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April 28, 2010

The "Treating Our Enemies Better Than Our Friends" Meme
Posted by David Shorr

I don't mean to pick on my friend Kori Schake; she's merely keeping up the drumbeat charge that the US now is nicer to its enemies than its friends:

Contrast the harshness with which President Obama himself and his cabinet excoriate Israel for building settlements that were not even covered by the temporary freeze with President Obama's careful language as Iran's Qom reactor was revealed (he even delayed the announcement so that it would not interfere with his message of a different America at the UN last fall). It would appear that Israel is the only government for which the Obama administration favors regime change. Imagine what signal that sends to Iran.

Don't hold back, tell us what you really think of the administration's policy. In my reading of this graf, which is jam packed with arguments, I see three issues. There's the question of whether we use the same standards of etiquette with allies and adversaries. Second, the rationales for why the US would press issues in one diplomatic forum versus another. And then last, the matter of regime change (somehow it always seems to come back to that issue). 

On the comparison between Washington's treatment of Israel versus Iran, I can hardly do better than the commenter Wolfboy on Kori's blog, who said "Please hold off on such comparisons until the US refuses to rule out military action to deal with the Israeli settlement issue, or declares that the US and Iran are joined by an unbreakable bond." For all the administration's purported mistreatment of Israel, it's worth noting the assessment of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that "This administration, I say this unequivocally without reservation, this administration is as good if not better than previous administrations in its security commitment to Israel, in assuring Israel's military edge." (About 14 minutes into his Charlie Rose interview.)

But there are more fundamental problems with this argument. To begin with, this whole exercise of comparing our treatment of friends and enemies, just on the face of it, is so apples-to-oranges. Digging a bit deeper, what are the implications of how we're supposed to treat allies or adversaries? Is friendship a carte blanche, ensuring that leaders of ally nations are immune from criticism or controversy with the United States?

And for nations we regard as posing a threat, are we precluded from modulating our response or making tactical choices about the right time or place to raise criticisms or point the accusing finger? In oher words, how much room is left here for any diplomatic efforts? As I debate these issues in the blogosphere with my conservative friends, I have tried to be more careful not to caricaure them. I know they understand the need for diplomacy. Yet their policy critique gives no credit for policy choices that have been made to boost diplomacy's prospects. And frankly, the more criticism I read, I really wonder how they think diplomacy will work. For one thing, the criticism never acknowledges the international coalition-building around Iran, except to slam it as a fool's errand. The missed deadlines and supposedly wasted year that Kori laments stems directly from the difficulty of lining up international support, and the desire to keep from losing momentum is the animating drive for the way the administration has been relentlessly working to persuade others to stand with us in pressing Iran. If conservatives are so sure they could drive this more successfully or expeditiously, I'm still waiting to hear how.

Which brings me to my next point: choosing the right multilateral venues. The key point is that a solid international front of pressure on Iran is something that has to be built, not presumed. It would be great if the world saw this the same way as the US; they don't. Consequently, it's indeed true that the administration hasn't pressed Iran's misdeeds as loudly as possible or in every public forum. This is a calculation that some forms or venues of protest would undermine international support on Iran. In the case of the nuclear summit, the administration figured it could actually accomplish more on Iran in private meetings in the margins of the summit.

Again, I don't want to caricature the conservative view, but I need someone to explain to me how it's different from asserting that the US view is correct, and everyone else should follow along, without needing to be patiently convinced or cajoled?

Finally, since Kori brings it up, regime change. According to Kori, the Obama administration wants regime change in Israel and doesn't want it in Iran, even though it should. Once again I read the conservative argument as lacking any sense of trade-offs or negative potential consequences. It's an entirely different matter to want regime change than to seek regime change as a matter of policy. We all want greater freedom for the people of Iran. Some of us, though, see a direct contradiction between the policy objectives of getting Iran to do a nuclear "full monty" and regime change. However abhorent and illegitimate the Iranian leadership is -- and it indeed is abhorent and illegitimate -- a policy aim of removing them will only give them every incentive to barrel ahead to a nuclear weapon capability. For any successful peaceful outcome here, Tehran needs to know that changing their policy without changing their regime will be credited by the United States and the international community. Something we ought to know by now.


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