Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In Praise of Robert Kagan

No, it doesn't happen very often, but there are times when I am impressed with the intellectual honesty of Robert Kagan (at least relative to those comprising the ideological circles that he tends to travel in). For example, way back in January 2006 - at a time when many Iran hawks were trying to convince US leaders that we could attack Iran via limited air strikes, achieve our goals vis-a-vis that nation's nuclear program and avoid retaliation that would suck us into a larger conflict - Robert Kagan had the courage to speak the truth:

If an air and missile strike could destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program, it might seem the best of many bad options. But the likely costs outweigh the benefits. [...]

The Pentagon can hit facilities it can see with relative confidence. But much of Iran's program is underground, and some of it we don't know about. Even if a strike set back Iran's plans, we would not know by how much. For all the price we would pay, we wouldn't even know what we'd achieved. [...]

Then there is the prospect of Iranian retaliation: terrorist attacks, military activity in Iraq, attempts to close off the Persian Gulf shipping lanes and disrupt oil supplies. Unless we were prepared to escalate, ultimately to the point of taking down the regime, we could end up in worse shape than when we began. [...]

But we shouldn't delude ourselves. Efforts to foment political change won't necessarily bear fruit in time to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb. That may be the risk we have to take. But if this or the next administration decides it is too dangerous to wait for political change, then the answer will have to be an invasion, not merely an air and missile strike, to put an end to Iran's nuclear program as well as to its regime. If Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon is truly intolerable, that is the only military answer. [emphasis added]

At the time that Kagan wrote this sober assessment, people like William Kristol were actually arguing that if we merely bombed Iran, not only would everything turn out right as mentioned above, but that a pro-US, pro-democracy uprising would erupt to depose the Mullahs. Compare and contrast.

Today, via Libby, Kagan offers more good advice in a column entitled, refreshingly enough, Time to Talk to Iran:

Regardless of what one thinks about the National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- and there is much to question in the report -- its practical effects are indisputable. The Bush administration cannot take military action against Iran during its remaining time in office, or credibly threaten to do so, unless it is in response to an extremely provocative Iranian action. A military strike against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities was always fraught with risk. For the Bush administration, that option is gone. [...]

With its policy tools broken, the Bush administration can sit around isolated for the next year. Or it can seize the initiative, and do the next administration a favor, by opening direct talks with Tehran. [...]

But there is a good case for negotiations. Many around the world and in the United States have imagined that the obstacle to improved Iranian behavior has been America's unwillingness to talk. This is a myth, but it will hamper American efforts now and for years to come. Eventually, the United States will have to take the plunge, as it has with so many adversaries throughout its history.

That last part is important. To the extent that Iran would not accept a real, comprehensive, good faith deal from the US, our position will be stronger if the world is shown this in primetime - so to speak. If Iran really is interested in such a bargain, well then, everybody wins (or should consider it a win). But we have to actually offer such a deal - not some watered down half-measures with bold preconditions and with no security guarantees for Iran going forward. As Blake Hounshell put it yesterday:

...what the [Bush] administration hasn't done is offer Iran a credible package of inducements that includes security guarantees, economic incentives, and so forth. In the words of the NIE, "opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways."

Some suggestions that I find constructive are laid out here. Either way, nothing is lost, as Kagan explains from merely pursuing such negotiations:

Some argue that you can't talk to a country while seeking political change within it. This is nonsense. The United States simultaneously contained the Soviet Union, negotiated with the Soviet Union and pressed for political change in the Soviet Union -- supporting dissidents, communicating directly to the Russian people through radio and other media, and holding the Soviet government to account under such international human rights agreements as the Helsinki Accords. There's no reason the United States cannot talk to Iran while beefing up containment in the region and pressing for change within Iran. [...]

Beginning talks today does not limit American options in the future. If the Iranians stonewall or refuse to talk -- a distinct possibility -- they will establish a record of intransigence that can be used against them now and in the critical years to come. It's possible the American offer itself could open fissures in Iran. In any case, it is hard to see what other policy options are available. This is the hand that has been dealt. The Bush administration needs to be smart and creative enough to play it well.

You see, it's that last sentence that doesn't exactly inspire hope.

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