Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 31, 2007

Dangerous Dialogue

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”

None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980’s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

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The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”

None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980’s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

To make this “up yours” a little more explicit, Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, told the world’s press that he “rejected the possibility of Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program.” This, coming on the eve of talks between Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, will hardly improve the atmosphere for negotiations.

The only people who could possibly be surprised by the Iranian attitude are the architects of the Iraq Study Group report and other conveyors of wishful thinking in Washington. Naturally, their response will be that we should make even more concessions to Iran to overcome their “suspicions” about American behavior. What this rather naïve reasoning ignores are the big benefits that many in the Iranian leadership, especially in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, derive from the continuing Iranian policy of isolation and hostility. Not only does enmity with the West help to maintain their justification for a theocratic dictatorship, but, as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains in this interview, it also helps well-connected Iranians to profit by looting the economy.

It takes quite an effort of will to convince oneself that the real issue between the U.S. and Iran is a lack of understanding. The reality is that the U.S. and Iran have radically divergent interests. In the case of Iraq, Iran’s interest is to foment strife that will weaken the U.S. and our democratic allies and expand its sphere of control. It is currently achieving that goal. Why would it, suddenly, want to help the U.S. achieve its objectives in Iraq? Until someone can answer that question convincingly, perhaps we should hold off on any further coffee klatches with the mullahs.

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The Sinking Immigration Bill

President Bush seems determined to expend what remains of his dwindling reserves of political capital on his overwhelmingly unpopular (but Senate-supported) immigration bill. Directing his criticism at part of the very coalition that had elected him, he recently explained his reasoning:

I’m deeply concerned about America losing its soul. Immigration has been the lifeblood of a lot of our country’s history. And I am worried that a backlash to newcomers would cause our country to lose its great capacity to assimilate newcomers.

Those are worthy thoughts. But they’re disconnected from middle- and lower-middle-class voters who feel that the very size of the current, largely single-source immigration is forcing them (and not the newcomers) to adapt.

Despite the considerable efforts of Bush and the bi-partisan group of senators backing the bill, public support remains stuck at 26 percent. And Bush’s popularity on this score will only be further weakened by the loud and lusty booing of America’s entrant in the Miss Universe contest by a Mexican audience recently.

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President Bush seems determined to expend what remains of his dwindling reserves of political capital on his overwhelmingly unpopular (but Senate-supported) immigration bill. Directing his criticism at part of the very coalition that had elected him, he recently explained his reasoning:

I’m deeply concerned about America losing its soul. Immigration has been the lifeblood of a lot of our country’s history. And I am worried that a backlash to newcomers would cause our country to lose its great capacity to assimilate newcomers.

Those are worthy thoughts. But they’re disconnected from middle- and lower-middle-class voters who feel that the very size of the current, largely single-source immigration is forcing them (and not the newcomers) to adapt.

Despite the considerable efforts of Bush and the bi-partisan group of senators backing the bill, public support remains stuck at 26 percent. And Bush’s popularity on this score will only be further weakened by the loud and lusty booing of America’s entrant in the Miss Universe contest by a Mexican audience recently.

The White House has missed the fact that while 68 percent of those surveyed in Wednesday’s Rasmussen telephone poll do agree with President Bush that we need to establish a path to legalization for those already here, only one in six Americans believe that this particular bill will actually reduce illegal immigration. Forty-one percent think the legislation will lead to an increase in illegal immigration. (What’s especially striking about these numbers is that 81 percent of those surveyed said that are following the issue closely and 37 percent very closely, leaving little room for maneuver.)

McCain’s close identification with the bill has sent his poll numbers so far south that Mitt Romney (an opponent of the bill) has passed the Arizonan and moved into second place, behind the frontrunner Giuliani. The generally immigration-friendly former New York mayor, recognizing the core issue at stake—72 percent of those surveyed insist that enforcing border laws is the primary issue—has opposed the bill on security grounds. But the imminent entrance of Fred Thompson may give Giuliani competition on this score.

