Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Politics of Iran

Josh Marshall is right:

I'd...say that the biggest folly would be to engage the administration on the particulars of their fantasies and delusions about foreign policy in the Middle East....The only sensible expenditure of energy is to find ways to hem these guys in or constrain them before they do even more damage to this country.
Last week I argued that it is pointless to try to come up with a substantive plan for dealing with Iran--that the best we can do is to make it politically impossible for Bush to do anything, which requires a political plan. We need to make it about the lying, the incompetence, the manufactured crisis, the hijacking of national security for political ends--all of which are (finally) becoming apparent to the general public.

Not everyone agrees; some people are arguing that the only way to win the political fight is to have a substantive plan that's better than what Bush proposes. (And I'm not even talking about Marshall Wittman, whose plan is that the Democrats defer to Bush, while Bush forms a national unity government with Democrats in his cabinet.) How do we show we can do better (the argument goes) if we can't show what we would do in the Republicans' place?

The thing about this is that dealing with it on a they-have-a-plan/we-have-a-better-plan level buys into the notion that whatever the administration proposes might actually be a plan. And by 'plan', I mean a plan designed to deal with a national security problem, as opposed to a purely political ploy to be carried out regardless of the national security consequences. We know, absolutely, that it will be the latter and not the former; we know this from the Iraq experience.

And if it becomes a choice between their 'plan' and ours, we lose.

Problem number one: the playing field isn't level. On matters of national security, especially in times of crisis (real or manufactured), a sitting administration gets the presumption of correctness; the opposition has to clear a very high bar in order to overcome that presumption. (This is the reality that drove Democratic cowardice on Iraq back in 2002.) So dealing with it on a purely policy level, we've already all but lost. On the other hand, we can neutralize that advantage by making it all about how they abused that trust the last time.

Problem number two: they have all the intel, they can choose what to release, and we know from experience that they will release it selectively to make themselves look good. So a substantive debate would be conducted on their turf with the facts they choose. Again, we can neutralize this advantage by hammering on exactly how they cherrypicked intel the last time. We need everyone in America to be wondering what Bush isn't telling us.

Problem number three: they won't offer a plan. What they will give us, besides the cherrypicked intel, is a bunch of fatuous platitudes about keeping us Safe! from Danger! and did we mention Terror! That gives us an Eddie Gaedel-sized strike zone. If we have a full-on plan, conversely, it will be child's play for them to pick it apart. The way to counter this is to strike at the heart of their fatuous platitudes--to make it about what lay beneath the high-sounding rhetoric when they manipulated us into a catastrophic clusterfuck in Iraq.

Problem number four: they will lie about their intentions. They will claim they are pursuing every diplomatic option, just as they did with Iraq; the party line will be that it's up to Iran to behave if they want to avoid attack. They have already begun to do this. That makes it much more difficult to argue based on the catastrophic consequences of an attack, and it makes it much more difficult to differentiate a more reasonable plan. So once more, with feeling: we make it about the lying. We make it about Bush saying a vote for war was a vote for peace.

We can certainly attack whatever they come up with on a substantive level, but that won't be the strongest attack. The strongest attack will be to make it abundantly clear that it isn't really a plan at all--that, like the Iraq invasion, it's a cynical political gambit, founded on lies, with foreseeable catastrophic consequences. Here's what they're saying now; here's the exact same thing, which they said in 2002. They lied then; they're lying now. They played politics then (remember Andy Card's quote); they're playing politics now. They mismanaged Iraq; they'll mismanage Iran.

With Bush currently at 36%, an aggressive offense on this basis could create a situation in which congressional Republicans are running away from Bush, as opposed to Democrats being too terrified to oppose him.

Now, I'm not saying we shouldn't have the appearance of a plan, as opposed to having a plan. (The difference between the two is that there is less dishonesty in the former: the latter, having an actual plan, presupposes some remote possibility of said plan having some influence on the outcome...which is to say, it requires an extraordinary amount of self-deception. See Marshall Wittman, above.) The appearance of a plan might well be a political long as we understand that it is purely political, and has no chance of any substantive result.

The odds are long, the chances are slim, yadda yadda yadda. Still, we have the ammunition we need. Unlike Bush, we have learned from Iraq. As long as we maintain our focus, we may yet cause enough political damage to make it extremely difficult for them to carry out their insane plans. We can't do anything about Iran, but with a lot of luck we just might keep Bush from making things a whole lot worse.

Update: Andrew Sabl, who appears to be thinking along the same lines (quote: The right message regarding an attack on Iran is "No, No, No, No. No." Followed by "No."), points to a poll with promising results: 54% don't trust Bush to make the right choice about Iran.

[That's all, folks]