February 01, 2007

Ignatius on Rice

David Ignatius: "But as with any strategy, Rice's realignment idea has the virtue of offering a basis for discussion and careful thinking about a region perched on the edge of a volcano." Ignatius, sorry to say, is too easily impressed here. Snippets:

Rice said the new approach reflects growing Arab concern about Iran's attempt to project power through its proxies: "After the war in Lebanon, the Middle East really did begin to clarify into an extremist element allied with Iran, including Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. On the other side were the targets of this extremism -- the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Palestinians -- and those who want to resist, such as the Saudis, Egypt and Jordan."

The Secretary of State, some day at least, is going to have to graduate beyond evangelically-tinged provost talk about "clarifying moments" and the like and grapple with the world as it is, not as her airy aspirational vistas would have it. Indeed, the narrative she sketches out is simply laughable in its gross over-simplifications. After all, likely at least a good 40% of Lebanese, well over 50% of Palestinians, and a plurality of Shi'a Iraqis too (back of the envelope number-crunching, but you get my point, I think), none of them would even begin to agree with her simplistic description that they are "targets" of Iran. And Cairo, Riyadh and Amman want to "resist"? Is Condi going to cheerlead the 'resistance' of Sunni autocrats to growing Shi'a influence in the region? Is this what America's Middle East policy has become? This is farcical stuff, in its blundering amateurism.

More:

The Bush administration's thinking about realignment helps explain why it has resisted engaging Syria and Iran, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton report. As Rice put it, "You have a 'pan' movement, across the region. The war in Lebanon crystallized it for everyone. You can't just leave it there. . . . If you concentrate on engaging Syria and Iran, you may lose the chance to do the realignment."

Pray tell, and forgive my ignorance, but what is the "pan movement"? And how was it "crystallized"? And too, what does it mean "to do the realignment"? Are we speaking here of stoking a decades long Shi'a-Sunni struggle? Or enlisting the Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians to help us contain Iran? If so, how? Save a few Saudi cards, I'm hard-pressed to see what Amman and Cairo can really bring to bear on that front, for instance. And, let me tell you, Mubarak would be horrified if we attacked Iran, as he'd face massive domestic anger the moment the bombs started dropping on Teheran.

Yet more:

On Syria, Rice said the administration is seeking a change of policy rather than regime change. Asked about an offer made in an interview with me last month by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to help the U.S. provide greater security in Iraq, she said: "If the Syrians want to stabilize Iraq, why don't they do it?" As for Israeli interest in exploring the Syrian initiative, she noted recent private peace feelers between Syrians and Israelis and suggested that if the Israelis decide there is something important, they will pursue it.

"If the Syrians want to stabilize Iraq, why don't they just do it"? Yeah, that's the ticket. Just do it! Nike style. This is a cool new variant, I guess, to her old: "they know what they need to do". And "if the Israelis decide there is something important, they will pursue it"? Talk about an abdication of American leadership on the Arab-Israeli peace process!

As I said, Ignatius seems too easily impressed by, at best, nascent ill-formed policy, and at worst, tremendously vacuous fare with potentially very dangerous consequences.

P.S. I should add, somewhat related to this 're-alignment' talk (which risks the blundering U.S. behemoth stoking a wider Shi'a-Sunni conflict, especially if the Arab Shi'a of Iraq become even closer to Iran), the following passage from Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman's excellent "Ethical Realism":

On occasion...it is suggested....that the United States should not worry about civil war in Iraq or regional war in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shi'a. On the contrary, these people say, we should encourage this, just as we encouraged the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The reasoning is that such a conflict would probably last decades, would hopelessly split the Muslim world, and would tie down both Sunni and Shi'a extremists and prevent them from attacking Western targets.

