CARROTS AND STICKS….James Fallows argues that Monday’s NIE, which turned down the threat level on Iran’s nuclear program, is politically awkward for those who have “gone farthest out on the Iran-hawk limb.” In particular:

To me it intensifies my main concern about Hillary Clinton: that, having voted five years ago for the war in Iraq, which she then continued to support for years, she went ahead this fall and voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which however you slice it was essentially a vote for legitimizing military action against Iran.

….Yes, you can argue — as Senator Clinton did just now in the excellent NPR radio-only Democratic candidates’ debate — that world affairs require both carrots and sticks, that the threat of force is important for getting a regime’s attention, and so on. But the reported change in Iran’s behavior happened in 2003! It didn’t have anything to do with Kyl-Lieberman.

As it happens, Hillary is a little over-hawkish for my taste too, and I think she made a mistake voting for Kyl-Lieberman. Still, this seems backward to me. Iran’s about-face on its nuclear program may have had nothing to do with Kyl-Lieberman, but surely 2003 rings another bell in the carrots-and-sticks department? While there may have been multiple reasons why Iran shut down its bomb program, I think you’d have to do some pretty serious special pleading to argue that our invasion of Iraq wasn’t one of them. And if that’s the case, it’s pretty good evidence that sticks have a place in foreign policy, just as Hillary says.

This isn’t an argument that the Iraq war was a good idea. It’s an argument that once Bush made the decision to go to war, it was foolish not to take advantage of one of the resulting upsides. Iran was pretty clearly spooked after we crushed Saddam with such stunning ease, and was also pretty clearly ready to do a deal with us. But the Bush administration was so blinded by its own world historical importance, and so dominated by triumphant neocon ideologues, that it refused to see the deal that was in front of its own face.

Compare this to Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union. It’s true that the playground story of how Reagan stared down the Soviets and brought down the wall is tiresome: there were lots of reasons the Soviet Union fell, among them internal bleeding from the Afghanistan war, the mid-80s collapse in oil prices, and the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev. Still, we now know that Reagan’s defense buildup and enthusiasm for SDI was also part of it. But unlike Bush, Reagan was smart enough to take yes for an answer. When the other guy blinked, Reagan ignored the hawks in his own administration and signed the INF treaty with Gorbachev in 1987. Four years later both the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain were gone.

Bush did the opposite. He wasn’t willing to push back against Dick Cheney and the rest of the hawks in his administration, and so the chance to do a deal with Iran passed. But the chance was there, and if I were Hillary Clinton I’d argue that the threat of force was part of the reason. The only thing missing was a president smart enough to take advantage of it.

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