Cheney Vs. Obama

May 22, 2009 at 5:22 pm (By Amba) (, , )

This will sound weird, but what really bothers me most of all about Obama is that he looks like a kid.  His physical type is that of a permanent smart-ass teenager.  In much the same way, what bothered me most about Bush was that he was small, “too small for the job.”  Like Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice with the sleeves of the wizard’s robe overshooting his hands.  In both cases, the physical seems to stand for something beyond the physical.  In different ways, neither man had the gravitas, the weight, for the job.

Bush could be humble, and he could be smug — sure he was right without caring to know much.  Obama can be “open” and searching, but arrogant — sure he knows a lot and that that’s more important than being right.  They typify the two inadequate responses so far to the flood of new information from science, IT, and globalization:  just letting it all go by and not move you an inch, or letting yourself get carried away from all solid ground. Rigidity and floppiness.

But this post was supposed to be about Obama vs. Cheney.

The one thing you sure can’t say about Cheney is that he lacks gravitas.  He’s a heavy dude.

I commented on Twitter that the reason, or one reason, I think Obama is retaining so many Bush policies is because he’s really afraid of getting the blame for another terrorist attack.  And he will, if it happens.  We’ll never really know the backstory of the long hiatus without attacks, or of an attack if one happens.  We do know that al Qaeda takes long, patient years to prepare, and we suspect that they don’t want to do less than match or, better, top themselves.  If there is an attack, we’ll never know if it would’ve happened regardless of who was in the Oval Office.  It doesn’t matter.  The human brain in fear seeks bright, clear explanations, and under those circumstances the Republicans’ will be better.

A terrorist attack on Obama’s watch would in one sense be a ripe fruit falling into the Republicans’ lap.  No, I certainly don’t think they’re hoping for it.  I do think their worldview leads them to expect it, and if it happens, it will vindicate their worldview.  It doesn’t matter if the reality is more complicated than that.  Complexity is a luxury.


  1. wj said,

    What bothered me most about Bush was that he was a frat boy. That is, someone who insisted on acting immature — which is bad enough in a college student, and worse in someone several decades later.

    Obama, on the other hand, is a nerd. Someone who, whatever his age, actually enjoys thinking and isn’t ashamed to admit it. And, being a nerd myself, that resonates.

    I think gravitas is over-rated. True, you don’t want someone who is frivolous. But how an individual conducts himself is much more critical than how he looks. And, while I agree that Obama is one of those people who don’t show their age much, he acts like an adult. (Whether I am agreeing with him on a particular issue or not, I at least feel that he has thought seriously about it. Gotten the wrong conclusion, perhaps, but not because he couldn’t be bothered to think about what he was doing.)

  2. Ron said,

    Obama acts like an untenured faculty person.

    Gravitas is not overrated, it’s sorely lacking. We’re up to our eyeballs in nerds; nerds everywhere, picking our movies, our politics…I’m sick of ’em myself. They’re arrogant and won’t own up to it; they’re judgmental and blame everyone else if things go wrong; and they love thinking of themselves as underdogs especially when they run everything. I’ll take TR or George C. Marshall or George F. Kennan over Obama or Bush any day of the week. Hell, I’ll take FDR over them both by a big margin too.

    Cheney’s a growler; I’m not sure that’s gravitas, but a good attitude to have in a bar fight, if he’s on my side.

    I like JFK, and would get drunk and chase girls with him, but…no real gravitas there either, still more than O or B.

    To me, the man with the most gravitas these days is Brian Lamb, the guy in charge of CSPAN. That man holds my respect and my attention…and then I turn and look at Congress and the White House and think: “The goddamn inmates are running the asylum.”
    We do, indeed, get the government we deserves.

  3. Rod said,

    My gravitas nominees are Churchill, de Gaulle, John Paul II, Chou en Lai. They were all substantially older than me, and they seemed larger than life. Among the American Presidents who seemed larger than life, Nixon and Johnson come to mind. I didn’t like them, but they sure seemed to mean business. Ron’s choices aren’t bad at all, but they probably say something about his age, as do mine.

    A curse of getting older is that nobody seems larger than life.

    Life is larger than all of us.

  4. amba12 said,

    Hey, you just said a mouthful.

    WJ and Ron have a point, though, two sides of the same point: it’s not only that we get older, though it certainly is that; it’s also that types objectively change. Hard times breed hard people. Recent times, cocooned in technology, have bred metrosexuals and nerds. (The frat boy is more timeless, perhaps.)

    Which, in turn, makes me think I’ll go write the next post . . .

  5. wj said,

    I perhaps mis-used “nerd” to mean “someone who is capable of thinking, and is willing and unashamed to do so.” Which is, I believe, the biggest single difference between Bush II and Obama. It doesn’t require being judgmental; in fact, I would argue that it means respecting other people making decisions for themselves.

    I would support the need for serious and sensible people in charge. Teddy Roosevelt, General Marshall and Churchill certainly qualify. But unless I seriously misunderstand the term, “gravitas” is hard to apply to TR.

