Above and beyond the questions about the reasons key judgments on the Iranian nuclear program were altered so dramatically over the course of just two years, the biggest puzzle of all is why the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was released in the first place.
Aside from initiating a political earthquake here at home, the revelation that Iran stopped working on its nuclear program in the fall of 2003 and that there is no evidence they have started it up again is causing a sea change in opinion overseas as well.
Almost everyone now agrees that bombing Iran is off the table – if it hadn’t been removed previously. The President’s jawboning on the issue has recently been less about American options and placed more in the context of why the world needed to act to prevent an Iranian bomb. Judging by their success in getting two rounds of sanctions passed by the Security Council, this seemed to be a winning strategy. As recently as 48 hours ago, China had agreed to the outlines of another round of sanctions against the Iranian regime.
But now, the support for another blast of sanctions directed against Iran seems to be slipping away. Russia is standing firm against more restrictions and China seems to be reconsidering as well:
“Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that the U.S. acknowledgment that Iran halted a suspected nuclear weapons bid in 2003 undermined Washington’s push for a new set of U.N. sanctions.
We will assess the situation regarding a new U.N. Security Council resolution taking into account all these facts, including the U.S. confirmation that it has no information about the existence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran,” he said.
Russia and China, another veto-wielding council member, have grudgingly approved two sets of limited U.N. sanctions against Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. But the Kremlin has bristled at the U.S. push for tougher measures, saying they would only widen the rift.
China had said Tuesday the U.S. report raised second thoughts about new sanctions.
This would be a huge blow to our Iran strategy. The fact is, the Security Council placed these sanctions on Iran in the first place not because they were building a bomb but because they defied the Council’s order that they stop enriching uranium and cooperate 100% with he IAEA in assessing how “peaceful” was their program. Even the mild mannered bureaucrats at the IAEA are not satisfied with Iran’s performance in this regard:
â€œTo be frank, we are more skeptical,â€ a senior official close to the agency (IAEA) said. â€œWe donâ€™t buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran.â€
The official called the American assertion that Iran had â€œhaltedâ€ its weapons program in 2003 â€œsomewhat surprising.â€
IAEA Chief Mohamed ElBaradei has constantly urged Iran to be more transparent in divulging information about their program. It hasn’t worked to date which is why ElBaradei has reluctantly gone along with the sanctions.
But losing ElBaradei would be the ballgame as far as sanctions by the Security Council is concerned. And right now, it doesn’t look good:
The International Atomic Energy Agencyâ€™s public stance, and the main message of Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general, was to praise the new finding as proof that his agency had been right in its analysis.
The American assessment â€œtallies with the agencyâ€™s consistent statements over the last few years that â€” although Iran still needs to clarify some important aspects of its past and present nuclear activities â€” the agency has no concrete evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program or undeclared nuclear facilities in Iran,â€ Dr. ElBaradei said in a statement.
He said the American intelligence assessment â€œshould help to defuse the current crisis.â€
One reading of that could be “no crisis, no sanctions.” And if ElBaradei would abandon his support for sanctions, it is likely that the entire regime would collapse and all our hard work in getting the cooperation of Russia and China would have been for naught.
This begs my original question; if all this fallout from the NIE could be foreseen, why release it in the first place?
For the answer, ideology and loyalty colors most analyses. The left believes Bush was forced to release the report due to its explosive nature. Indeed, it is likely that if the President had tried to sit on the report, someone associated with the loose cabal of intelligence officers and analysts who have been leaking damaging information for years – both to point the finger at some administration mistake or to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the difficulties we’ve had in Iraq and elsewhere – would have surely passed the NIE on to one of their friends in the national security press.
Or perhaps Bush was persuaded by Congress to release the unclassified version thinking it likely that the report would see the light of day that way. Either way, the NIE would have hit the public in the worst possible light – spun by hostile legislators, spooks and journalists. Rather than create a firestorm of controversy, he allowed the redacted version to be released with his blessing.
All of this may be true. But I think there was another, more compelling reason why Bush gave the go ahead to release the report. He wanted to undercut the neo-conservatives both in and out of his administration who have become a lead weight around his presidency for at least the last 3 years.
