Thursday, May 22, 2008

Karl Rove pimps out the swiftboat

Perhaps Karl Rove is running for Vice President. He's using his freehold on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page to test attack lines on Barack Obama that are, well, Rovian. Here's how he characterized comments by Obama attempting to place the threats posed by Iran and other 'rogue states' in context:

On Sunday at a stop in Oregon, Sen. Obama was dismissive of the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and Syria. That's the same Iran whose Quds Force is arming and training insurgents and illegal militias in Iraq to kill American soldiers; that is supporting Hezbollah and Hamas in violent attacks on Lebanon and Israel; and that is racing to develop a nuclear weapon while threatening the "annihilation" of Israel.

By Monday in Montana, Mr. Obama recognized his error. He abruptly changed course, admitting that Iran represents a threat to the region and U.S. interests.

Conveniently, Rove neglects to quote Obama before slipping into a schoolmasterly lecture about the carefully prepared negotiations of Nixon and Reagan. Obama was not in fact 'dismissive' of the threats posed by rogue states; his aim was to defuse the hysteria of the Bush Administration's years-long effort to inflate these threats to the magnitude of those posed by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Here's a CNN digest of what Obama actually said:

"Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union," Obama said. "They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us, and yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying we're going to wipe you off the planet.

"We should use that position of strength that we have to be bold enough to go ahead and listen. We might not compromise on any issue, but at least we should find out are there areas of potential common interest, and we can reduce some of the tensions that have caused us so many problems around the world," Obama said.

Obama said he was aware of the "grave" threat Iran poses to the United States, but that it was "common sense" that Iran is less of a threat today to the U.S. than the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.
Nor did Obama "recognize an error" and walk these statements back the following day; he simply elaborated:

The Soviet Union had the ability to destroy the world several times over, had satellites spanning the globe, had huge masses of conventional military power, all directed at destroying us," he said. "So, I've made it clear for years that the threat from Iran is grave. But what I've said is that we should not just talk to our friends. We should be willing to engage our enemies as well. That's what diplomacy is all about...

Iran is a grave threat. It has an illicit nuclear program. It supports terrorism across the region and militias in Iraq. It threatens Israel's existence. It denies the Holocaust," he said. "The reason Iran is so much more powerful than it was a few years ago is because of the Bush-McCain policy of fighting in Iraq and refusing to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran. They're the ones who have not dealt with Iran wisely.

In his attempt to bring the rogue state threat to scale, Obama seems to be channeling in an argument spun out by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria last October:

The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism." For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence.

Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?

You don't have to think that the threats posed by Islamic extremism and nuclear proliferation are "overblown," as John E. Mueller has argued in a book of that title, to appreciate Obama's attempt to counter Cold War nostalgia that craves a superpower-weight enemy against which the U.S. can define itself.

As Obama fights to break the spell of Rovian fear-mongering, I do wish he hadn't weakened himself in the famous YouTube debate exchange last summer, when he responded "I would" to the question, "Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?" Hillary was quite right to call him out on this. I thought at the time and continue to think that Obama didn't fully absorb the question and didn't mean to say that he'd meet all five personally within a year--just that, on principle, it makes sense to be willing to meet when there's something to be negotiated. But in post-debate dueling he went the other route and tried to suggest that Hillary wouldn't be willing enough to negotiate with rogues. This is one major instance of Obama's sometime tendency to dig deeper when he's in a hole.

Still, that error is as nothing compared to McCain's serial expressions of strategic incoherence. McCain's vision of a decades-long but casualty-free occupation along the lines of our presence in Korea and Japan betrays the kind of Cold War imprinting Obama is trying to defuse (our presence in those countries was part of global competition with the Soviets and their allies). His assertion that Iran backs al Qaeda in Iraq reveals a penchant for lumping all "Islamic extremists" together into one monolithic adversary, as strident Cold Warriors did with the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam. His "bomb bomb Iran" 'joke' is infinitely more "dismissive" of the nature of the threats we actually face than Obama's contextualizing.

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