Saturday, June 10, 2006


(Cross-Posted at Ezra Klein's.)

Kremlinology: During the Cold War, lack of reliable information about the country forced Western analysts to "read between the lines" and to use the tiniest tidbits, such as the removal of portraits, the rearranging of chairs, positions at the reviewing stand for May Day parades, and other indirect signs to try to understand what was happening in internal Soviet politics.

It seems to me we need an update. I've recently begun listening to the excellent radio show, Radio Open Source from Public Radio International. One of the more recent ones on Iran was bizarre, in that all the participants acknowledged the biggest problem with US diplomacy is that nobody knows who's in charge.

Now, maybe it's my youth, but I don't remember any similar problems with the Clinton (or, for that matter, Bush I) administration. There might have been the occasional spat with William Cohen, but nobody seriously thought that Cohen and Albright were rival camps for the President's attention, right?

I'm certainly not the first person to say it: this is a direct consequence of electing a President who's an idiot. The excuse from 2000 was that whatever happened, Bush would have good advisors. Of course, the problem is that Bush lacks the mental or ethical faculties to actually be, in his words, the Decider. So instead of leadership, we get the situation we're in: the main foreign representative of the US government (Rice) makes a proposal to negotiate directly with Iran (kind of), but nobody knows whether to take it seriously or not.

Now, as confusing as this is for us and the press, it's got to be even more suspicious to the Iranians. They've got no reason to believe anything peaceful-sounding from this White House so long as Cheney and Rumsfeld retain their positions. There's a real danger here, even if you assume neither side actually wants war: the Iranians can effectively discount the "moderates" in this administration, because there's never been any evidence that the "moderates" have any credibility.

(The word moderates is in scare-quotes because they're still Republicans.)

The obvious retort is to say that, if anything, the Iranian government is more obscure than the US. This is true, and is exactly the point: The question of authority and influence in the government of the United States should not be comparable - at all - to that of an oil-rich theocracy.

Something else to note from that show - Joseph Cirincione had a perceptive turn of phrase: "If you liked Iraq, you're gonna love Iran." Cirincione was of course mocking the idea of a quick, easy war with Iran. But what frightens me is that some people have loved Iraq, from the moment it began to this very day. Crucially, most of these people are in the Pentagon and the White House. So I wouldn't dismiss the idea of war just yet.

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