Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Los Angeles Times Talks About Iran and Shows Why the West is so Weak and in Apparent Decline

By Barry Rubin

Help! Our lives have been turned into a parody, a satire. How else can you explain things like the Los Angeles Times editorial of September 8, entitled, “The U.S. and Iran: It's time to talk.” The editorial isn’t just stupid; it’s full of lessons on how large parts of the Western elite thinks about international affairs nowadays. It’s scarier than a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

After all, this is one of the major newspapers of America, supposedly run by adults, and it serves a major city. How could it be so completely unresponsive to reality, to news and developments, living in a fantasy world? Even the quality of writing is so bad that I checked to make sure this wasn’t a hoax.

Of course, we know this is due to ideology (everyone must want to be friends; nothing is worth struggling for); willful blindness (Radical, anti-American Islamists sponsoring terrorism? We don’t see any radical anti-American Islamists sponsoring terrorism!), and a complete lack of comprehension about how other political cultures think and behave.

Yet even granted all that how can supposedly serious people write an opening paragraph like this one:

“A conversation with the Tehran regime is the best option for dealing with our differences. The possibility of failure shouldn't Obama from making the effort.”

Really? Is this true after years of failed talks, after the Tehran regime's recent rejections of Obama’s efforts, after the stolen election and the ferocious repression (unprecedented even in the quarter-century since the Islamist revolution), after the lies and cheating and broken commitments on Tehran’s part?

Someone can only say this if they believe that there is no alternative in the international affairs' repetoire between going to war, which is bad, or talking, which would no doubt involve U.S. concessions to prove America’s good intentions. And sure enough:

“French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have said it best some years ago when he declared that the only real alternative to `an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran’ was a concerted diplomatic push by world powers to address that country's nuclear program.”

Does this newspaper have any conception of power politics, of what the word “concerted” means here? Does it have any idea what it will mean for U.S. interests, the Middle East, the lives of millions of people if Iran gets nuclear weapons?

Of course, the subtext here is this: since one either talks or goes to war, if the talks fail--and since war is not a desirable alternative--the United States must accept Iran having nuclear weapons. Naturally, once Iran has nuclear weapons, since war is even more unthinkable, they will argue that the United States can and should do nothing to counter Iranian ambitions.

Between the Iranian regime and the Los Angeles Times (and those who think that way, like the EU and possibly the current U.S. government), I'll put my money on Ahmadinejad. Once again, we see how easy it is to fool too many people in the West. To stop the push from doing any pushing, at the very last moment the dictatorship in Iran put forward a bit of bait to delay the effort while it moved forward on its nuclear program. Would anyone be enough of a sucker to take the bait? Yep:

”Just in time last week, Iran's chief negotiator announced that he has an `updated nuclear proposal’ and is ready to accept Obama's invitation.”

Just in time! In other words, the newspaper doesn't see this as a trick to buy time and to make an Iranian nuclear arsenal (and hence more likely a war) inevitable later, it is relieved that Iran saved the West from having to do something right now. Is there any skepticism, any cynicism, any stick with the carrot? Nope. In fact, we are told that it doesn't matter if it is a trick:

“Even if that is Tehran's plan, Obama must follow through on the offer. He must pursue talks seriously, with the intention of success and not the assumption of failure.”

He must? He must follow the agenda set by Iran? He must draw a conclusion that he can succeed even if he knows that not to be true? This isn't just bad politics, it's the abandonment of logic altogether.

At the least, anyone with sense should say instead, at a minimum: The U.S. government should go ahead and increase sanctions, showing the consequences if Iran doesn't change its behavior. At the same time it should meet with Iran.

The Roman writer was correct in saying, "If you want peace prepare for war." One might add to that by saying: If you want to ensure war, keep insisting you want peace at any price.

Instead, by saying that talks cannot be conducted under the shadow of increased pressure, that talks must be completed before more can be done, the newspaper falls not partly but totally into Iran's trap.

