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The McCain Campaign Tries Cross-Dressing on Iran

 This piece appears on the Huffington Post

The latest round of brinksmanship with Iran following that country’s much publicized missile test not surprisingly became a talking point between the presidential campaigns and their surrogates.  The lines of attacks were mainly predictable although many took encouragement from the enthusiasm that the Obama campaign displayed going head-to- head with McCain on a national security issue rather than following the well-worn Democratic tactic of trying to change the subject.

There was though another part of this latest exchange which has been little commented on but which merits a place amongst the most unlikely role reversals yet tried in this election.  Speaking for the McCain campaign on PBS NewsHour on Wednesday night, chief foreign policy adviser and confidante Randy Scheunemann described Obama’s position for engagement with Iran as “unilateral cowboy summitry” (it’s true—see it here—quite unbelievable.)  This theme has now become a McCain campaign talking point.  So here was the McCain campaign accusing Obama of being insufficiently multilateral and pro-diplomacy in its foreign policy.  It’s almost like the McCain folk taking a page out of Rudy Giuliani’s book and engaging in a little cross-dressing.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with how bizarre that claim is, especially given its source, and then let’s look a little at the policy substance. 

First of all, summitry, especially with another country (and not just with other neoconservatives), tends by definition not to be unilateral.  So if an Obama administration were to engage diplomatically with Tehran, then at the very least the outcome would be a bilateral event.  The McCain folk really don’t know the first thing about diplomacy if they consider representatives of these two countries meeting to be a celebration of unilateralism.  

The very idea within the McCain campaign to be trying to smear the other side with unilateralism almost beggars belief.  The McCain team draws extensively on the same neoconservative group of individuals who have been the most aggressive opponents of working with multilateral institutions and the most earnest advocates of the U.S. going it alone.  Mr. Scheunemann himself was involved with the Project for the New American Century and headed one of its offshoots—the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.  He is joined in the McCain campaign by advisers including Peter W. Rodman, Robert Kagan, R. James Woolsey, and William Kristol (the Council on Foreign Relations has a very useful backgrounder on McCain’s foreign policy advisers here).  

McCain himself has supported the idea of a League of Democracies, obviously not a unilateral effort, but also a much undisguised signal of his opposition to the United Nations and to the idea of working in broad, multilateral settings.  In a speech in Los Angeles, critiqued very effectively by Fareed Zakaria, McCain talked about removing Russia from the G8 and expanding that institution in ways that would exclude China.  So there is plenty for the world to worry about on all fronts regarding McCain's problems with multilateral diplomacy. 

OK—so it’s a bizarre claim in general, but what of the specifics on Iran.  Does Obama's willingness to unconditionally engage in hard-bargaining diplomacy represent a finger in the eye to America’s allies and an undermining of the current P5+1 efforts with Iran?  It is in this realm, the substantive policy platform, that the McCain position is most flawed. The current structure of the negotiations with Iran, in which America is not represented,  is the fallback option and one that has proved so incapable of delivering results.  The European and other P5+1 allies did not ask for America to be absent in the talks with Iran, rather this was a fait accompli dictated by the Bush Administration and according to all evidence something that would be continued under a McCain presidency.

As one former European Foreign Minister who was in the talks confided to me (I apologize that I cannot divulge the person’s identity), the Europeans consistently felt that their efforts were severely hamstrung because of the empty American chair.  The former minister told me that their talks with the Iranians were reminiscent of a Washington cocktail party, inasmuch as the representatives from Tehran seemed to be constantly looking over the shoulders of their interlocutors, hoping someone more interesting who carried more weight would enter the room. 

Let’s be straight and blunt:  the Bush policies have failed on Iran and McCain is offering nothing more than to continue those polices, perhaps with some additional threats and bellicosity.  It is hardly a leap of faith to assume that an Obama-led direct diplomacy with Iran would be coordinated with European and other P5+1 allies, and not conducted behind their backs or as a deliberate snub to them.   

As Congressmen Robert Wexler (D-FL) argued at the Huffington Post in his critique of House Resolution 362 with Iran,

It should have been an American representative last week along with European Union High Representative Javier Solana sitting down with Iranian leaders…Diplomacy…will only be successful if the U.S. takes a lead role along with our European allies in directly engaging Iran.

And that is presumably what Obama is advocating, “unilateral cowboy summitry” – not so much.

McCain it is out of touch with both public sentiment and expert opinion by rigidly adhering to the Bush refusal to engage in direct, unconditional, and broad-ranging talks with the Iranians, as part of an overall policy to advance a non-military solution to the nuclear and other outstanding bilateral and multilateral issues (including Iran’s support of groups that deploy violence against Israeli citizens). McCain by the way consistently mentions Israel in the context of Iran, placing it front and center in his narrative of belligerency, which is interesting given that this approach is something that the Israelis themselves seek to discourage.

But I digress, Defense Secretary Gates, Chair of the Join Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, and General Petraeus have all recently discussed the relevance of direct, constructive diplomacy with Iran when the appropriate circumstances are created.  Just last week, and following a visit to Israel, Admiral Mullen said the following in response in referring to a military strike on Iran as being a “destabilizing act”.  He noted:

Destabilizing events are of great concern to me…But I’m convinced a solution still lies in using other elements of national power to change Iranian behavior, including diplomatic, financial, and international pressure.  There is a need for better clarity, even dialogue at some level…when I talk about dialogue—actually, I would say very broadly, across the entirety of our government and their government…I’m really focused on the diplomatic aspect.

Perhaps the most succinct and compelling assessment of the Iranian challenge, and the role of diplomacy in addressing it, is this op-ed by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Dobbins—this from someone who led the negotiations with Iran in Afghanistan (for some more useful sources on this, see this edition of the Middle East Bulletin put out by the Center for American Progress).

The question though for the Bush-McCain position is what is the endgame?  If the Iranian challenge cannot be negotiated, then the remaining option seems to be eliminate it or get them to capitulate.  Elimination was the option chosen in Iraq and is what has everyone so anxious about Bush-McCain policy toward Iran.  The capitulation option tends to never work out so neatly. 

Gaining leverage only makes sense if one recognizes the moment at which success depends on segueing to a negotiated resolution.  Larry Korb has just written an excellent piece on how the Bush Administration missed the ideal segue moment with the North Koreans, and many, including my colleague at the New America Foundation Flynt Leverett (who was directly involved) consider a moment of deal-making with Iran to have been missed in 2003 when the Swiss communicated an Iranian negotiation proposal.  On both North Korea and Iran, the situation only deteriorated and the terms for negotiations now appear to be worse.  Still, the Bush Administration did go into deal-making with North Korea, but McCain seems adamant that this will not be repeated with Iran. 

And that’s why this is an issue and an argument that Obama can win.  Because McCain, even when he is trying to disguise his position as his team did this week—has no answers.



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Daniel Levy


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