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Going It Alone on Iran

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 26, 2007 1:44 PM

Unilateralism is "in" again at the White House. Yesterday's announcement of far-reaching sanctions against Iran signified that President Bush has given up on multilateral diplomacy with Tehran. He's back to going his own way.

The big question, of course, is which way is that? Should yesterday's move be interpreted as an urgent attempt to resolve matters without violence -- or as a buildup to war?

Here's a hint: Underlying yesterday's move is an obvious lack of patience. That bolsters the theory that Bush is determined not to leave the Iranian nuclear issue unresolved when he leaves office. True diplomacy, however, requires patience.

Here's another hint: The Bush administration still refuses to meet with Iranian leaders face to face. True diplomacy requires a willingness to talk.

The White House maintains it is still devoted to diplomacy, but we've heard that before. And without patience or dialogue, "diplomacy" isn't really diplomacy -- it's a charade.

The Coverage

Warren P. Strobel and Kevin G. Hall write for McClatchy Newspapers: "For more than two years, the United States has insisted that the key to stopping Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program is maintaining unified international pressure on the Islamic Republic.

"But on Thursday, the Bush administration signaled in no uncertain terms that it's prepared to go its own way in confronting what it considers to be a growing threat from Iran, even if doing so demolishes an increasingly shaky global consensus."

Strobel and Hall point out there was immediate criticism even from within Bush's own party.

"'Unilateral sanctions rarely ever work,' Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a foreign policy moderate, said during his weekly news conference. 'I just don't think the unilateral approach and giving war speeches helps the situation. It will just drive the Iranians closer together.'

"It also 'escalates the danger of a military confrontation,' Hagel said."

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times that "after 18 months in which the administration has touted the virtues of collective action against Iran by the United States and its allies, the sanctions are a major turn toward unilateralism.

"The shift represents a tacit acknowledgment that the diplomatic strategy pressed most vigorously by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been ineffective."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration's new package of sanctions against Iran widens the gap between the United States and its European allies over how to confront Tehran.

"For two years, the administration has sought to work closely with Europeans and other world powers, convinced that collective action offered the best chance to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

"But efforts to push through a third round of United Nations sanctions snagged and prospects for a new international coalition to impose economic penalties appear unlikely, so the administration decided to strike out on its own Thursday. . . .

"Advocates say this approach will hit the Iranian elite where it most hurts. But it also puts the United States on a separate track from the Europeans. And U.S. intervention in European business interests could deepen the unwillingness of European countries that already are reluctant to take part in any U.S. actions."

Jay Solomon and Glenn R. Simpson write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "A number of diplomats also said Washington's aggressive action risked ripping apart the countries working for a third round of international sanctions against Iran through the United Nations. Russia and China, which hold veto power at the U.N. Security Council, are allies or business partners of Iran and have resisted the drive for new U.N. sanctions.

"'I think running around like a lunatic -- with a razor and waving a red banner -- isn't the best way to solve this kind of problem,' Russian President Vladimir Putin said in response to the announcement. Questioned by reporters in Portugal, where he is attending a summit of Russian and European Union leaders, he added that sanctions 'worsen the situation, leading it to a dead end.'"

Jitendra Joshi writes for AFP that "analysts questioned the sanctions' effectiveness in the absence of concerted UN action against Iran. . . .

"Through ever-stricter sanctions, Washington has tried and failed to exert pressure on Iran ever since the US embassy hostage crisis that erupted following the 1979 Islamic revolution. . . .

"Professor Paul Pillar, an Iran expert at Georgetown University, said the Bush administration seems to be trying to close down its successor's options on Iran, as sanctions are much harder to lift than they are to impose.

"The White House now has 'a posture of confrontation' with Iran, and hardliners in both Washington and Tehran are 'bringing out the worst in each other,' he said."

War or No War?

AFP reports: "The White House on Friday flatly rejected any parallels between the run up to the war in Iraq and its current rhetoric on Iran, adding that it was 'absolutely committed' to the diplomatic path but refusing to take military force off the table.

