Shadow Government

Memo to Ben Rhodes: The Bush Administration Ended 5 Years Ago

Commenting on last weekend's Iran deal, today's New York Times reports:

White House officials suggest that the president always planned to arrive at this moment, and that everything that came before it -- from the troop surge in Afghanistan to the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden -- was cleaning up after his predecessor.

Let's consider that claim. Is it really credible that the last five years of American diplomacy have been little more than a mopping-up operation by Team Obama of its predecessor's mistakes? According to presidential aide Ben Rhodes, for whom the 2008 campaign never ended, the answer is apparently yes:

"In 2009, we had 180,000 troops in two wars and a ton of legacy issues surrounding terrorism," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. "So much that was done out of the box was winding down those wars. We've shifted from a very military face on our foreign policy to a very diplomatic face on our foreign policy."

Set aside the fact that, during George W. Bush's administration, the United States was attacked on its soil for the first time since Pearl Harbor by a terrorist network that continues to actively target the American people -- events now known as "legacy issues surrounding terrorism."

If President Barack Obama wants his diplomacy to be judged against that of his predecessor, it is worth an honest look at Bush's own scorecard. It certainly included its share of stumbles and setbacks. But set aside the ideological blinkers, and it appears that the Bush administration conducted some rather credible diplomatic footwork. This included:

  • Assembling a coalition of 50 countries for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan
  • Assembling a coalition of 49 countries for the war in Iraq
  • Working with allies to induct seven new members from Central and Eastern Europe into NATO in 2004
  • Standing up a Proliferation Security Initiative bringing together approximately 100 countries to halt the illicit trade in nuclear weapons components
  • Negotiating and enacting 13 bilateral trade agreements, as well as concluding two more, with South Korea and Colombia, approved by Congress after Bush left office
  • Breaking open a far-reaching strategic partnership with India by successfully negotiating an unprecedented approval for India's civilian-nuclear trade with the 35-nation International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group.

It would be unfair to Obama to benchmark against eight years of his predecessor's diplomacy when he has had only five -- particularly given the historical trend of second-term presidential activism in foreign policy. But American statecraft under Obama has seemed mainly to involve delivering a set of well-written speeches while pivoting toward America's adversaries and away from its friends.

Obama's diplomatic record is patchy, to put it mildly. It includes:

  • Failure to negotiate a follow-on force agreement with the Iraqi government in 2011, leading to the total withdrawal of U.S. forces and Iraq's descent into political violence
  • Impending failure to negotiate a follow-on force agreement with the Afghan government, which as in Iraq could lead to the squandering of a decade's worth of sacrifice at considerable detriment to U.S. interests
  • A diplomatic "reset" with Russia that has freed that country to directly undermine U.S. interests by arming Bashar al-Assad's regime, blocking sanctions against both Syria and Iran at the U.N. Security Council, blackmailing Ukraine into walking away from the path to Europe, and deepening the Russian army's occupation of Georgia
  • A self-declared "pivot" to Asia that has left many of America's friends and allies in the region doubting whether the commitment of resources and high-level attention matches the country's rhetoric
  • A sleepwalking approach to the Arab Awakening that has accomplished the neat trick of alienating both allied Arab regimes and the Arab street, earning America even more enmity (if that was possible) across the political spectrum in pivotal countries like Egypt
  • A diplomatic agreement on Syria that transformed Assad from the target of military attack to a partner in peace even as his army continued killing his fellow citizens, making a mockery of American "red lines" and leaving America's allies incredulous
  • A diplomatic agreement with Iran that does little to diminish its latent nuclear capacity or its state sponsorship of terrorism, producing the sharpest break in American relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia in a generation.

Bush's critics at home and abroad charged his administration with contempt for allies, undue deference to China's authoritarian rulers, and naiveté in seeking a disarmament deal with North Korea. Obama's critics at home and abroad charge his administration with contempt for allies, undue deference to Russia's authoritarian ruler, and naiveté in seeking disarmament deals with Iran and Syria. Maybe not so much has changed after all, Mr. Rhodes.