To this a number of replies are possible. From a realist perspective, we can rightly say such a conflict would probably lead to radical increases in oil prices and instability in oil markets, with severe effects on the world economy; that it might indeed lead to a Shi'a revolt in the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, knocking the very bottom out of world oil supplies, that al-Qaeda is bound to benefit from such chaos in terms of recruitment; and that far from preventing anti-Western terrorism, it would probably encourage it, as Western states would inevitably be drawn in and would then be attacked by the other side. And if the past is anything to go by, the violent radicalization of huge numbers of Sunnis and Shia would inevitably sooner or later take an anti-Western form.

All of this is true, but none of it is our most important reason for opposing this kind of thinking. The chief reason we oppose it is that it is morally foul. If after everything American leaders have said about freedom, morality and peace the United States were to adopt such a strategy, it would damn itself in the eyes of the world.

I'm not saying Condi Rice is trying to stoke a Shi'a-Sunni region-wide civil war, of course. But this idiotic 're-alignment' policy, as well-intentioned as it may be, is spectacularly misguided (where are NEA or NSC staffers with brains to walk her back from such ham-handed "policy"?) in that it could well end up fueling even greater Shi'a-Sunni tension in a region already greatly concerned about Iran's rise. And rather than try to cool the regional temperature, via urgent diplomatic 'containment'-style initiatives, we appear to be raising the ante. This is dangerous, especially when mediocrities and/or those without regional expertise hold the levers of power.


Posted by Gregory at February 1, 2007 03:12 AM
Comments

Ignatius is pretty typical among Washington reporters in his continuing credulity regarding Sec. Rice's ability to design and implement strategy. Nothing fazes him, or Hoagland, or most of the other people who cover and comment on foreign policy -- not Rice's years as an ineffectual NSA, not the numerous and persistent vacancies in her department, not her clinging for dear life to talking points in her public appearances.

In this case Rice is being quoted about the reaction of Sunni Arab regimes to Iranian adventurism as if this were a product of American design. In fact, it is something that would happen even if we didn't want it to. Iran under its current leadership makes Sunni Arab governments nervous, as it ought to. But this is not a permanent condition, because Iran will not always have its current leadership and because Iranian policy is not the only thing going on in the region. Ignatius knows this as well as anyone, or at least anyone in the media, and still takes Sec. Rice's strategy talk at face value.

Media people will do what they will do; Rice probably gets many bonus points just because she returns phone calls and doesn't show up reporters who ask stupid questions on camera. Rice herself, though, reminds me of no one so much as poor Robert McFarlane trying to fix Lebanon in 1982-3 and then pursuing a rapprochment by way of ransom for hostages with Iran. He saw himself as a strategist, too, but he had only the haziest idea of where we were and not much clearer a picture of where he thought we could get. Consequently he brought on more trouble than he would have had he just stayed in the White House managing the paper flow. I'm not sure how much trouble Sec. Rice is actually creating right now, because I don't know that credulousness about her ability to craft America geo-strategy is quite as high in foreign capitals as it is within the Washington Post. But she's not helping.

Posted by: Zathras at February 1, 2007 05:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Aw hell, Zathras beat me to it. Ignatius' column really reveals much, much more about him than Rice. He could have written this tripe from State Department press releases. I don't understand why anyone would attach much significance to gas about bold strategies, diplomatic offensives, the whole catalog -- when it comes from somebody who couldn't even function as a mediator between Colin Powell and the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis. I've heard speculation that part of the reason why Rice refuses to negotiate with the enemy of the day is that she's afraid of being suckered, out-maneuvered. I tend to think that it's really the same old Cheney regime stupidity, but honestly, do those rumors seem completely unbelievable?

I know the Washington Post Corp. has its fingers in a lot of media pies. But if the WaPo newspaper is a big chunk of the corporation's assets, that is one investment I would steer well clear of. Its quality and reputation dives a little more steeply each week. Among their stable of "talent", Ignatius doesn't even stand out much when it comes hackitude.

Posted by: sglover at February 1, 2007 06:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The hilarious - and by "hilarious" I mean "devastatingly tragic and mind-boggling" - thing is that when I clicked over to the Ignatius article I skimmed the first two sentences to (mis)read: "What's America's strategy in the Middle East this week?"