"'I don't think there are any parallels to draw at all,' spokesman Tony Fratto said amid concerns that escalating warnings from Washington resemble the tough message to Baghdad ahead of the March 2003 invasion."

Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post that Bush "signaled yesterday that he intends to pursue a strategy of gradually escalating financial, diplomatic and political pressure on Tehran, aimed not at starting a new war in the Middle East, his advisers said, but at preventing one.

"Bush believes Tehran will not seriously discuss limiting its nuclear ambitions or pulling back from its involvement in Iraq unless it experiences significantly more pressure than the United States and the international community have been able to exert so far, according to administration officials and others familiar with the president's thinking. . . .

"'The president does not want to be stuck -- and doesn't want his successor to be stuck -- between two bad choices: living with an Iranian nuclear weapon or using military force to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons,' said Peter D. Feaver, who recently left a staff position on the National Security Council. 'He is looking for a viable third way, negotiations backed up by carrots and sticks, that could resolve the Iranian nuclear file on his watch or, failing that, offer a reasonable prospect of doing so on his successor's watch.'

"Even so, the administration's actions yesterday immediately rekindled fears among Democrats and other countries that the administration is on a path toward war. Bush's charged rhetoric in recent months, including a warning that Iran could trigger a 'nuclear holocaust,' and his close consultations with hard-liners -- such as former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz -- have led many outside the White House to conclude that the president will order airstrikes to eliminate any Iranian nuclear capability. . . .

"Whether Bush will break from diplomacy and employ force is the great unknown, given his propensity to mix combative rhetoric with assertions that he is looking for a peaceful solution. Many of those who support continued diplomacy take heart from what they believe to be the skepticism of key advisers, including Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, about the usefulness of force."

The Washington Post editorial board buys the White House line and writes that "it is senseless and irresponsible for those who say they oppose military action -- including a couple of the second-tier Democratic presidential candidates -- to portray the sanctions initiative as a buildup to war by Mr. Bush. We've seen no evidence that the president has decided on war, and it's clear that many senior administration officials understand the package as the best way to avoid military action. It is not they but those who oppose tougher sanctions who make war with Iran more likely."

But Mark Tran writes in the Guardian that "the latest sanctions - which come atop past measures stretching back to 1979 - signal US impatience with Iran and strengthen hardliners in both Washington and Tehran. . . .

"Analysts claim the Bush administration's latest move provides little encouragement for those in Tehran trying to avoid confrontation.

"'The move does not fit in with a desire to find a diplomatic solution,' said Dr Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House, the foreign policy thinktank.

"'It adds fuel to the fire and may be a sign of US impatience with the lack of an international consensus.

"'The administration knows it can't fix Iraq between now and the next election so it sees its big opportunity as going after Iran.'"

And Philip Stephens writes in his Financial Times column that "the White House once again seems hell-bent on being outwitted in the court of global opinion; and, maybe, on making a strategic miscalculation that could make the war in Iraq look like a sideshow. . . .

"Nervousness about US intentions. . . . has been heightened by speculation that Mr Bush could treat Iran's support for Shia militias in Iraq as a casus belli. A Senate motion, co-sponsored by Mr Lieberman, calls for the Revolutionary Guards to be designated a terrorist organisation. That could provide the president with the political cover to bomb training camps within Iran.

"The calculation, if you could call it that, would be that such attacks would destabilise Mr Ahmadi-Nejad and, in the best case, see him toppled. Logic suggests the reverse: an upsurge of nationalist sentiment would bolster support for the regime. For some people, though, logic does not count."

And Stephens concludes: "The US has yet to play its highest card: an offer, comparable to that made to, and accepted by, North Korea, of a comprehensive refashioning of the strategic relationship between the US and Iran. Unless and until that bargain is explored, it will never be clear whether Tehran could be persuaded to eschew the nuclear course."

Oil Watch

The White House move sparked fears that sent oil prices toward record highs. So what would war do?