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Neither Historic nor a Historic Mistake

The November 23rd nuclear agreement between Iran and six great powers has already been called "historic" and a "historic mistake" "worse than Munich." In reality, both descriptions are overwrought.

The six-month interim deal is simply a standstill agreement, generally providing that neither party will be further disadvantaged while a broader settlement is negotiated. Whether or not such an accord can be completed and enforced remains in doubt. Already the two sides are sparring over what the interim deal means.

The White House case for the agreement notes that it: halts production of uranium enriched above 5 percent and requires that existing stocks be diluted or turned to oxide form; halts installation of new centrifuge capabilities; freezes stocks of 3.5 percent enriched uranium (unless converted to oxide); freezes construction of the Arak heavy water reactor; and affords the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) better access and more information. These provisions generally slow progress on declared civil nuclear activities, and in the case of the uranium enriched to near 20 percent, impose a modest rollback.

In return, the U.S. administration claims that Iran will receive only "limited, temporary, reversible" relief from sanctions, amounting to about $7 billion, while broader sanctions will remain in place, with over $100 billion in funds frozen, and restrictions on oil sales continuing to cost Tehran $4 billion per month.

Why, then, has the deal evoked such opposition in the United States, with even influential Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Chuck Schumer criticizing it?

First, the deal does not halt Iran's uranium enrichment program, despite U.N. Security Council and IAEA Board of Governors resolutions requiring Tehran to suspend this work. More importantly, this likely presages a more permanent agreement allowing Iran to enrich uranium. Why is that problematic? An overt Iranian enrichment program will make it more difficult to monitor for a secret weapons program. Imports, manufacturing capability, the work of technicians could all be ascribed to the licit program, but instead might well be diverted to a covert capability. Is it likely that Iran would develop a clandestine enrichment facility? There has hardly been a time over the last 15 years that Iran was not doing so.

Second, the deal does nothing to affect military activities. Iran's missile programs will continue unabated. Tehran still has not satisfied the IAEA's specific and detailed concerns about "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear programs.

Third, there is real concern that once any sanctions are lifted, they will be impossible to reinstate, and that oil thirsty China, India, and Korea will seek more trade. Once efforts to isolate Iran are reversed, the momentum could be impossible to stop. For example, even the hope of a deal lifted prospects for Iran's tourism industry.

How should these concerns be resolved? A key test will be whether or not Tehran resolves the IAEA's concerns about "possible military dimensions" to the Iranian nuclear program. Those concerns are based on specific, credible information from multiple sources about activities that could only logically be explained by a nuclear weapons program. Moreover, some of the information points to a covert uranium processing capability, which would be a means to evade IAEA safeguards. If the IAEA is afforded proper access to people, sites, and documents, it can determine the nature and extent of the activities and, if necessary, root them out. This would be a strong indication that Iran has made a strategic decision not to pursue nuclear weapons.

If, on the other hand, Tehran is grudging and disingenuous in addressing the IAEA's concerns, compliance with any broader nuclear settlement will likely also be incomplete. We would then know that Tehran would rather protect its nuclear weapons options than to live under a lasting agreement. Sanctions should not only be re-imposed, but also strengthened. The six months provided under the interim agreement is more than enough time to test Tehran's sincerity in addressing these issues, even if an ultimate resolution will likely take longer.

If these issues remain unresolved in six months, some will say, "Why let problems from the past prevent progress today? Let's look forward, not back." It is, however, only by understanding the Iranians's past actions that we can have confidence in their future ones.

The administration maintains that, "The set of understandings also includes an acknowledgment by Iran that it must address all United Nations Security Council resolutions -- which Iran has long claimed are illegal -- as well as past and present issues with Iran's nuclear program that have been identified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would include resolution of questions concerning the possible military dimension of Iran's nuclear program, including Iran's activities at Parchin."

In evaluating any final nuclear deal six months from now, Iran must be held to this standard, otherwise we would indeed be making a "historic mistake."

ARASH KHAMOOSHI/AFP/Getty Images