without restrictions on issues of mutual concern would serve Iran’s interests. And establishing connections with Iranian society would directly benefit U.S. national objectives of enhancing the stability and security of this critical region.

Dialogue between the United States and Iran need not await absolute harmony between the two governments. Throughout history, Washington has maintained cordial and constructive relations with regimes whose policies and philosophies have differed significantly from its own, including, above all, in its relationship with the Soviet Union. By its very definition, diplomacy seeks to address issues between nations, and so it would be unwise (and unrealistic) to defer contact with Tehran until all differences between the two governments have evaporated…

[We] advocate that Washington propose a compartmentalized process of dialogue, confidence building, and incremental engagement. The United States should identify the discrete set of issues on which critical U.S. and Iranian interests converge and must be prepared to try to make progress along separate tracks, even while considerable differences remain in other areas.

Instead of aspiring to a detailed road map of rapprochement, as previous U.S. administrations have recommended, the executive branch should consider outlining a more simple mechanism for framing formal dialogue with Iran. A basic statement of principles, along the lines of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué signed by the United States and China, could be developed to outline the parameters for U.S.-Iranian engagement, establish the overarching objectives for dialogue, and reassure relevant domestic political constituencies on both sides. The effort to draft such a statement would give constructive focus and substance to a serious but realistic bilateral dialogue. Should that effort reach stalemate, dialogue should still move forward on specific issues.

In engaging with Iran, the United States must be prepared to utilize incentives as well as punitive measures. Given Iran’s pressing economic challenges, the most powerful inducements for Tehran would be economic measures: particularly steps that rescind the comprehensive U.S. embargo on trade and investment in Iran. Used judiciously, such incentives could enhance U.S. leverage vis-à-vis Tehran. One particularly valuable step, which should be made conditional on significant progress in resolving one or more of the chief concerns with respect to Iran, would be the authorization of executory contractslegal instruments that permit U.S. businesses to negotiate with Iranian entities but defer ultimate implementation of any agreements until further political progress has been reached. Commercial relations represent a diplomatic tool that should not be underestimated or cynically disregarded. Ultimately, the return of U.S. businesses to Tehran could help undermine the clerics’ monopoly on power by strengthening the nonstate sector, improving the plight of Iran’s beleaguered middle class, and offering new opportunities to transmit American values.

In dealing with Iran, the United States should relinquish the rhetoric of regime change. Such language inevitably evokes the problematic history of U.S. involvement with the 1953 coup that unseated Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. For these reasons, propounding regime change simply invites nationalist passions that are clearly unconstructive to the cause such a policy would seek to serve. Rather, Washington’s positions and policies must clearly communicate to the government and citizens of Iran that the United States favors political evolution: the long-range vision is an Iran that ushers in democracy itself in a meaningful and lasting manner.

Brzezinski and Gates make five recommendations for US policy "to address the most urgent issues of concern" (and Gates does not offer a dissenting opinion as do some other participants) that fly in the face of administration positions:

  1. [O]ffer Iran a direct dialogue on specific issues of regional stabilization. This should entail a resumption and expansion of the Geneva track discussions that were conducted with Tehran for eighteen months after the 9/11 attacks. The dialogue should be structured to encourage constructive Iranian involvement in the process of consolidating authority within the central governments of both Iraq and Afghanistan and in rebuilding their economies. Regular contact with Iran would also provide a channel to address concerns that have arisen about its activities and relationships with competing power centers in both countries…
  2. [P]ress Iran to clarify the status of al-Qaeda operatives detained by Tehran and make clear that a security dialogue will be conditional on assurances that its government is not facilitating violence against the new Iraqi and Afghan governments or the coalition forces that are assisting them. At the same time, Washington should work with the interim government of Iraq to conclusively disband the Iraq-based Mojahideen-e Khalq Organization and ensure that its leaders are brought to justice.
  3. [I]mplement a more focused strategy to deal with the Iranian nuclear program. In the immediate future, Iran should be pressed to fulfill its October 2003 commitment to maintain a complete and verified suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. While this suspension is in effect, the United States and other members of the international community should pursue a framework agreement with Iran that would offer a more durable solution to the nuclear issue. Such an agreement should include an Iranian commitment to permanently renounce uranium enrichment and other fuel-cycle capabilities and to ratify the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, an expanded set of safeguards intended to verify the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program. In return, the United States should remove its objections to an Iranian civil nuclear program under stringent safeguards and assent to multilateral assurances that Tehran would be able to purchase fuel at reasonable market rates for nuclear power reactors as long as it abided by its nonproliferation commitments…
  4. [R]esume an active involvement in the Middle East peace process and press leading Arab states to commit themselves to providing genuine, substantive support for both the process and any ultimate agreements. Iranian incitement of virulent anti-Israeli sentiment and activities thrives when there is no progress toward peace. Efforts to curtail the flows of assistance to terrorist groups must be coupled with steps to offer a meaningful alternative to the continuing cycle of violence. A serious effort on the part of Washington aimed at achieving Arab-Israeli peace is central to eventually stemming the tide of extremism in the region.
  5. [A]dopt measures to broaden the political, cultural, and economic linkages between the Iranian population and the wider world, including authorizing U.S. nongovernmental organizations to operate in Iran and consenting to Iran’s application to begin accession talks with the World Trade Organization. Iran’s isolation only impedes its people’s ongoing struggle for a more democratic government and strengthens the hand of hard-liners who preach confrontation with the rest of the world. Integrating Iran into the international community through formal institutional obligations as well as expanded people-to-people contacts will intensify demands for good governance at home and add new constraints on adventurism abroad.

By training and temperament, Gates is the inverse 'Behavior vs. action' to the White House's "Action vs. behavior."

The Robert Gates Riddle
By Dan Froomkin
Washington Post
December 19, 2006; 1:16 PM

Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop
By Jay Rosen
December 18, 2006

Resetting U.S. Policy in the Middle East
Robert McMahon
Council on Foreign Relations
December 18, 2006

Without a Doubt: Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush
New York Times
October 17, 2004

Iran: Time for a New Approach - Council on Foreign Relations
Director:  Suzanne Maloney
Chairs:  Zbigniew Brzezinski & Robert M. Gates
Council on Foreign Relations Press
ISBN 0-87609-345-4
July 2004

Gordon Housworth

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