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November 10, 2006

A Conservative Framing Coup - Threat Assessment
Posted by Marc Grinberg

I was recently discussing the North Korea nuclear test with a fellow liberal friend.  I noted that the prospect of a nuclear North Korea was somewhat unnerving, given Kim Jong-Il's personality and the country's development of ICBMs.  "Do you really think we should bomb North Korea?" he responded.

Excuse me?  From where in the statement "a nuclear North Korea makes me nervous" did he infer that I was advocating military action?

While his response was out of left field, his reaction was not entirely uncommon.  I recently co-authored a political article titled "A Progressive Battle Plan for National Security" for The Democratic Strategist.  Among the critiques we received was that our message proposal for Iran was a call for "bombs away."

Our (partial) messaging proposal for Iran was as follows:

"If any issue should arouse the passion of Democrats, it is the spread of nuclear weapons to a radical Iranian government. Iran is a nation that stones women, publicly executes homosexuals, suppresses its minorities, and has violated the most basic human rights we fight for as Democrats. Allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon would strengthen this government's hand against their own people. And nuclear proliferation--which would spread from Iran to the rest of the region--poses the greatest human rights abuse of all: threatening to destroy millions of lives in a war or a nuclear accident."

Can someone please tell me where in that paragraph we advocated military action against Iran?  I'll give you a hint - nowhere.  What we did do was spend a paragraph listing just some of the reasons why liberals should oppose Iranian nuclear proliferation.

What concerns me is the increasing tendency among liberals (of all stripes) to confuse taking a security threat (or a moral travesty) seriously, with advocating an armed response to that threat.  The Bush Administration has already stolen democracy promotion and a moral foreign policy from liberals.  Has it now taken ownership of the ability to assess threats to American security?  If so, conservatives have succeeded in defining the terms of the national security debate to a degree I never thought possible. 

Liberals are, after all, the ones that understand that addressing the challenges America faces requires us to use all the tools in our toolkit.  If even the most hardcore of us now intuitively think that those who address threats are advocating military action, then the Republicans have succeeded framing the debate - in convincing the public that the use of force is the only legitimate response to security threats.  This was, of course, always their goal.  If they could get Americans to think like this, then liberal policies would never be seen as credible.

Instead of questioning the existence (or, at least, seriousness) of threats, liberals need to change the way the American people think about national security policy: the military shouldn't be the only thing that comes to mind - economic development, education, democracy, diplomacy and countless other tools are, in most situations, more powerful than our armed forces.  I'm preaching to the choir, of course, you all know this.

And yet the trend has not been to advocate for smarter uses of American power, but to deny the reality of threats to American security.  Not only is this dangerous (there are serious threats out there), but it is also a political dead-end.  Even if the public agrees with us on policy, they will never trust us with their security if they do not believe we understand their fears.

As much as we oppose the Bush Administration's tendency to take the debate directly from security threat to military response, it should not blind us of the fact that there are real security (and moral) threats in the world.  If we are to change the way the American public sees national security, we have to do it by convincing them that our approach to threats is the better one, not by denying the existence of these threats altogether.


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Warmest wishes and best regards in that endeavor. That there are real national security threats that the nation needs to be prepared for militarily is not something many on the left will accept. To echo your remarks note that being prepared militarily is not the same as advocating the use of force.

It is often forgotten that weakness can be provocative and in some cases extremely dangerous. In any case the nation desperately needs a long discussion and consensus on what kind of military it needs.

In a sense the debate every year over certain weapon systems and other spending issues is a debate over the size, role, and missions the military must be prepared for. It is in fact extremely expensive to have this discussion every year.

Marc, you only quote one part of your report's discussion of Iran. The actual policy proposal is outlined here:

War with Iran would be entirely counterproductive. But nuclear weapons in Iran would be a real threat to our national security. So our policy turns on finding ways to use covert action to disrupt the nuclear program, building solidarity with Europe to force Iran to change course through economic sanctions (Europe's economic power in Iran is crucial to that effort), and mounting a public relations campaign aimed at the Iranian people to convince them that their energy needs can be met without a nuclear weapon--and that their leaders are gambling their economic futures in pursuit of nuclear arms. As Senator Hart rightly notes, if all these fail, any use of American military force should entail honest and open public debate--precisely what our country failed to ask for in the lead up to Iraq.

The military force option is contemplated in the the final sentence. Now, I believe that one reason some critics might believe that this propasal, if followed, would lead in the end to armed conflict is that the policy outline frankly lacks seriousness, and seems more concerned with political positioning than taking practical and truly efficacious steps to protect American lives and security. In fact, it seems so unserious that one has to wonder whether it is designed to fail, and designed to lay down a pretext for ultimate military action.

The most unserious aspect of the report is that it advocates a convoluted approach to the problem of Iran based on pretending that the Iranian government doesn't exist, and pins all its hopes on a somewhat mysterious end run around that government to the Iranian people themselves. Yet the tactics discussed for influencing these people seem weirdly incompatible with the desired effect. Somehow you expect to build support among the Iraniam public for the US position by impoverishing them through sanctions and sabotaging their domestic nuclear power program. These actions will only intensify Iranian nationalism and build resentment - not win us supporters. Iranians will only be reminded of Mossadegh, and other heavily resented US interventions in their domestic affairs.