Anyway, the Bush Administration will have to excuse me if I'm not particularly receptive to the thought of an "idea" that has "the virtue of offering a basis for discussion." Besides the fact that it's a bit late for Brand New Shiny Ideas That We Might Base a Discussion Around, this idea is, as you say, based on ridiculously simplistic assumptions.

I mean, I'm stoked that the administration has found a new set of faux foreign policy aligning principles that they might apply this week, but at this point I'm just not willing to follow them down that - or any - path.

Posted by: quimby at February 1, 2007 06:44 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

And honestly - and this is not a criticism or Mr. Djerejian - but this sentence is just, unfortunately, not true:

The Secretary of State, some day at least, is going to have to graduate beyond evangelically-tinged provost talk about "clarifying moments" and the like and grapple with the world as it is, not as her airy aspirational vistas would have it.

She, and the rest of the administration, are never going to have to graduate past this. It's been going on for six years and they've never seen fit to change their rhetoric. Now that they've passed all the electoral hurdles, what could possibly be their motivation for changing their tone now?

Posted by: quimby at February 1, 2007 06:52 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg,

I'm not saying Condi Rice is trying to stoke a Shi'a-Sunni region-wide civil war, of course.

are you sure? Because it sure seems that this is what they are intending. They are setting up Sunni Egypt, Sunny Jordan, and Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shi'ite Iran. Of course, all that they are doing in the Middle East really shows how, honestly, how stupid they really are. After all, the Taliban are Sunni.

Seriously, why are we not talking about impeaching these idiots out of power?

Posted by: Dan at February 1, 2007 12:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

After all, likely at least a good 40% of Lebanese, well over 50% of Palestinians, and a plurality of Shi'a Iraqis too (back of the envelope number-crunching, but you get my point, I think), none of them would even begin to agree with her simplistic description that they are "targets" of Iran.

Did this sentence run out of syntax early on?

Posted by: Anderson at February 1, 2007 02:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Btw, here's a Condi nugget for ya: Tyler Drumheller speaking:

Every responsible chief in the CIA knows that the more covert the action, the greater the need for a clear policy and a defined target. I once had to brief Condoleezza Rice on a rendition operation, and her chief concern was not whether it was the right thing to do, but what the president would think about it. I would have expected a big meeting, a debate about whether to proceed with the plan, a couple of hours of consideration of the pros and cons. We should have been talking about the value of the target, whether the threat he presented warranted such a potentially controversial intervention. This is no way to run a covert policy.

Posted by: Anderson at February 1, 2007 02:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

If Bush wants to stabilize Iraq, why doesn't he do it?

Posted by: Hogan at February 1, 2007 03:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Pray tell, and forgive my ignorance, but what is the "pan movement"?

Dunno exactly, Greg, but the saying "out of the frying pan into the fire..." comes to mind....


Seriously, this sort of simplistic, either-or, black-and-white thinking seems to be only sadly typical of the mentality (and I use that word advisedly) of the leaders of this country's foreign policy at the moment. Having staked so much on the implementation of the "neocon" fantasy of "remaking the Middle East" via force, the Administration seems hideously unable to abandon any of its grandiose schemes, and appears to be determined to "double down", and move on to Phase III (war with Iran) - if only to salvage its "legacy" - which, really, they shouldn't even bother with.

Posted by: Jay C at February 1, 2007 03:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It's like being bound and gagged in the back seat of a car being driven into a wall by a crazy drunk person (meaning they're both crazy and drunk). Just really pretty frightening. How fortunate we all are that the grownups are back in charge (as they claimed back in 2000). I'd hate to think what a pickle we'd be in if the childish and incompetent were still running things.

Jeez.

Posted by: LL at February 1, 2007 04:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It's like being bound and gagged in the back seat of a car being driven into a wall by a crazy drunk person

My favorite part is, after you hit the wall, when the crazy drunk person says, "oh yeah, Mr. Smarty Pants? What's *your* plan?"