    I’m also not so sure that “hard times breed hard people.” I think that hard times favor those who are capable of being hard . . . but not so much those who are incapable of being anything else. And that “incapable of being anything but hard” approach rather describes American foreign policy for the last 8 years.

  6. amba12 said,

    The trouble, wj, is that it looks like it worked. In terms of preventing another terrible attack here. As I tried to say, we will never know for sure whether it was American hardness, and/or al-Qaeda’s patient long-term planning for something even bigger and more spectacular, that prevented an attack on U.S. soil in the last 8 years. Unquestionably, keeping al-Qaeda itself on the run and knocking off some of its key players has been important. Whether the Iraq war actually served to divert terrorists’ attention from “the homeland,” or whether it served to divert our attention from hunting down even more of al-Qaeda, is less certain. But there will always be those, like Cheney, who say, “Look, we kept you safe for 8 years,” and who can say it isn’t so? After all, we were safe for 8 years. And if an attack comes now, by the same logic it can and will be said that the change of administration and the lessening of American hardness is to blame.

  7. wj said,

    Well, there is also the possibility that the things we did during those 8 years, and which we would have done under any administration that I can think of, were what kept us safe. But our margin of safety was *diminished* by the “hard actions” that were taken.

    To take just one example: if we hadn’t been so enamored of acting “hard”, we might well have accepted when Iran offered to help us as we went into Afghanistan. Which would have:
    — significantly improved our chances of success there,
    — improved our relations with Iran (admittedly a low hurdle)
    — avoided leaving us dependent on Pakistan for access to, and transporting support for, our troops there (I see notional access to Afghanistan via China or Russia as not all that wonderful either.)
    [Note, for those who care, that this would by no means have prevented us from attacking Iraq, had we still been moved to. Saddam was hardly Iran’s greatest folk hero either. ;-) ]

    As you say, we cannot know what might have happened “if…”. But all of those seem exceptionally likely to have resulted. And all it would have taken would have been to let someone (even someone that we did not love) help us in a time of need. Something we managed to do in WW II, and the Cold War, and numerous other occasions throughout or history. But we chose to be “hard,” and reaped the result.

  8. wj said,

    In the first line, that should be “…the OTHER things we did during those 8 years…”

  9. Rod said,

    The only meaningful terrorist attacks (as opposed to acts of war like Pearl Harbor, or assassinations) on U.S. soil that I can think of in recent years are the first World Trade Center attack which killed 6, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which killed 168, and the 9/11 attacks. Oklahoma City had nothing to do with Arab Terrorism. You could as easily say whatever we did after the first World Trade Center attack kept us free from from further attacks by terrorists for 8 years.

    Attacking al-Qaeda in Afghanistan probably slowed down its ability to stage attacks in the U.S. to some degree. I find it hard to believe that anything we did in Iraq was more useful than if we had spent similar money on checking items coming into the U.S. and on tracking all visitors from Arab countries. Personally, I think domestic steps such as increased airport checks are more effective than attacking people not associated with the terrorism.

  10. amba12 said,

    Sure would still like to have some of that money to harden targets such as ports, chemical storage facilities, and the electrical power grid. None of that has appreciably been done, right? Huge vulnerabilities.

  11. amba12 said,

    Also, one of the scariest things I’ve ever read was a New Yorker story about Hezbollah’s nest in South America. Let’s see . . . yeah, here. 2002. Now add our porous southern border.

  12. wj said,

    Oops! Ron just hit one of my hot buttons.

    For increased security in the air, and preventing another 9/11, the only effective steps have been: 1) reinforced cockpit doors, and 2) armed air marshals on random flights. The increased airport checks have, IMHO, accomplished only one thing: they allow politicians to say (and keep saying) “see, we have done something.” That and disrupting the flow of travelers who are going about their lawful business.

  13. Ron said,

    The odds that we would have done something with Iran was a very, very low probability due to internal political reasons, both ours and theirs. So to say, “see, if only…” here really is grasping at straws. I guarantee you that you could play that game a 100 fold over any conflict; but if that’s your objection, then I think you have no substantive objection at all.

    The Iraq War may or may not work out; either way it will take some number of years to see the results.

  14. wj said,

    You are probably correct that any kind of formal alliance with Iran would have been a hard sell, in both countries. However we have managed to sell alliances with some pretty nasty characters over the years. And given the antipathy of the Taliban towards Shiites, I suspect Iran could have managed to cast us as a less bad alternative, should they have made the effort. But even without that, an agreement for support, even if not formalized, might well have been the path to a better situation.

    Yes, any suggestion about an alternative path for history is speculation. But some alternate choices were a lot more possible than others — and this one appears, from everything I have seen, to have been there for the taking. Or do you see a downside to cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan that I am missing?

  15. wj said,

    And while we could know sooner if Iraq goes to pieces, you are certainly correct that it will be years (perhaps decades) before anyone can say that Iraq is fine.

  16. amba12 said,

    To me, the single biggest criticism of the Iraq war (starting it in the first place) is the extent to which is has empowered Iran.