For the last year, ever since Donald Rumsfeld left the Administration, the President has slowly altered his course in foreign affairs, taking a more traditional approach to world problems. He has not only changed military strategy in Iraq but has initiated diplomatic moves resulting in meetings with both Syrian and Iranian officials. He has become more engaged in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, culminating in the meeting in Annapolis last week where both sides agreed to resume peace talks. He has shown more willingness to work with the United Nations on a variety of issues not limited to Iran including problems in Lebanon and Africa. Bush has even relented slightly on issues relating to climate change in that he is now at least willing to discuss the problem.
To say that these moves would have been unthinkable during the first 4 years of the Bush presidency would be an overstatement. But there is no doubt that there has been a shift in Administration strategy away from unilateralism and toward engagement. And each of these small steps toward traditionalism has brought criticism and resistance from the clique in the Administration variously known as the neo-conservatives or the Cheney faction.
Much ink has been spilled trying to explain the relationship between George Bush and his Vice President. The simple minded portray Cheney as a puppeteer pulling the President’s strings. Others have Cheney as a totally independent force riding roughshod over the executive branch to get his way with Bush standing by helplessly unable to stop him.
Bush himself has a hard time describing his working relationship with Cheney. Here he is trying to talk about it in a special on Fox News:
Q: “Is he a man of few words inside the White House? What’s his style when you meet?”
Bush: “Well, we have several constant meetings. One, when it’s just the vice president and me—which happens on a weekly basis, you know—he’s quite verbose. He comes with things that he wants to talk about, issues that he wants to share concerns about, or things that he’s seen or heard.”
Q: “Some critics claim he’s pulling the strings in this administration. Others don’t go that far, they say he’s managed to figure out the angles and present you with certain options that limit your options when it’s time to make a decision comes.”
Bush: “I think I’m wiser than that—than to be pigeonholed or, you know, to get cornered by a wily advisor. Look, that’s not the way it works. Dick Cheney walks in and I say, ‘What’s your advice on this subject?’ And he gives it to me and I make up my mind based upon a variety of factors including the advice of key advisors and he is one of them.”
Outsiders see something different. David Gergen In an interview for the PBS Frontline documentary Cheney’s Law:
I think this particular vice president has had an enormous amount of persuasion with this president. I think he’s listened to him more closely than anybody else, especially in those early years. But still at the end of the day it’s the president who’s made the calls, and I think this penchant for secrecy and large executive power that Dick Cheney has been pushing, I think it’s something the president has bought into. Did Cheney help to persuade him? Absolutely. But is the president now persuaded? Absolutely. I think he’s now a devotee of expanded executive power.
Not Svengali or Machievelli but more a mentor perhaps. And as the years have gone by and the Administration’s plans have come a cropper in many places but especially Iraq, there must have been a time when Bush realized that relying on his own instincts rather than on the Vice President’s advice served him just as well.
With the hiring of Robert Gates as defense secretary and the exiting of most of the neo-conservatives from the Pentagon that Rumsfeld relied on for support, Cheney’s influence waned. And Condi Rice’s ascension to Secretary of State signalled a more pragmatic, less ideological approach in foreign policy, sidelining many of Cheney’s allies at Foggy Bottom.
It would be ridiculous to say that Bush woke up one day and realized that he was his own man and that he didn’t need or want to rely on the Cheney faction to play such a large role in making policy any longer. But there is no doubt a metamorphosis has taken place in the last year and that the President has been charting a course more independent of his Vice President’s ideas on foreign and defense policy. This is not to say that Cheney is no longer a valued advisor or that he has no power to influence the president or policy. But as the sands of time run out on the Administration, Cheney’s clout has lessened.
Confronted with a complete change in policy on Iran necessitated by the findings in the NIE, Bush has taken the opportunity to embrace the shift, placing it in the context of his successful UN sanctions policy and urging the world to keep the pressure on the Iranians.
The disappointment in the writings of many neoconservatives evident by the dark intimations of conspiracy in the NIE findings against the president’s policies shows how far apart the President and the neocons have grown. Where Bush apparently sees the NIE as a challenge to shift American policy and carry the world along with him, the neocons see dark betrayal.
Not quite a final break but certainly the President is striking out in a direction the neocons are extremely reluctant to follow. It should be interesting to watch the Administration over the next few months to see just where this newfound independence leads.