Posted by: Anderson at February 1, 2007 04:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Anderson above notes: "her chief concern was not whether it was the right thing to do, but what the president would think about it".

That about sums Condi up - God knows why, but she hitched her wagon to W, for better or worse, as the saying goes.

Years ago I read an interview of Condi by Oprah. Yeah, I know, Oprah ha ha ha, but Oprah asked the one question no one else can - As a black woman, why are you a Republican? Condi said she used to be a Democrat, but was turned off by Jimmy Carter's lack of insight into foreign policy issues. On the contrary, she was impressed with W's quick grasp of things.

So whenever someone is impressed with Condi's supposed great intellect, I remind them that she actually admires W for his great grasp of foreign policy. Wow - I guess love sure can be blind!!

Posted by: ESaund at February 1, 2007 06:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"So whenever someone is impressed with Condi's supposed great intellect, I remind them that she actually admires W for his great grasp of foreign policy. Wow - I guess love sure can be blind!!"

Don't forget, W was the most brilliant guy that Harriet Meirs ever met, too.

If the right-wing blogs are any indication, I think that that remark from Meirs was the final straw for a whole lot of self-described conservatives. They could swallow a lot, hell, oceans of bullshit. But not even they could choke down the "George Bush, 21st Century Bismarck" line.....

Posted by: sglover at February 1, 2007 06:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As a follow-up to the comments about Rice's admiration of GWB, why is it that so many apparently intelligent people seem to be legitimately impressed by Bush? This is a serious question. Put aside the policies, Bush simply is singularly unimpressive, and I don't get the adulation he receives in various quarters.

Posted by: Tillman Fan at February 1, 2007 06:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"where are NEA or NSC staffers with brains to walk her back from such ham-handed 'policy'?"

They're on the Obama staff. Or the Edwards staff. Or waiting in the wings for January 2009. A casual glance at the record shows that they're not in the OEOB.

As the kids might say, Theyre in ur opposition, harshin on ur policeez.

Posted by: Doug at February 1, 2007 07:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Rice = Peter Principle. Can anyone imagine the Bush/Rice strategy surviving 1 minute past the '09 inauguration? The only identifiable technique, that of aggravating the Shia/Sunni divide, is a top-down phenomenon cooked up a week ago and supported only by the status quo despots of the region, the ones who would have been most threatened had Ms. Rice's stirring words about democracy really meant anything. All forgotten now - no more talk about the Cedar Revolution or FREEDOM.

I envy young scholars in Political Science. The Bush years will be a treasure trove for papers on how American foreign policy finally came to be just another short-term political expedient, determined by focus groups and Baptist preachers.

Tillman fan asks: "Why is it that so many apparently intelligent people seem to be legitimately impressed by Bush?"

These seem like mutually exlusive sets, no?

Posted by: Odradek at February 1, 2007 08:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Pretty much everything I've ever see Rice say in public has been downright idiotic. What is the simplest explanation for that?

Posted by: gcochran at February 1, 2007 08:31 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

As a follow-up to the comments about Rice's admiration of GWB, why is it that so many apparently intelligent people seem to be legitimately impressed by Bush? This is a serious question.

Serious question? Okay, attempt at a serious answer:

Intellectuals and academics, and those who spend their lives around same, sometimes admire "men of action," people who are singularly unreflective but who "grasp the situation" intuitively and who "just do it," as Nike would have it. (Goddess of victory, remember.)

I think that explains some of the attraction Bush had, & still has, for self-doubting brainy types.

Of course, there's a difference between really grasping the situation, and merely appearing to grasp it b/c one takes a course of action that ONLY AN IDIOT would take *without* having really grasped same. The latter can readily be mistaken for the former ... initially.