Steven Mufson writes in The Washington Post: "A U.S. military strike against Iran would have dire consequences in petroleum markets, say a variety of oil industry experts, many of whom think the prospect of pandemonium in those markets makes U.S. military action unlikely despite escalating economic sanctions imposed by the Bush administration. . . .

"Oil traders said that even if the chances of military conflict with Iran were small, the huge run-up in oil prices that would result encourages some speculators and investment funds to bid up the price of oil, adding a premium of $3 to $15 a barrel."

But Mufson's analysis leaves out a key part of the equation. Skyrocketing oil prices would be terrible for the American public -- but not necessarily for the oil industry. Oil industry profit margins go up-- a lot -- when oil prices rise.

Democracy Watch

Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji explains, in a Washington Post op-ed, what's wrong with Bush's idea of funding Iranian pro-democracy groups: "The Bush administration may be striving to help Iranian democrats, but any Iranian who seeks American dollars will not be recognized as a democrat by his or her fellow citizens."

Haunted by Katrina

James Gerstenzang and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "Wrapping his arms around newly homeless victims, greeting grimy firefighters and predicting a 'better day ahead,' President Bush on Thursday brought a dose of compassion to fire-ravaged Southern California.

"But in touring by air and foot a region still ablaze in crisis, Bush also confronted a legacy of mismanagement in the face of natural disaster -- his administration's breakdown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It is a legacy that haunts Bush and his party as Democrats prepare to make 'competence' a central theme of next year's elections.

"Bush and his aides repeatedly sought to convey a sense of efficiency and the image of a leader who both cared and was in command. . . .

"He invoked the contrast with Katrina most directly when he heaped praise on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his leadership. Bush's plaudits for a fellow Republican appeared to be an indirect dig at Louisiana's Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

"'It makes a significant difference when you have someone in the statehouse who's willing to lead,' Bush said."

Blanco issued the following statement in response: "'I was the only game in town, leading for nearly a week without the president's help.... Of all the lessons learned from Katrina now being put into place in California, I would hope the one he would remember is that politics has no place in any disaster. While the promise of help from Washington is being extended, Gov. Schwarzenegger will have to work hard to make it a reality. In the meantime, Louisiana stands by ready to help with anything they may need."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press that some of Bush's declarations eerily paralleled to what he once told Hurricane Katrina victims. . . .

"For instance, Thursday's 'we're not going to forget you' promise echoed what Bush said in New Orleans as he ended his first day in the hurricane zone on Sept. 2, 2005: 'I'm not going to forget what I've seen,' he said then. And Bush's 'better day ahead' consolation in California recalled lofty words from his speech in New Orleans' Jackson Square on Sept. 15, 2005."

Sonya Geis and William Branigin write in The Washington Post that, during one part of his tour, "Bush said he would leave it to historians to compare the government's performance in responding to the California fires with that of its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 'There's all kinds of time for historians to compare this response or that response,' he said."

Sheldon Alberts writes in Canada's National Post: "If there is a lasting image of presidential detachment that has haunted George W. Bush since Hurricane Katrina, it is the picture of him gazing out the window of Air Force One as he flew over the Gulf Coast en route from his Texas ranch to the White House. . . .

"From that moment of inaction, the widespread perception of him as the go-to guy in times of crisis evaporated. . . .

"So it's no wonder that Bush -- with a year left in his second term and a legacy to consider --has been eager to show things have changed."

Bush and the Terminator

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "it took an inferno in Southern California to thaw the ice between President Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger."

This is Helping?

Here's Bush talking to first responders: "You know, one of the things I like to do is look in the eyes -- make sure you're getting rest, and I know you're not. (Laughter.) I hope there's enough reinforcements coming to make sure that you get your shifts so you can get some sleep, because a citizen is going to count on you for you a while."

Matthew T. Hall writes in the San Diego Union-Tribune: "President Bush arrived in San Diego Thursday to offer words of hope and encouragement to victims, volunteers, police, firefighters and other emergency workers as fires menaced Southern California for a fifth straight day.

"It was a comfort to some but also extended the misery for others.

