Turn and turn again
Mar 1st 2007 WASHINGTON, DC
From The Economist print edition
George Bush now wants to talk to the axis of evil.
ON FEBRUARY 27th Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, announced that America will talk to Iran and Syria about Iraq. To judge by the reaction in Washington, DC, this was an about-face like Big Brother's conversion of Eurasia from foe to ally in Orwell's “1984”. Last week Iran was still part of the “axis of evil” and Syria was nearly as bad. Now the administration thinks it can sit down with these energetic sponsors of terror and calmly discuss how to calm the mayhem in Iraq? And this only two weeks after America struck a deal with North Korea, the other surviving member of the axis of evil, offering it aid even before it shuts down its nuclear programme, with the promise of much more, not to mention diplomatic recognition, if it continues to oblige. Foreign-policy “realists” celebrated their triumph over those naively idealistic neocons: neoconservatives have denounced the North Korea deal with vigour, and think Iran should be intimidated, not courted.
Certainly, there has been a shift. Foreign policy has changed, and so have the players. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary who thought Iraq could be democratised by force and on the cheap, has been shown the door. Dick Cheney, the hawkish vice-president, has seen his influence wane. Other leading hawks, such as John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz, are gone. Ms Rice's more pragmatic star has risen, along with that of the new defence secretary, Robert Gates. But does this represent an ideological U-turn or merely a response to changing events?
One should not over-hype the change, says Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank. It is not as if the administration never speaks with Iran and Syria. America has formal diplomatic ties with Syria, and its diplomats bump into their Iranian counterparts all the time at multilateral forums such as the UN. Besides, the administration still has no plans to sit down one-on-one with the Iranians or the Syrians: the talks will occur only in the context of a regional pow-wow of Iraq's neighbours, summoned by Iraq. And talking is very far from agreeing. The problem is not that either side fails to understand what the other wants. It is that they want incompatible things. Iran wants nuclear weapons and regional hegemony. American wants it to have neither.
Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a hawkish think-tank, thinks the shift is small in substance but symbolically important. He sees two dangers. First, Iranian diplomats might make a promise that another part of the Iranian regime might break, which would render further bilateral diplomacy impossible. Second, he thinks Iran is “dangerously overconfident”. Leaders in Tehran, few of whom have a feel for American politics, might misread the current anti-war rhetoric in Congress as a sign that America is now too weak politically to frustrate Iran's regional ambitions. That could prompt them to miscalculate and provoke a military clash. “The risk of a conflict with Iran has never been higher,” he says.
In recent weeks the administration has been saying harsh things about Iran. The evidence that the Iranians are arming and training Iraq's troublesome Shia militias is compelling, though it is unclear whether this has been ordered by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or not. Still, Mr Bush has sent an extra aircraft-carrier group to the Gulf and given American forces orders to capture or kill Iranian agents in Iraq.
Adding to the tension, on February 25th Seymour Hersh, a journalist at the New Yorker, published details of contingency plans for war with Iran. But Mr Cordesman says one should not read too much into that. America probably no longer has contingency plans for sinking Britain's Royal Navy, he says, but just about every other possibility is covered. Pentagon officials stoutly deny Mr Hersh's more scary allegations
Keeping everybody happy
Mr Bush's new foreign policy is probably best explained as a reaction to events. What he tried before in Iraq did not work, so he is trying something new. He also has to deal with a Democratic Congress that, if ignored, may tie his hands. Some Democrats want to cut off funds for the war. Others favour standing back and letting Mr Bush take all the blame. John Murtha, a close ally of Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, foolishly revealed a plan gradually to place so many restrictions on how troops can be deployed that the war would become unwinnable. His party distanced itself from such tactics, which would incense patriotic voters, but has yet to agree on an alternative. Meanwhile, the (wafer-thin) Democratic majority in the Senate is still thinking about rescinding the authorisation for the Iraq war it voted on in 2002. Chatting with the Iranians might be intended as a painless way of mollifying Congress—but don't bet on it working.