Posted by: Anderson at February 1, 2007 09:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My theory on the Condi admiration of Bush: he's her boss and gave her one of the most powerful jobs in the world, one she'd like to keep. What's she supposed to say when you ask her about him? My boss appreciates honesty, so I think I could be candid enough in my opinion of him to be able to both keep my job and look at myself in the mirror every morning, but Bush obviously does not appreciate honesty. Like many CEOs and also many self-described evangelical Christians, he places loyalty and faith above honesty (he wouldn't say that, I'm sure, but it seems pretty clear). Condi's a good little soldier, so she's not gonna say what she might believe, she's gonna regurgitate the party line.

Also, it probably is a bit of the "men of action" deal mentioned above, which is what people who don't want to wait to find out WTF is going on before they do something fall back on. They operate under the "doing something that doesn't work is better than doing nothing at all" theory. Which is wrong.

Posted by: LL at February 1, 2007 10:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"...why is it that so many apparently intelligent people seem to be legitimately impressed by Bush?"

I have known quite a few people who have met George W. Bush personally when he was still Governor of Texas, some of whom spoke with him at some length. The one thing they all seem to agree on is that the man appears engaged, charming, and actually quite intelligent in person. He gives the impression that he is actively listening to their issues, and responds clearly and intelligently to their questions. Mind you, these are people who are tremendously predisposed to loathe this guy (one of them is a long-time Greenpeace activist, fer cryin' out loud), so I find it hard to see their impressions as fan-boy adoration.

My take on it? The man has charisma: that most dangerous combination of listening skills, acting ability (has anyone seen the recent YouTube comparison of his interviews before his presidential ambitions and his more recent speeches?), and sharp reaction-time that turns an incompetent scoundrel into a national leader. It has fooled many a worthy intellectual throughout history, and will continue to do so, I fear.

That, and the "man-of-action" meme that has transformed some of the most egregious villains of history into beloved leaders, of course. Teddy Roosevelt anyone?

Posted by: ActivistLawStudent at February 1, 2007 11:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

yeah i saw a video of bush one time in a governor's debate and in it he seemed well-spoken and articulate; something happened on the way from the governor's mansion to the white house...

btw, re: condi

As a child growing up in segregated Alabama, she concluded that she needed to be “twice as good” as whites in order to succeed, and notched up a stunning record of achievement—becoming a fine pianist and figure-skater as a child, graduating from university with top honours at 19, earning tenure at Stanford University at a tender age, and becoming provost of the university at 38.

But the traits that made Ms Rice such a perfect protégée may be working against her now she is at the top of the tree. Ms Rice made her career by impressing powerful establishment figures—from Brent Scowcroft (who brought her into the NSC when she was 34) to Messrs Bush senior and junior. But what happens when your patrons disagree about fundamentals? Ms Rice tried a dose of fudge during the first Bush administration (you can find people on both sides of the diplomatic wars of the first term who believed that she was on their side). But mostly she chose to flatter her current patron.

Ms Rice started her career as a tough-minded realist who was sceptical about nation-building and democratisation. She might have chosen to restrain her boss’s Manichaean instincts with a dose of that realism. Instead she went along with him. Being a perfect protégée can get one a long way up the greasy pole. But it is not the best qualification for being a successful secretary of state—let alone a candidate for president.

Posted by: smerkin at February 3, 2007 01:02 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A Rice-Gates axis of moderation?

Take a look.

Not all that bad.

Posted by: Klaus at February 3, 2007 12:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Rice gives the impression of being someone who will be arguing "nuance" even while the last chopper lifts off from Baghdad (or more likely, getting shot down as it lifts off from Baghdad.)

One of my friends knew G.W. Bush back in Texas. Said he was the stupidest man he had ever met.

Wonder how many people with business backgrounds got suckered by Bush (not to be confused with the cold calculation that here is a well-connected person one can use.) There's a lot of charismatic idiots one runs into and one needs to be able to sniff them out before they trash the company.

Bush: Peter Principle to the ultimate. Now he's bringing down the presidency.

Posted by: grumpy realist at February 3, 2007 04:45 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Now he's bringing down the presidency."

Well, at least that's one postive achievement!

Posted by: Gene Callahan at February 3, 2007 07:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian, an international lawyer and business executive, comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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