And even if your longshot propaganda and covert action strategy somehow did convince most of the Iranian public to back the US position, you nowhere explain how that shift in public opinion is to produce any effect on the Iranian government, which is only quasi-democratic.

One suspects you have bought into the neoconservative myth about a supposedly pro-American, regime-hating Iranian public that is poised for a revolutionary overthrow of their government, if only we give them a little "push".

Do you expect to produce an Iranian revolution? Aside from the fact that such a revolution appears unlikely, I would point out that a revolution (i) would produce a lot of dead Iranians and (ii) has an unpredictable outcome and could just as easily result in a worse government than a better government.

Our best option at this point is direct talks with the Iranian government. We have many things they want, and they have things we want. So, we should at least explore the possibility of a deal. Yet your report never so much as mentions that option, even to point out your reasons for rejecting it. However you must know very well that many prominent US leaders with long national security experience have in recent months advocated direct talks with Iran.

Why the weird silence about the most direct and obvious option?

Dan's right. When you fail to mention the possibility of negotiating with the Iranian gov't, you raise the suspicion that your real objective is regime change, and not non-proliferation (just like the neocons). And when you go on to tell us how morally repulsive the Iranian regime is, you can't really blame people for not trusting you.

(Yes the Iranian gov't is despicable, but it's much better than the Saudi monarchy, and we have no scruples about dealing with them.)

We've heard this song before. War is the last option, but we don't want the smoking gun to be a muchroom cloud.

Dan, the paragraph you posted was in our response article. The criticism we received was after the original article was published, which included just the text I put in my post.

I would agree with you both that we should push for direct talks with the Iranian regime. However, I think it would be irresponsible to think that talks alone will stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons - we need a multi-pronged strategy that will aim to stop Iran from developing the weapons, build up a containment regime (in case they do) and work to liberalize the Iranian government.

However, I am concerned with your moral relativism Cal. I never said I have no scruples about dealing with Saudi Arabia (I never even mentioned Saudi Arabia). Just because Iran isn't the worst of the worst doesn't mean we should ignore the oppression of homosexuals, women and minorities in the country. Saudi Arabia is a tricky case because they are (in some ways) our ally in current anti-terrorism operations (though they are certainly part of the long term problem). That doesn't mean I excuse oppression and the lack of political freedoms there. Figuring out how to deal with these "ugly allies" is a key issue liberals are debating. In terms of my objectives, non-proliferation is by far (really far) the first priority. But of course regime change is one of my other (long term) objectives in regards to Iran. Given the religious conservative, dictatorial nature of the government, my liberal conscience wouldn't let me think any other way.

I don't agree that the equation of action with military action is an "increasing tendency" among some liberals.

There have always been substantial numbers of Americans disinclined to take an active interest in foreign affairs, let alone how other countries manage their internal politics. For generations that disinterest represented "mainstream" American political thought -- and the turn away from it in the first half of the last century was anchored by the American entry into two world wars and the decision to confront Soviet Communism with American forces deployed in Europe.

With respect to liberal Democrats in particular, Vietnam threw into bold relief the idea that foreign engagement meant military action. This was especially true after the 1968 election, when the Democratic administration that had gotten America into Vietnam was safely out of office and the whole mess could be blamed on Republicans. While some Democrats maintained an active interest in national security affairs and foreign policy, a substantial group of liberals came to see "the whole mess" as including not merely American policy toward Indochina but the American military -- a province of Republicans, and of Republicans only.

It is not uncommon to hear this phenomenon described in terms of liberal hostility to the military, but that's a mischaracterization. What we've actually seen is liberal disinterest in national security affairs, a disinterest that became well established by the 1990s. The military and intelligence services were, it is true, objects of suspicion for some liberals, especially those on the far left -- but more liberals simply didn't care about the whole subject. None of their organized constituencies care very much about whether the military was wasting huge amounts of money on gold-plated weapons systems or how well the intelligence services were adapting to a world without the Soviet threat; their interests were directed at domestic issues, and so consequently were the interests of Democratic politicians. (A footnote to this is that one foreign policy position that did have an organized constituency behind it -- support of Israel -- retained the enthusiastic interest and sympathy of most Democratic politicians, and does to this day). It is hard to imagine a modern Republican President even considering a Democrat to be his Secretary of Defense, but President Clinton felt he had to have a Republican at the Pentagon.

So the tendency among some liberals to equate an affirmative foreign policy with one based on military action has deep historic roots. And in the present day it is not wholly removed from the real situation. It is a fact that American military power is, and has been for many years, a major component of America's overseas position. American generals and admirals sometimes have better contacts in foreign countries than American ambassadors do, and countries from the Gulf States to Japan continue to rely on the American military as an alternative to acquiring military power of their own -- which is a good thing, incidentally. Military power isn't worth much if no one thinks you will ever use it, so the possibility of American military action in certain situations is, and will continue to be, an essential element in foreign and national security policy.