"People finally returning to Rancho Bernardo homes after days of displacement were stuck in traffic for hours so Bush's motorcade could pass, and delays left firefighters longing for food and showers."

Playing Small Ball

David K. Li and Melissa Jane Kronfeld write in the New York Post about Bush's stop at a burned-out home to comfort one couple: "In a private moment, Jay Jeffcoat told Bush he was saddened to lose a lifetime of mementos. Chief among them was an autographed baseball from Nolan Ryan, signed to Jeffcoat's son Ryan, who was named after the Hall of Fame pitcher.

"'[Bush] said, 'I'm going to fix that as soon as I get on to Air Force One. I'm going to call Nolan and get you that ball,' ' Jeffcoat told The Post."

FEMA Watch

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post about the farce that was FEMA's 1 p.m. news briefing yesterday. All the "reporters" were apparently FEMA employees.

SCHIP Watch

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush accused Democratic lawmakers on Friday of wasting time by passing legislation to expand children's health coverage, knowing that he would veto it again. . . .

"Bush made his comments to reporters in the Roosevelt Room a day after the House passed new legislation to expand children's health coverage. Bush vetoed an earlier version, and Republicans argued the latest bill was little changed from the earlier measure. The bill -- approved with less than the two-thirds majority needed to overturn another veto -- now goes to the Senate. . . .

"Democrats said Republicans were making a mistake in opposing the children's health bill.

"'They won't take yes for an answer,' Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said of Republicans.

"He said that in the week since they failed to override Bush's first veto, Democrats had systematically addressed earlier complaints that the bill failed to place a priority on low-income children, did not effectively bar illegal immigrants from qualifying for benefits and was overly generous to adults.

"A White House spokesman, Tony Fratto, mocked the suggestion that Democrats -- and Emanuel in particular -- were acting on principle. 'I think the last principal Rahm Emanuel knew was in high school.'"

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The health of millions of children who lack insurance cannot be held hostage to the president's visceral distaste for government and its essential role to protect the weak, or his desire to protect the tobacco industry."

FISA Watch

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "The White House on Thursday offered to share secret documents on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program with the Senate Judiciary Committee, a step toward possible compromise on eavesdropping legislation."

Mukasey Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Judge Michael Mukasey's nomination for attorney general ran into trouble Thursday when two top Senate Democrats said their votes hinge on whether he will say on the record that an interrogation technique that simulates drowning is torture. . . .

"[A] Democrat familiar with the panel's deliberations said Mukasey may not get the 10 committee votes his nomination needs to be reported to the Senate floor with a favorable recommendation unless he says, in effect, that waterboarding is torture."

Contempt Watch

John Bresnahan writes in the Politico: "House Democratic leaders have begun privately surveying their members to determine their support for a criminal contempt resolution against White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers for shunning congressional subpoenas in the U.S. attorney investigation.

"House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said the contempt motion could be brought to the House floor 'as early as next week,' but Democratic leadership aides cautioned that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has not yet made any final decision on a vote. And one House aide close to the situation said a vote was 'more likely' in two weeks.

"If a criminal contempt resolution were approved against Miers and Bolten, it would represent a dramatic escalation in the battle between the White House and Congress over the extent of executive privilege and the president's right to shield senior aides from Congress."

The Question is Who Leaked It

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "J. Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, sent President Bush an unusual private cable this week warning that the pending nuclear deal with North Korea could harm relations with Japan. He also complained that the U.S. Embassy had been left in the dark while the deal -- which could include North Korea's removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism -- was negotiated by top State Department officials."

The really interesting question is: Who leaked it? Are there White House officials actively trying to derail the North Korea agreement from the inside?

About World War IV

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani reviews "World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism," by Norman Podhoretz.

"Mr. Podhoretz, who last summer called upon President Bush to use military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, writes in these pages of all the 'progress' that is being made in neighboring Iraq, embraces the Bush administration's aggressive policy of pre-emption and asserts that George W. Bush will one day be recognized 'as a great president,' an heir not just to Truman but to Lincoln as well."