  17. amba12 said,

    And Iran’s possible interest in Iraq going to pieces.

  18. Ron said,

    It’s not that I see a downside to cooperation with Iran, it’s that saying we shouldn’t have been involved in the Iraq war for reasons like that is a substantial objection. Of all the possible outcomes, there could have been far, far worse than the one we have.

    I might even argue that leaving Saddam in place in ’03 would have been worse than what we have done; he (or his sons!) would have gone on with his own torture campaigns against groups like the kurds, would perhaps have tried to come up with a nuclear weapon, and quite possibly have attacked a neighboring state –again!–where the outcome could have been more like that First World War re-enactment that was the iran-Iraq War, and not the quick and dirty attack on Kuwait.. If back in ’91 he had chosen to lurch into Saudi Arabia, who could have stopped him in the moment? And how much pain and suffering would that have caused? No, the US does not always do things perfectly, but, for me, it’s easier to see far, far worse outcomes than what we have got.

    I agree, Amba, that Iran is a problem that has gotten worse because of the Iraq war, but dealing with one rouge cannon is easier than dealing with two.

  19. wj said,

    Ron, I didn’t say that we shouldn’t have gotten involved in Iraq. That’s a discussion for another time. All I said was that whether or not we accepted help from Iran would in no way have impacted, or been impacted, by whether we then got involved in Iraq. If anything, it might (might!) have provided additional impetus in that direction.

    Once we did so, how things progressed would likely have been different — but that’s among the alternate histories which are way harder to see than just accepting Iranian help in Afghanistan would have been.

  20. amba12 said,

    Ron, you may be right. Anyway, now it is what it is, and we must continue to make the best of it as began with the Surge.

  21. Ron said,

    I’m sorry wj, but you still don’t seem to me to be making a real point at all.

    1.) The odds of such an interaction with Iran were something I don’t even think would have been on the table.

    2.) If it has, by your own admission, no impact on the Iraq War than…what? I can’t see a point in what your saying.

    3.) I certainly don’t agree that ‘just accepting Iranian help’ would have made anything harder or easier, so again, what’s the point?

    4.) This is such a slim hypothtetical anyway, again, what real effect do you think it would had?

    Amba, I certainly agree with you; I’m just saying out of the range of possible outcomes we have, so far, something that we can build upon, and the disaster many predicted.

  22. wj said,


    1) Well, Iran did offer to help. For their trouble, a couple of weeks later they were branded part of the Axis of Evil. (They are certainly no angels. But how they beat out Burma, or Zimbabwe, or Sudan, I will never know!)

    2) The impact would have been on the war in Afghanistan, not the one in Iraq. (Sorry, I thought I had been clear on that. I only mentioned Iraq to note that there would not have been a major impact either way on attacking Saddam.)

    3) There would have been advantages to:
    a) having more help in Afghanistan. We were under-strength there from the beginning. Still are, for that matter.
    b) improved logistics. The majority of supplies come in overland thru Pakistan. Not the safest of routes.
    c) as an additional result of not having to go thru Pakistan, we would have much less need to pander to the Pakistani military. Which would not only have saved us a bundle of money, but had obvious geopolitical benefits which I’m sure you can see.

    4) If Iran had not offered, you would be right that it was a slim hypothetical. But my point is that they did offer. The offer was on the table; all we had to do was pick it up. But . . .

  23. Ron said,

    Well that’s interesting…but I never even heard of this before!

  24. wj said,

    Try Googling: iran offer 2003.

    Or check out directly this item from the BBC:

    It rather startled me, too, the first time I came across it. But it has turned up in the Washington Post, among others, as well as the BBC. I seem to recall an Economist article as well.

  25. Rod said,

    I was surprised by the Iran offer. I must admit I missed the stories about it at the time. Coming as it did, a few weeks after the U.S. occupied Baghdad, reminds me that the 2003 “Shock and Awe” Invasion of Iraq appeared immediately afterwards to have come closer to the Bush Administration’s expectations. I recall news reports at the time that anti-American leaders in the Middle East were shocked and depressed at how quickly a powerful army such as Iraq’s had gone down to defeat. Of course, the insurgency had not really surfaced yet. In the aftermath of the war, Libya offered to stop its support of terrorism.

    So, why turn down an overture from Iran?

    1. It involved turning over anti-Iran militants who had been operating out of Iraq. These may have been guys funded by us. They may have been supported by Saudi Arabia, which has been the linchpin of our Mideast foreign policy. This item could have become a sticking point, but, in and of itself, would not justify responding to see if it was a negotiable point.

    2. It appeared that we had just won the war. The offer of “help” in stabilizing Iraq was seen as an effort to increase Iranian influence in a majority Shiite country.

    3. Allowing Iran greater influence would have created problems with the ostensibly friendly Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia.

    4. Israel said no.

  26. PatHMV said,

    It’s easy to say, “we should have just worked with Iran on Afghanistan.” That assumes that we have some mutually-compatible, overlapping interests with Iran. I’m not sure that we do. Would they benefit from a stable Afghanistan while also benefiting from an unstable Iraq? Perhaps. Clearly they want an unstable Iraq, because they keep shipping IEDs and other weapons over there, just as they keep arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. The dynamics in Afghanistan might possibly be different enough that Iran’s interests WOULD have been best served by a more stable Afghanistan.