This is, as Grinberg rightly suggests, a long way from saying that the appropriate response to a specific foreign policy problem is to send the military into action. But to act on this truism other tools must be available. This is going to require that Democrats (and Republicans) face up to the dramatic weakening of the non-military foreign and national security institutions that took place on Bill Clinton's watch and continued on George Bush's, and to the fact that repairing the damage done is going to require resources that will have to come from somewhere. This is one of several reasons why liberals will need to shed their boredom with the defense budget, and stop regarding national security affairs as an area real liberals can't work in without betraying their deepest principles.

The real question, now that the Democrats have gained control of Congress by focusing on foreign policy, is "what now?" And that's going to be tough, because opinion surveys show the public doesn't have a lot of confidence in any of the strategies on the table. This Public Agenda survey found only two options, better intelligence gathering and reducing dependence on foreign energy, get any real support from the public.

Even if the public agrees with us on policy, they will never trust us with their security if they do not believe we understand their fears.

Any "fears" that the public have have been created by the government in its military actions abroad which have stirred feelings of universal resentment, animosity and retribution. Fears have also been stoked directly by government propanda directed at Americans about the crazy "war on terror" which of course requires military action. The government has pursued such policies because there's a lot of money in it, and that being the American way there is little hope in sight.

Do other countries have a "war on terror?" Do they invade other countries? Do they have huge military forces designed to attack other countries? Have other countries abrogated international law as we have?

The idea that American military power is not the solution to any world problems is a good one--just extend that thought to the idea that America is not the solution to world problems. We should be more concerned for the persecution of American homosexuals, women and minorities than any Iranian persecution. I'm not advocationg isolationism but world fraternalism through diplomacy. The reason we're in trouble (so we think) in North Korea and Iran is because we have refused to talk to them, and have threatened them. So they react, just as we would do.

The United States is not militarily threatened by any country at the present time, in fact hasn't been for years. Somebody needs to say that, and question our wasting of a billion and a half dollars per day on corporate welfare. But it won't be said because the Pentagon budget has permeated our economy in each and every congressional district and influenced the representatives in all districts to support the military option. Match this fact with the government actions noted above to get the reasons for your friend saying "Do you really think we should bomb North Korea?"

I would agree with you both that we should push for direct talks with the Iranian regime. However, I think it would be irresponsible to think that talks alone will stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons

This is a fundamental problem for US negotiations in general.

When you negotiate with somebody you have to accept that they get to make their own choices, and you make your choices, and the intention is to get something that's better e for both parties than their best alternatives to a negotiated settlement.

When we go into a negotiation with the idea that we will get what w want no matter what, and we will only negotiate if we know our negotiating partner will do what we want quicker and easier than if we do a military attack to enforce our will ... well, it sort of gives the discussion an unhealthy tone.

Look, if we want nonproliferation we need to persuade every country that doubts it that they do better without nukes. It's *risky* to try to persuade them they do better not to try for nukes because if they try we'll destroy them before they succeed. That makes us the bad cop with no good cop for them to turn to. They need some other reason to think they do better without nukes.

However, I think it would be irresponsible to think that talks alone will stop Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons - we need a multi-pronged strategy that will aim to stop Iran from developing the weapons, build up a containment regime (in case they do) and work to liberalize the Iranian government.

Sure, talks alone won't do the job. But the question is whether the talks will lead to a negotiated agreement that gives us an outcome we can live with, and includes whatever inspection guarantees are necessary to enforce the agreement. There is a lot we can dangle at Iran: restoration of normal diplomatic relations, an end to US trade sanctions, unfreezing their assets frozen in 1979, security or nonaggression guarantees, the use of America's good offices in facilitating a regional security pact with our existing allies.

What we need from Iran are verifiable guarantees that its nuclear program is peaceful, and recognition of Israel along with nonaggression commitments.

And both countries could benefit greatly from a coordinated approach to Iraq.

If we sit down with Iran and offer this kind of deal, and Iran balks either because it is not prepared to recognize Israel or to guarantee a peaceful nuke program, then it will brand itself a rogue state and the global perception of Iran's posture will change quite a bit in our favor.

However, there is no hope of a negotiated solution if we remain committed to a policy of regime change. No government is going to make a deal with us while we are at the same time committed to overthrowing that government.

The effort vis-a-vis Iran should be part of a broader renewal of the global non-proliferation movement, a renewal which would be assisted tremendously by some substantive gesture on the part of the US regarding our own nuclear program. That will create additional pressure on Iran.

There is a lot we can dangle at Iran: restoration of normal diplomatic relations, an end to US trade sanctions, unfreezing their assets frozen in 1979, security or nonaggression guarantees, the use of America's good offices in facilitating a regional security pact with our existing allies.

Also, making the whole middle-east a nuclear-free zone. Why should we consider letting israel keep nuclear weapons? They are one of the more aggressive nations in the region. Also, we could offer inspections of israel's biological and chemical weapons programs. Give the IAEA free reign in israel. There's no reason to accept WMDs in any nation in the middle east.

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