Obama should apologize to Iran

It seems odd that President Obama is willing to apologize for American actions in so many instances, but not for the actual violation of an internationally-recognized border by the United States in the conduct of an espionage operation. An American drone touched down 140 miles inside Iranian territory, and the White House is refusing to apologize for our aerial invasion.

The drone crash is an open and shut case: there is nothing the RQ-170 could have been doing other than collecting intelligence. We have lots of good reasons to be collecting intelligence inside Iran; but our government committed an act of espionage, intruding clandestinely into another country, something that is illegal although widely practiced.

The president looks foolish calling for Iran to return the drone while petulantly refusing to explain our actions that resulted in being caught en flagrante delicto committing espionage. Especially given our outrage a few months ago when the U.S. traced to Iran's Qu'uds force a bungled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

After China shot down an American spy plane near Hainan Island in 2001, the Bush Administration apologized, saying we were very sorry both for causing the death of a Chinese military pilot that had intercepted our plane, and for entering Chinese airspace. Technically, the letter was "an expression of regret," while claiming we did nothing wrong, but for all practical purposes, we apologized to China.

By not apologizing for what is a clear infraction of an (often compromised) norm of international behavior, President Obama both justifies Iran's attempts to conduct espionage inside the U.S., and makes us look like a brutish superpower that flaunts the rules. So much for a new era of respect for international law and cooperation under President Obama. Senator Obama would surely have cited such behavior by the previous administration as one more demonstration of the arrogance making the U.S. so unpopular in the world.

It may be the drone just wandered off course from Afghanistan or elsewhere and was not intended to be over Iranian airspace. It may be we were plotting grid coordinates to target Iran's nuclear program, which it continues in violation of its commitment in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty not to pursue weapons and despite numerous United Nations Security Council Resolutions condemning its actions. It may be the drone was collecting radiation emissions from recent activity at know Iranian centrifuge or testing sites in support of the International Atomic and Energy Agency.

The Iranians claim to have used cyberwarfare to down the drone, a claim that is unlikely and that our explanation should also put to rest. Iran ought to be very worried that we can operate with impunity in their airspace; fueling that concern is a useful deterrent given Iranian nuclear and missile programs.

Whatever the explanation is, the president or a senior figure in the administration should actually give the explanation, both to the American people and to the world. Thomas Jefferson was right that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them."

The president should apologize. He should also use the explanation as an opportunity to review all the reasons we feel the need to collect intelligence inside Iran: 

  • Iran's unrelenting march to build nuclear weapons; 
  • that Iran is the world's most enthusiastic state sponsor of terrorism, including a recent effort to conduct political killings in America; 
  • support to Hezbollah destabilizing the government of Lebanon; 
  • funding and recruiting Shi'ia militia in Iraq; 
  • assistance to Hamas derailing progress toward peace in Palestine; 
  • the erratic international behavior of Iran's leadership; 
  • degrading repression of its own people;
  • widespread fraud in the 2009 elections -- protests by Iranians were the first flowering of the so-called Arab Spring.

Why the president would be hesitant to do so in this instance, where we are clearly in the wrong, is mysterious. Perhaps the president doesn't want to be seen apologizing to one of the world's worst governments. Nor might he want to remind voters of his commitment to negotiate with that government, or his awkward tendency to blame both aggressor and victim by urging restraint on both sides during the election protests. Still, he should apologize... and continue conducting intelligence overflights of Iran.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Victory in Iraq!

The Obama administration is attempting to cast the Iraq war as a triumph of the president's vision for American foreign policy.  As a candidate, he promised to bring this war to an end, and as president he's done so.  It also conveniently fits into the Obama campaign's general narrative that President Obama inherited problems of Herculean magnitude.  

But, in fact, the Iraq war was on a glide path to conclusion at the end of the Bush administration: the increased troop commitment of the surge and its accompanying counterinsurgency tactics had succeeded in breaking the dynamic of insurgent success; it had concluded the Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq that the Obama administration is now taking such credit for.  

What remained to be done when the Obama administration took office was implementing the agreement in ways that strengthened the practices and institutions of democracy in Iraq, incentivized non-sectarian political cooperation, continued confidence-building measures (especially along the Kurdish fault lines), reassured Iraq both of their sovereignty and our continuing involvement, and fostered support for Iraq among U.S. allies in the region.   

What the Obama administration achieved instead is a faster end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, but one that undercut the political objectives it remains in American interest to attain.  Iraqis may achieve those things despite our policies, but they are not achieving them because of our policies.  On that President Obama deserves to be held account.  

The administration claimed it was committed to a "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq.  But their policies of establishing deadlines unconnected to the progress of our war aims, inattention to political developments within Iraq, and unwillingness to acknowledge he increasing repressiveness of the Maliki government have shown the administration's emphasis on withdrawal rather than responsibility.  

On President Obama's watch, the Maliki government struck hundreds of opposition Parliamentary candidates off the ballot; violated the Iraqi Constitution's principle that the party gaining the most Parliamentary seats has the right to form a government; kept the country in a state of suspended animation without a government for seven months; refused a non-sectarian coalition choosing instead coalition with the virulently anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr; has not appointed either a minister of defense or a minister of the interior, preferring to hold those powers himself; declined to join in Arab League sanction of Syria's government; looked the other way as Shi-ia militia emerged that, according to GEN Austen, the commander in Iraq, parallel Hezbollah in Lebanon; and now has arrested hundreds of Sunni "coup plotters."  Maliki has begun to resemble a character from the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, banal in his ruthlessness.

Maliki has even claimed that the U.S. is to blame for Iranian influence in Iraq, explaining that Iran had justification for its actions -- the "excuse was that the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil...with it ends all thinking, calculations and possibilities for interference in Iraqi affairs under any other banner."  If Maliki actually believes that, it is both offensive and dangerously self-deceptive.

The Obama administration felt no need to counter the Iraqi prime minister's statement; indeed, that would make news, and the only news the Obama administration wants about Iraq is "It's Over!"  The president's consistent emphasis in talking about Iraq is that finally, the last American troops are coming home.  

If no troops in Iraq is the metric for success, then President Obama has led us to success in the Iraq war.  But if capitalizing on the gains won by our military to nurture an Iraq that is more than a Shi-ia autocracy leaning toward Iran, President Obama has merely conceded our political aims in order to get our troops out.