    But here’s the bottom line, that I ask whenever the subject of “cooperating” with Iran comes up, either in the context of Afghanistan or Iraq. How many rights of the Afghanis, or the Iraqis, are you willing to give up in return for their “support” in those countries? We’re not the ones who would pay the short-term price on any concessions. No, the people in Afghanistan and Iraq would have to pay those prices. If we were to allow Iran a role in governing or making policies for either of those countries, that would be a far worse war crime than anything George Bush is accused of (not that I think he committed any). We used our armies to destroy the governments and securities forces of those two nations. We were in functional control of them. In Geneva Convention terms, we were (are) an “occupying power,” and as such we have certain duties and obligations. And one of those, surely, is to not hand over any of the sovereign power over those nations to some other nation, particularly a nation which has been one of the historic enemies of those countries.

    WJ, note that one of the conditions Iran wanted was the forcible return to Iran of a group that had rebelled against the Iranian government. By what right would we do that? Do you support “rendition” as practiced by Presidents Clinton and Bush? Not that I have any sympathy for that particular group, but I fail to see how critics of Bush policies on terrorism, including concern over rendition and indefinite detention, could support agreeing to such demands from Iran.

    Beyond that, in what way has the government of Iran ever proven a willingness to abide by its agreements, or even the rule of law at all? Why make an agreement with someone who has broken most previous agreements? America is routinely told by such despots that America must apologize for various alleged misdeeds before any progress can be made, before they will agree to anything, but the same never seems to hold true for them. Where is an Iranian acknowledgment that taking our diplomats hostage was a deep affront to international law? I don’t favor harboring a grudge, but I also don’t favor taking the word of somebody who has broken their word and the law before, routinely, until they take some steps to demonstrate that they have seen the light. They’re liars in the international community, and it would be insane to forge any agreement with them.

    As for President Obama, how in the world can you say that he respects the rights of others to make decisions for themselves? Every action he’s taken so far has been along the path of REMOVING choice from all of us. He’s supporting limiting our choices for credit cards, by declaring what terms the card companies must offer. He supports health care proposals which will ultimately reduce the choice individuals have in deciding what medical care they receive. He’s apparently planning on a variety of tax proposals to control what choices we make regarding energy usage.

    I’ve never once gotten the impression that President Obama has seriously thought through any issue. I think he’s made a great effort to cultivate that appearance, to learn what kind of rhetoric to use to sound thoughtful. He knows how to acknowledge that there is some other side, without actually describing in much detail what the other side is. I think the abortion issue is typical for him. He talks about how we need to respect each other, but then insists on pursuing an absolutist position, no matter what. Notice that he never explains what his understanding of the other side of the abortion issue is, he never addresses or attempts to refute their arguments.

    He’s not bright at all, in my opinion. He’s a skilled rhetorician and politician. But fundamentally intelligent? I’ve seen no signs of it.

  27. amba said,

    Allowing Iran greater influence would have created problems with the ostensibly friendly Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia.

    Ironically, the Iraq war has also resulted in Iran having greater influence. Just sayin’.

  28. amba said,

    Which is not to say we should’ve handed it to them.

  29. wj said,

    Pat, I’m not suggesting that we should have accepted Iran’s first offer. Clearly their list of wants included things we should not have signed up for.

    I am suggesting that it would have been worthwhile to negotiate. The Taliban (and al Qaeda) are at least as down on Shiites as they are on the West. Which means that, in fighting them, our interests and Iran’s run together. That might not be enough to come to an agreement on acceptable terms . . . but it certainly seems like enough to start a conversation.

    As for the prospects of Iran honoring an agreement, it’s not a new problem. I seem to recall similar problems with unreliable (or even faithless-by-ideology) counter-parties all thru the Cold War, just for example. I’m certainly not an expert on how you design an agreement so that it is in both parties’ interests to keep to it over time. But it appears to be possible, albeit not easy.

  30. PatHMV said,


    There are 2 issues regarding honoring of agreements. First is providing that whatever Iran provides is verifiable. In our negotiations with Soviets (remember “trust, but verify”?), we required access to specific weapons facilities (which we could identify through satellite imagery and other information gathering means) to verify destruction of warheads.

    This is hard to do with a number of the concessions we would want from Iran. Tracking IEBs is much harder to do than ICBMs. “Stop funding Hezbollah” is fairly murky and very hard to verify. Even “stop enriching uranium” is not as easy as verifying the destruction of ICBMs, particularly since Iran, like Iraq, spent a lot of money to hide that stuff really well.