The Times then sets things out in an "evenhanded manner." This is important because it shows that too many media and intellectual institutions in the West have adopted a position of neutrality between their own countries and their enemies. A radical repressive dictatorship and a democracy are given the same degree of credibility:

”Iran maintains its right under international law to have a nuclear program for civil purposes. The U.S. and its allies believe that has been used as cover for Iran's continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons--an outcome opposed even by key powers China and Russia.”

This is so one-sided that the Chinese and Russian opposition to doing anything effective—and indeed their  collaboration with Tehran—goes unmentioned. The implication is that "everyone agrees" and will cooperate. In fact, though, Chinese and Russian policy--just like the ideas proposed by the Times--paralyzes any effort to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

In contrast to what the editorial says, the issue is not that the only two options are talking or attacking Iran. The issue is that the kind of strategy being advocated here will ensure the failure of any third alternatives because it will delay real pressure until it is too late. This makes violence--either an attack on Iran, wars triggered by Iran's having nuclear weapons, or both--far more likely.

The Roman writer was correct in saying, "If you want peace prepare for war." One might add to that by saying: If you want to ensure war, keep insisting you want peace at any price.

There is simply in this world view from the Times--also heard from many elements in the Obama administration and Western elites--no concept hear that toughness, leverage, deterrence, and credibility are part of diplomacy. No matter what Iran says or does, you just must have a lot of chats, with nothing threatened or in the offing if the 73rd round of talks doesn’t work.

“ It would be naive to assume that negotiations are likely to be quick or easy. The likelihood of success is further clouded by the recent political upheaval in Iran, although it's unclear whether that makes Tehran more likely to negotiate in order to reduce its isolation, or less likely to make concessions because it is wounded and weak. All the more reason to start negotiating, if only to learn.”

How wonderfully revealing such writing is! We learn that the authors have no sense of history. Hasn’t anything been already learned by a decade of efforts? And there’s no sense of outrage by a newspaper that goes into fits at Israel’s smallest action. Liberals used to be angry about repressive dictatorships. No longer.

All of this brutality and oppression is merely a cloud on the horizon referred to as "the recent political upheaval”? You mean the virtual coup by the most extreme forces in the country? How about Iranian covert warfare against America in Iraq, killing U.S. soldiers? How about the new defense minister's deep past involvement in terrorism, including attacks against Americans?

”The question that naturally follows is what to do if talks fail. While reluctant to endorse measures that would hurt average Iranians or reunite the populace in an anti-American fury, this page recognizes that tough sanctions would be the obvious next step. We also realize that if China and Russia are ever going to agree to such a thing, it will be only after a serious effort to negotiate has been made.”

Doing anything causes damage in this false conception of humanitarianism. Fear reigns. Paralysis ensues.

But isn't it remarkable that all the cliches are in place with no reference to the facts: Do Iranians love their rulers today at a time when there is a virtual civil war in the country? Doesn't the current regime hurt average Iranians? Can any dictatorship or aggressive regime be confronted at all? If the Iranian regime knows you are "reluctant" might that make it more arrogant, unbending, and aggressive?

(I will resist the temptation to throw in 1930s' appeasement analogies. Readers should feel free to do it for themselves. What is especially telling--and absurd--is that none of these issues are even hinted at in this talk-at-any-price approach.)

Have you any conception of Chinese and Russian interests, the thing that prevents them from taking action? Do you really think they care or will be moved by more rounds of talks? Will the leaders in Moscow or Beijing say: Well, the Americans really tried to engage Iran so now we must change our whole policy in order to show our apprecation of their efforts!

The conclusion is marvelous:

”So now is the time to try, without threatening consequences for failure before the two sides even sit down.”

Get it? The United States should not hint that it will get tough, not threaten, not use power, in other words let the Iranians know that they have no serious stake in reaching an agreement.

Memo to Los Angeles Times editors: You must stop letting the summer interns write the editorials.

PS: To show how truly ridiculous this editorial was, within a few hours, the EU diplomats--not exactly tough guys or hardliners--completely rejected the Iranian initiative as inadequate.

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