Kakutani calls Podhoretz's work "a hectoring, often illogical screed based on cherry-picked facts and blustering assertions (often made without any supporting evidence), a book that furiously hurls accusations of cowardice, anti-Americanism and sheer venality at any and all opponents of the Bush doctrine, be they on the right or the left."

Countdown Clocks

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers on the incredible popularity of key chain-sized clocks that count down the remaining days, hours, minutes and seconds until the end of the Bush administration.

And "clocks are just one item in a booming anti-Bush paraphernalia industry that seems to grow as Bush's time in office shrinks," he writes.

"'It's a cottage industry,' said Bryan Coonerty, the Democratic vice mayor of Santa Cruz, Calif., and vice president of Bookshop Santa Cruz, which sells anti-Bush items on nationalnightmare.com. 'It's the cornerstone of our business. We've sold between 35,000 to 40,000 clocks.' . . .

"Coonerty said 01-20-09 will be a mixed blessing for him and his business.

"'Personally, I'll be ecstatic not having Bush in the White House, but our business will fall off a bit,' he said. 'It's a price I'm willing to pay.'"

Cheney's Nap

ABC News showed video of Vice President Cheney apparently nodding off during Bush's remarks at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

The Think Progress commenters are cruel.

Cheney's Hunting Trip

John Ferro writes in the Poughkeepsie Journal: "Vice President Dick Cheney is coming to Dutchess County again to go hunting, according to two sources familiar with his plans. Cheney will arrive Sunday night and head to a hunting club in Dutchess Monday morning."

Poll Watch, Halloween Edition

Alan Fram and Trevor Thompson write for the Associated Press: "34 percent of people who say they believe in ghosts, according to a pre-Halloween poll by The Associated Press and Ipsos. That's the same proportion who believe in unidentified flying objects. . . .

"To put the roughly one-third who believe in ghosts and UFOs in perspective, it's about the same as, in recent AP-Ipsos polls, the 36 percent who said they are baseball fans; the 37 percent who said the U.S. made the right decision to invade Iraq; and the 31 percent who approve of the job President Bush is doing."

Andrew Sullivan on Torture and Imaginationland

Andrew Sullivan blogs for the Atlantic: "The longer this war goes on and the more we find out, the following scenario seems to me to be the best provisional explanation for a lot of what our secret, unaccountable, extra-legal war-government has been doing - and the countless mistakes which have been laid bare. On 9/11, Cheney immediately thought of the worst possible scenario: What if this had been done with WMDs? It has haunted him ever since - for good and even noble reasons. This panic led him immediately to think of Saddam. But it also led him to realize that our intelligence was so crappy that we simply didn't know what might be coming. That's why the decision to use torture was the first - and most significant - decision this administration made. . . .

"Bush, putty in Cheney's hands, never wanted torture, but was so cowardly and lazy he never asked the hard questions of what was actually being done. He knows, of course, somewhere in his crippled fundamentalist psyche. But this is a man with clinical - Christianist and dry-drunk - levels of reality-denial, whose interaction with reality can only operate on the crudest levels of Manichean analysis. . . . Even when they were totally busted at Abu Ghraib, his incuriosity and denial held firm. After all, what if he were to find out something he didn't want to know? His world might collapse.

"But torture gives false information. And the worst scenarios that tortured detainees coughed up - many of them completely innocent, remember - may well have come to fuel US national security policy. And of course they also fueled more torture. Because once you hear of the existential plots confessed by one tortured prisoner, you need to torture more prisoners to get at the real truth. . . . It may well have led to the president being informed of any number of plots that never existed, and any number of threats that are pure imagination. And once torture has entered the system, you can never find out the real truth. You are lost in a vortex of lies and fears."

Cartoon Watch

Stuart Carlson and David Horsey on White House editing; Jeff Danziger on the Bush legacy; Steve Sack and Rex Babin on Arnold's risky photo op; Dwane Powell on Bush's idea of putting out fires; Mike Luckovich on Bush's idea of helping.

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