    Second is the will to enforce the agreement. Our recent history of dealing with both Saddam’s Iraq and North Korea suggests that America seriously lacks the will to enforce any agreement when the other side violates it, at least in any manner which deters non-compliance. Public pressure works on us; for that reason (among others), we generally uphold our end of the bargain in these deals. The other side, being far more tyrannical, generally doesn’t feel the same need to do so. What consequences has North Korea felt as a result of violating many of its agreements regarding nukes? Even more embargoes, that harm only the poor North Korean peasants but not the ruling class making the decisions? Without the will to enforce agreements like that, they are useless. If we got Iran to agree to stop providing IEDs to resistance movements in Iraq or Afghanistan, and then we gained intelligence suggesting (but perhaps not proving entirely) that Iran continued to do so, what would we, realistically, be able to do?

    There’s very little that Iran wanted that it was in our long-term strategic best interest (or morally right) to give. We have been criticized by many in the past for our “real politik,” which placed more emphasis on “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” type of thinking which you advocate. As many on the left thrill to point out, we provided some tacit support to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, because of that same thinking. That is not generally recognized as the finest hour of our foreign policy. Heck, plenty of folks have criticized us for arming the mujahadeen to fight the Soviets, since some of the mujahadeen went on to become the Taliban. We’re still frequently criticized for remaining so friendly, as a matter of foreign policy, to the Saudis.

    Finally, I’ve yet to see anybody perform a thorough evaluation of what Iran might have wanted (in return for cooperation in Afghanistan) which we could legitimately and without shame provided them. Maybe there was something, but I’ve never seen anybody identify those things.

  31. amba said,

    We’re also criticized, a bit further back, for the CIA-engineered overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq for our friend the Shah. (In our defense, we said he had Communist leanings. And he was nationalizing oil.) Not our brightest hour neither.

  32. PatHMV said,

    Absolutely. Further proof that we rarely get it right when we meddle in the internal affairs of other countries. We took action to remove clear threats to our interests (and I’m not trying to stir up a whole debate on the Iraq war, if you disagree, fine, but let’s focus on the larger point). Having done so, we had a responsibility to those whose country we broke to help put it back together rather than to descend into lawlessness. But we have no right to treat those people, now that we occupy them, as pawns in a political power game, and we should think long and hard before getting involved anybody else’s internal power struggles, or even regional power struggles in far-flung parts of the world.

  33. wj said,


    First, while an agreement now would have to address the nuclear weapons issue, I am not sure that it was an issue in 2003. (Maybe it should have been. But was it? I simply do not recall.)

    Enforcing an agreement (yes, I do remember “trust, but verify”) does require will. But it is also possible to have agreements where verification is inherent in the ongoing process. For example, if part of the agreement was that Iran allow military supply flights over its territory, it would be immediately apparent if that was no longer being followed. (And yes, I too would want to have alternative supply routes in place and in use. But having an alternative to Pakistan would also give the Pakistanis a little less of the feeling that they hold the whip hand, would it not? Some further up side there.)

    The supplying of IEDs is more difficult to police (actually, I would say impossible — but then, I still remember a little chemistry from long ago). But even a severe reduction would be pretty noticeable. And one of the reasons to make an agreement is to start a process which will, at least possibly, reduce the motivation for that kind of behavior.

    I don’t think that I agree that there was very little that Iran wanted in Afghanistan which was in our long-term interest. Iran wanted the Taliban out of power; so did we. Iran wanted al Qaeda smashed; so, as I recall, did we. And we both wanted those pretty seriously, because we both saw them as in our long term best interests. What kind of government would be best in Afghanistan (or Iraq) might not be an area of agreement — but complete agreement is not required for cooperation. (Heck, we don’t even agree with the Canadians on everything!)

    But it doesn’t fit my understanding of “real politik” if we simply cooperate with someone to the extent that our interests converge. In this case, suppose we (try to) take out al Qaeda and the Taliban, which we were already doing. And we accept access to supply routes and maybe a bit of intelligence from Iran, which requires no obvious compromise of our honor or ideals. We gain. Iran gains. At most, Iran could (at a stretch) be said to be making a microscopic sacrifice of its sovereignty by allowing our military supply aircraft to fly over the edges of its territory — and that’s a real stretch.

    And the cost to us? We don’t get to posture and generally flaunt our arrogance on the world stage . . . well, not quite as much. We probably don’t even have to make the horrible sacrifice of face entailed in publicly saying Thank You — Iran really, really wanted al Qaeda and the Taliban gone.

    Now Iran’s initial bargaining position (the ideal case for them) included a bunch of stuff that we could not agree to. And it may be that Iran’s minimum requirements would have included some still. But it also might not have. And, without talking to them there was no way to find out what that minimum actually was.

  34. wj said,

    Pat, I completely agree with your points at 12:53.

  35. PatHMV said,

    wj, if Iran simply wanted to get rid of the Taliban, it could have opened up its routes to us without demanding much of anything in return. That’s where our mutual interests converged. But it wanted to use our potential desire for access to cause us to give it other things, such as influence over the future course of Afghanistan. Remember that Iran is antagonistic not just to al Qaeda (in theory) but also to all Sunnis. How much influence can or should we let it have over the future development of Afghanistan? That’s what it really wanted out of the deal, and that’s what we had no right to give them.