Thompson recently told a radio audience last week that “A nation without secure borders will not long be a sovereign nation.” “No matter how much lipstick Washington tries to slap onto this legislative pig,” he continued, “it’s not going to win any beauty contests.”

The beauty of this issue for both Giuliani and Thompson is that it allows them to separate themselves from an unpopular President and simultaneously appeal to the GOP base. This could set off a bidding war of sorts between Giuliani, Thompson, and Romney as to who is more strongly opposed to the Bush position.

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Off With Libby’s Head?

When he is sentenced this coming Tuesday, Scooter Libby may be sent directly to jail. If so, this would be grossly unfair since he stands an excellent chance of having the verdict against him overturned on appeal. But it would also be the moment for President Bush to pardon him immediately.

Back in March, when he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice by a jury in federal court in Washington D.C., I explained why I thought the case “represents a terrible injustice.” The federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, had insisted to both the public and the jury that the disclosure of the identity of the CIA operative Valerie Plame—which was the underlying action he had been appointed to investigate—was in fact a crime. But this was a point that had never been established or even formally alleged. Fitzgerald’s overreaching on this colored the jury’s thinking about the gravity of the issues at stake, suggested a motive for Libby to lie that did not reside in proved facts, and conflicted with the judge’s ruling that the case would not hinge on Plame’s status.

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When he is sentenced this coming Tuesday, Scooter Libby may be sent directly to jail. If so, this would be grossly unfair since he stands an excellent chance of having the verdict against him overturned on appeal. But it would also be the moment for President Bush to pardon him immediately.

Back in March, when he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice by a jury in federal court in Washington D.C., I explained why I thought the case “represents a terrible injustice.” The federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, had insisted to both the public and the jury that the disclosure of the identity of the CIA operative Valerie Plame—which was the underlying action he had been appointed to investigate—was in fact a crime. But this was a point that had never been established or even formally alleged. Fitzgerald’s overreaching on this colored the jury’s thinking about the gravity of the issues at stake, suggested a motive for Libby to lie that did not reside in proved facts, and conflicted with the judge’s ruling that the case would not hinge on Plame’s status.

Now Fitzgerald has been back in court, arguing that when Libby is sentenced on Tuesday, the judge should throw the book at him precisely on the grounds that he committed the underlying crime-that-was-not-a-crime. Fitzgerald approvingly cites Judge David S. Tatel’s ruling in the Judith Miller case that “because the charges contemplated here relate to false denials of responsibility for Plame’s exposure, prosecuting perjury or false statements would be tantamount to punishing the leak.”

But this a vicious circle. Convicted on the basis of something that was never proved or even formally alleged, is Libby now to be punished on the same basis? With Fitzgerald continuing to overreach, the case for a presidential pardon is growing stronger by the day. If Libby is imprisoned, will Bush do the right thing?

Meanwhile, in closely related news, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wants Valerie Plame to be re-interviewed. Back in March, in a dispatch entitled Lying Liars and Their Lies, I asked whether Plame was under oath when she testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and declared that she played no role in sending her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, on a fact-finding trip to Niger. “I did not recommend him. I did not suggest him. There was no nepotism involved. I did not have the authority,” she said.

Plame was under oath, and Senator Bond has pointed out that she has put out three separate versions of the circumstances under which her husband was sent to Niger. According to USA Today‘s summary, they are:

*She told the CIA’s inspector general in 2003 or 2004 that she had suggested Wilson.

*Plame told Senate Intelligence Committee staffers in 2004 that she couldn’t remember whether she had suggested Wilson.

*She told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in March that an unidentified person in Vice President Cheney’s office asked a CIA colleague about the African uranium report in February 2002. A third officer, overhearing Plame and the colleague discussing this, suggested, “Well, why don’t we send Joe?” Plame told the committee.

Which of these is the real story? Is Plame telling three versions of the truth, or is she a lying liar, or even worse, a perjuring perjurer? Bond would like to find out.