    As for talking with them to find out what their minimum really is, we must at the same time know what the maximum we can afford to give is, before we go in. When you go to negotiate the purchase of a home, you go in already having figured out the top amount you can afford to pay, the amount above which you walk away from the deal. I’ve never seen any serious discussion, from the folks who want to negotiate with Iran, over what that maximum on our end is. Going into a negotiation without knowing your own bottom line is not a good idea, to say the least.

  36. wj said,

    Pat, like you, I haven’t seen a complete report on what Iran asked for. But even if they were willing to settle for just allowing us to fly over their routes, it is hardly surprising that they would at least ask initially for anything and everything. Why not try and see if something extra can be gained? If the other negotiating party says no, nothing lost by having tried.

    But there is a world of difference between saying “No, we are not willing to give you a bunch of stuff” or “no, nothing is on the table except getting this thorn removed from your side” and saying, as we did, “You are agents of evil [and obviously we will destroy you as well, as soon as we get around to it].” The former is, perhaps, a snub; the latter is an implicit declaration of unwavering hostility and total unwillingness to recognize even any possibility of common interests.

    Certainly you have to go into a negotiation with some idea of how much you are prepared to give. (While recognizing that something may come up that you hadn’t thought of initially.) But when shopping for a house, is there not a world of difference between saying “your price is totally unrealistic” (which leaves open the possibility that a reasonable price might be asked later) and saying “I figure to come around and utterly destroy you, as soon as I find a convenient moment” (which suggests that price is totally irrelevant)?

  37. PatHMV said,

    Yes. But the difference between us at this point, I think, is that I don’t think there was anything that we could have agreed to give Iran which would be politically or morally acceptable. I think the burden is on those proposing to negotiate with a fundamentally evil regime to say ahead of time what they think we might could agree to give up, rather than blithely assert that we should negotiate with them to see what happens.

    In a negotiation, you can’t just say “nope, make us another offer.” At some point, the other party stops negotiating with itself and says “make us a counter-offer.” In reality, that’s what you have to start out with. Iran made an offer, we can’t realistically say “make us a better one” (well, we can, but that’s functionally the same as saying flat no, with nothing further, to their initial offer). What counter-offer would you make? I haven’t seen anybody say “no, we can’t rendition the rebels they want, but we could offer X.” What is X that we make as our initial counter-offer? What X, or what subsequent counter-offer Y or Z could we make that you think would have been acceptable to Iran?

    The fundamental interests of the Iranian regime are: 1) stay in power, 2) expand their influence in the region, 3) expand Shi’ism as they interpret it, and 4) exploit the Israel-Palestine issue to further purposes 1, 2, and 3. Any deal they make with us, they would make because they think it will further those purposes. Are any of those purposes ones which we would wish to further?

    Iran offered to help with Afghanistan because they feared chaos seeping over their border and also, if we had agreed, an opportunity to assert further power in the region. If they have to spend money on securing that border, that’s money which is unavailable to be sent to Hezbollah or used to construct IEDs, or to pay North Korea for nuclear technology. Under its current regime, Iran is fundamentally a strategic enemy to us. Their interests in the region are absolutely antithetical to ours. We want to promote more secular governments, which are more hospitable to basic human rights and the equal treatment of men and women. We want to protect the continued existence of the only real democracy in the area, Israel. They want to stone homosexuals. They want to destroy Israel off the face of the map. They want to destabilize a Lebanon which had slowly begun to creep towards being an independent democracy. They want to use terrorism to accomplish their ends.

    Yes, the Soviets did a lot of that, too, which was all the more reason to generally refuse to negotiate with them. When we did negotiate with them, we usually wound up throwing other people under the bus. We acquiesced to the Iron Curtain, which resulted in the virtual enslavement of hundreds of millions of Easter Europeans for decades. We perhaps had to negotiate with that Evil Empire simply because they had huge numbers of ICBMs and an army which could probably make a successful invasion of Western Europe. When we did negotiate with them, it was only over clear matters, matters which could be easily quantified and verified. We didn’t negotiate with them for the KGB to stop supporting terrorism or to stop conducting assassinations. Perhaps we had to negotiate with the Soviets. Iran’s an entirely different story.

  38. wj said,

    Well, I guess where I’m coming from is that, even if we ended up not taking their help, we could still have been a distance from kicking them in the teeth for their offer. As for which of their goals we support, I wonder about this perspective. We may consider that their regime is antithetical to ours. But we are not (and in 2003 definitely were not) in a position to take direct action on that front. So something which makes them feel (rightly or wrongly) more secure is not so much supporting them as simply refraining from overtly attacking them.

    And, as I think about it, suppose we had accepted their minimal assistance. At that point, their ability to convincingly cast us, for domestic consumption, as the cause of all the worlds problems is undermined. (Modern communications can be soooo effective.) And the Iranian government is already doing a relatively effective job of alienating their population — countered, at least in part, by the specter of the evil Americans. Weaken that outside boogieman, and you actually do more to undermine the regime that we dislike than anything we have managed in the last few years.