But the Intelligence Committee is now under the control of the Democrats who have no interest in calling attention to the antics of the Plame-Wilson provocateurs. Stay tuned, in other words, for the cover-up of the cover-up.  

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Iran’s Enabler

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, riled up Washington and Brussels earlier this month by declaring that they shouldn’t try to stop Iran from enriching uranium. The United Nations, prodded by the West, had imposed two sets of sanctions on Tehran for continuing enrichment in defiance of a Security Council resolution passed last July. The second set of sanctions was enacted this March, but Tehran has given no indication that it will halt its nuclear program. In response, Western diplomats are now considering a third set of sanctions. (COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz has weighed in on this predicament, as well.)

ElBaradei stated that the UN demand to halt enrichment “has been superseded by events”—the Iranians have already obtained the necessary technology. The international community, he suggested, should engage the Iranians “in a comprehensive dialogue.” ElBaradei also suggested that Tehran be permitted to keep some elements of an enrichment program.

There are any number of fundamental objections to these comments. The chief of the UN’s nuclear watchdog group should not publicly undermine the acts of the world body. ElBaradei may have been handed humanity’s most coveted award, the Nobel Peace Prize, but he still has an obligation to support the Security Council.

Moreover, his suggested approach—“dialogue”—has been tried since 2002, when Iranian dissidents first disclosed the existence of Tehran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak. A half-decade of meetings, talks, and discussions has conclusively demonstrated that the country’s leadership is not interested in good faith negotiations. ElBaradei’s comments also establish incentives for destabilizing the world’s arms-control regime. He is effectively saying to nuclearizing rogue states that the IAEA rewards successful defiance of UN prohibitions and sanctions.

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Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, riled up Washington and Brussels earlier this month by declaring that they shouldn’t try to stop Iran from enriching uranium. The United Nations, prodded by the West, had imposed two sets of sanctions on Tehran for continuing enrichment in defiance of a Security Council resolution passed last July. The second set of sanctions was enacted this March, but Tehran has given no indication that it will halt its nuclear program. In response, Western diplomats are now considering a third set of sanctions. (COMMENTARY’s editor-at-large Norman Podhoretz has weighed in on this predicament, as well.)

ElBaradei stated that the UN demand to halt enrichment “has been superseded by events”—the Iranians have already obtained the necessary technology. The international community, he suggested, should engage the Iranians “in a comprehensive dialogue.” ElBaradei also suggested that Tehran be permitted to keep some elements of an enrichment program.

There are any number of fundamental objections to these comments. The chief of the UN’s nuclear watchdog group should not publicly undermine the acts of the world body. ElBaradei may have been handed humanity’s most coveted award, the Nobel Peace Prize, but he still has an obligation to support the Security Council.

Moreover, his suggested approach—“dialogue”—has been tried since 2002, when Iranian dissidents first disclosed the existence of Tehran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak. A half-decade of meetings, talks, and discussions has conclusively demonstrated that the country’s leadership is not interested in good faith negotiations. ElBaradei’s comments also establish incentives for destabilizing the world’s arms-control regime. He is effectively saying to nuclearizing rogue states that the IAEA rewards successful defiance of UN prohibitions and sanctions.

In doing so, he also makes war more likely—his comments undercut the force of the UN sanctions. Sanctions may ultimately not disarm the Iranian government, but at this moment they are the last tactic on the road to military action. They are contributing to the already severe woes of the Iranian economy, in the hopes of inducing Ahmadinejad to stop the nuclear program. Western banks are breaking off business ties with the regime, and pressure from Washington is persuading European energy companies to reevaluate investing in Iran.

Sanctions cannot work unless the international community joins together behind them. But Mohamed ElBaradei is standing in the way. He is not giving coercive diplomacy a chance, and if he succeeds in eroding support for still-tougher diplomatic measures, the only way to stop the Iranian mullahs will be war.

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