    You raise some good points regarding the USSR, although I would say that we did a lot more negotiating with them than you suggest. At least, that’s my memory of the time. Certainly we were not going to turn the Iranian government around in one negotiation. Still aren’t. But that doesn’t mean that there may not be some clear, readily verifiable, matters where we could not make some progress — just like with the USSR. In that regard, I would suggest that Iran is not at all an entirely different story.

  39. PatHMV said,

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree, I guess. No harm in that. My opinion is that nothing we do, short of total capitulation, is going to have a lot of impact on their ability to cast us as the Great Satan boogie-man. As long as we support Israel, as long as we allow sexual libertine-ness, they will be busy telling their people how evil they are. I doubt that there are very many people in Iran who will say “oh, we saw on the TV set that the Americans are negotiating with the Mullahs; perhaps the Americans don’t want to kill us for the sake of the Zionist conspiracy all like the Mullahs say.”

    Negotiating with a regime like Tehran’s comes at several costs. For every person in Iran who just might be persuaded (or moved in a positive direction) along the lines you describe, there’s very likely to be at least one fierce internal critic of the regime going “damn, stupid Americans are selling us out AGAIN.” Post- Cold War, we don’t have a real good reputation for really sticking with and supporting those who are bravely resisting tyranny, especially in the Islamic world.

  40. Ron said,

    wj, I still find your position baffling. Look, in 1962 the US was willing to go to nuclear war over the basing of missiles in Cuba. How do you think we are going to react to a conventional attack on New York and DC, even 40 years later? Sit down and have a nice chat with the Iranians about our mutual interests and come up with a modus vivendi? You could have argued we pushed the Japanese to attack us before Dec 7th, but were we going negotiate with them then? What exactly was the behavior of Imperial Japan from 1930 to 1941, something open to negotiation? Sure didn’t look like it!

    I suppose the Russians could have brought us in to negotiate with the Chechens after the Moscow theater bombing, but why would not be surprised if they would have said “No Thanks, we got this.” What happened after that makes our Iraq War look like High Tea.

    I don’t think it’s arrogance for powers of this size to react militarily to what they perceive as the immediate threat (rightly or wrongly) and not to negotiate with states whose ‘support’ would be shaky at best.

    Mind, I’m not saying this is correct in and of itself, but our attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq are one of a piece.

  41. wj said,

    Nobody (certainly not me!) is suggesting that we respond to a nuclear attack with negotiations. (Heck, I didn’t even have a problem attacking Afghanistan after an attack which was non-nuclear and not even by the government; they just gave sanctuary to those who did.) On the other hand, last I heard we had not been subjected to such an attack by Iran. Are there some in Iran would would like to? It wouldn’t surprise me. Ditto in Russia, China, Pakistan, and possibly even in the U.S. But it hasn’t happened so far — which means that we aren’t in the position of making a ridiculously weak response to such an attack. Or even to an officially announced intention of such an attack.

    I don’t quite see the parallel with Chechnia either. The Chechens were Russian citizens (however unenthusiastic) and Russian had no logistic barriers to their response. Our knowledge of the area was low — even by the standards of American knowledge of the rest of the world. What could we have possibly have provided (assuming we wished to) that would be comparable to what Iran could have provided us in Afghanistan?

    It’s not arrogance for a country to react militarily to a threat. Or even, necessarily, to act alone. On the other hand, IMHO it is arrogance to respond to an offer of assistance, even from an non-friend, with: “we hate you too much to even talk to you, let alone accept any help from you [even though we need it]!”

    I’ve not sure that we are all that far apart, but sure we can agree to disagree. At least we are managing to disagree in a civil manner. Must be Amba’s soothing influence. ;-)

  42. amba said,

    Or even to an officially announced intention of such an attack.

    However, Iran supports groups whose openly stated goal is the destruction of our ally, Israel.

  43. PatHMV said,

    Always a pleasure to engage in civil discourse with those who have ideas other than mine, wj (however wrong-headed they may be!).

    As a last point, I would clarify your last sentence in your penultimate paragraph. I don’t think anybody’s suggesting we should refuse to negotiate with Iran because of hate. I think we should refuse to negotiate with them because: 1) the governing regime in Tehran is fundamentally deceitful in its conduct of international affairs and 2) because our interests and those of the ruling mullahs are fundamentally incompatible, and thus anything which helps them, hurts us (and our allies) in the long run.

  44. wj said,

    And I, on the other hand, think that we should be willing to talk to anyone who shows signs of being willing to be helpful, even if in a very limited arena. We might not succeed in reaching an agreement, but I can see a benefit in perhaps sucking them into something.

    And I think Iran falls into that category. The mullahs have some constraints on their behavior as well: they have a population which is not happy with the way that their national economy has been managed. And which knows enough about the outside world to realize that it could be done better. With less of an easy external threat, the mullahs’ situation actually deteriorates.

    Now if you wanted to cite someone who was totally and fundamentally deceitful in their conduct of foreign affairs, North Korea might be a real solid case. It is a mistake to get committed in advance to reaching an agreement with such people. But even there, there can be some benefits to talking — if only in our relations with others in the area.

  45. amba said,

    With less of an easy external threat, the mullahs’ situation actually deteriorates.

    That I think is an excellent point, wj. The “axis of evil” rhetoric certainly played into the mullahs’ hands in terms of rallying their population, rousing a defensive patriotism in Iranians who might otherwise be alienated from their government.

    Pertinent: James Fallows quotes a friend on Iran, including many Iranians’ affection for Americans.

  46. amba said,

    Fallows thought Obama’s way of addressing the Iranians was shrewd; perhaps that will lead some to dismiss him. If so, I hope you read it first and dismiss it here point by point.

  47. amba said,

    I.e. Fallows says “I think it is part of a shrewd long-term play for rapprochement with an Iranian public that by all reports is potentially far more pro-Western than its current zealot leadership. Of course the same people who disagreed with Obama in 2002 about the wisdom of invading Iraq are certain to denounce him now for being too soft.”

  48. amba said,

    Important links in that last one, for those who have the time and patience to follow them.

  49. amba said,

    However, Li’l Kim could be the “outside source” of weapons-grade material Ahmadinejad needs to get nuclear faster. Then the “axis of evil” would become a reality.

  50. PatHMV said,

    Annie, I’m not sure what Fallows is arguing, beyond describing why it would be foolish for us to attack them, which is a separate issue from whether we should negotiate with them.

    Yes, the people in Iran largely like America and Americans, at some level. Many like to watch American TV on the satellite dishes their government tries to prohibit them from having. But while Iran has some democratic elements in it, in that the mullahs do respond at least a bit to public pressures, the mullahs themselves are firmly in control of the country, and public opinion would not be allowed to influence decisions such as whether to build (or use) a nuclear weapon.

    Fallows claims that Iran has never attacked another country. That’s not true. They have not done so directly, but through their proxy, Hezbollah, they have attacked both Lebanon and Israel. They have, through Shi’ite proxies in Iraq, attacked Iraqis and American forces in Iraq. And they have no legitimate complaint regarding any “approval” we may have given Saddam Hussein to commence the Iran-Iraq war: they were at the time committing an act of war against our country by holding our diplomats hostage and invading our sovereign embassy territory.

    Fallows’ argument seems to be that Iran does, in fact, have a legitimate right to nuclear weapons, since Israel, Pakistan, and India have them. Well, if Iran does, so do Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and every other country in the region. Does he support a regional arms race? None of those other countries wants to feel dominated by a nuclear-armed Iran. If Iran is allowed to become a nuclear power for those reasons, then we must allow all of its neighbors to similarly become nuclear powers, for the same reason. We can just go ahead and shred the nearly-worthless NPT.

    He seems to keep coming back to Israel and the absurd claim that Israel poses some threat to Iranian interests. Israel just wants to be left alone at this point. They are not contiguous to Iran, they hold no territory claimed by Iran.

    Fallows also seems to be holding Iranian officials to a very different standard than U.S. officials. George Bush slipped up and used the word “crusade” in a single speech, and was denounced as a cowboy, whose words would give rise to a whole new wave of anti-Americanism. The President of Iran says that Israel must be wiped from the map, and this is mere demagoguery, which any rational person would ignore, because it’s clearly only intended to fire up the home front.

    Fallows fundamentally seems to believe that Iran really is only wanting to acquire nuclear weapons for defensive purposes. Yet the only cause we’ve ever cited for even THINKING about attacking Iran is their attempt ta acquire nuclear weapons. Saddam’s refusal to allow inspections of his WMD capabilities was a significant factor in deciding to attack Iraq. What need does Iran have of nuclear weapons, other than to coerce their neighbors into bending to their will?

  51. amba said,

    the absurd claim that Israel poses some threat to Iranian interests. Israel just wants to be left alone Well, the precedent of Osirak certainly does pose a threat to Iran’s nuclear ambitions! Osirak turned out very much for the best. Iran’s a different story — nuclear facilities much more dispersed, concealed, and hardened. Israel poses the threat of a cornered animal that has not succumbed to “learned helplessness” and is very prepared to defend itself, preemptively if necessary. But Israel has no motive for aggression against its neighbors except its own survival.

    To sum up: What a mess!

  52. amba said,

    What need does Iran have of nuclear weapons, other than to coerce their neighbors into bending to their will? Yep. Iran aspires to be a Great Power and to dominate its region, and nowadays a Great Power needs a big nuclear . . . well, you know.

  53. PatHMV said,

    Annie, yes, of course Israel poses a threat to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the claim Fallows seems to be making is that the Iranians only want nuclear to protect themselves against the risk of attack by Israel and the U.S. It’s a very circular argument, because the only reason for the threat to Iran from Israel or the U.S. is Iran’s own efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and its own efforts to inflict terror on America and Israel.

    When the bully says he needs a gun for self-defense, because the people he’s picking on are fighting back against his bullying, is that a good argument?

  54. PatHMV said,

    But of course you knew that already! I should have read a little closer your comment 51…

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