WASHINGTON- The assumption that the U.S. should exploit its military dominance to exert pressure on adversaries has long dominated the thinking of the U.S. national security and political elite in the past. But this central tenet of conventional security doctrine was sharply rejected this week by a senior practitioner of crisis diplomacy at the debut of a major new centrist foreign policy think tank.
At the first conference of the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), Ambassador James Dobbins, who was the Bill Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and the George W. Bush administration's first special envoy to Afghanistan, sharply rejected the well-established concept of coercive diplomacy.
Dobbins declared in a panel on Iran policy, "I reject the theory that the implicit threat of force is a necessary prerequisite to successful diplomacy."
Looking back on 40 years of U.S. diplomacy, Dobbins, now director of the Rand International Security and Defence Policy Centre, concluded that the conventional wisdom about the need to back up diplomacy with adversaries with force is wrong. "I can say that most of it was not conducted against a background of threat of force," said Dobbins, and when the threat of force was introduced, "diplomacy failed".
In diplomatic dealings with the Soviet Union, however, Dobbins said, "We never threatened to use force."
Dobbins complained that the debate over diplomacy with regard to Iran has been between those who are ready to use military force now and those "say we should talk with them first". Advocates of diplomacy, he said, have to "meet a high threshold -- they have to offer the reversal of all Iranian positions." In effect, they have to deliver Iranian "capitulation", said Dobbins.
Although very different from the Soviet Union as a threat, Dobbins observed, Iran is similar in that "we can't afford to ignore it and we can't overrun it". Real diplomacy in regard to Iran, he argued, would result in "better information and better options".
In a line that got applause from the more than 750 people attending the conference, Dobbins said his solution was to "deal with Iran".
The Dobbins argument represents the first high-profile challenge by a veteran of the U.S. national security community to a central tenet of national security officials and the U.S. political elite ever since the end of the Cold War.
The recently established CNAS has strong connections with former Clinton administration national security officials and the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. CNAS president Michele A. Flournoy and CEO Kurt M. Campbell both held positions in the Clinton Defence Department. William J. Perry and Madeleine K. Albright, Clinton's secretaries of defence and state, respectively, gave opening remarks at the conference.
The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and of the national security elite has long associated itself with the idea that the threat of military force -- and even force itself -- should be at the centre of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Key figures from the Clinton administration, including Perry, Albright, former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, former assistant secretary of state James P. Rubin and former deputy national security adviser James Steinberg, lined up in support of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Flournoy and Campbell have already made it clear that CNAS' orientation will be to hew to the common ground uniting the national security professionals who have served administrations of both parties. Flournoy co-authored an op-ed with former Bush administration deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage two days before the NCAS conference, and Armitage also introduced the conference.
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A paper by Flournoy and two junior co-authors ostensibly calling for a new U.S. "grand strategy" is notable for its reluctance to go too far in criticising the Bush administration's policies. It argues that the current U.S. positions in Iraq and poses the "real threat of strategic exhaustion" and calls for "rebalancing risk", but offers no real alternative to indefinite continuation of the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Instead it urged the "rearticulation" of goals in both Iraq and Afghanistan by replacing the "maximalist language used in past years" with "pragmatism".
But the choice of Dobbins to anchor a panel on Iran indicates that the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and of the national security community now has serious doubts about the coercive diplomacy approach to Iran that has dominated policy thinking since the beginning of the Clinton administration.
A paper on Iran policy coauthored by Campbell and released at the conference Wednesday reflects a new scepticism toward the threat of an attack on Iran as a way of obtaining Iranian cooperation. It argues that U.S. military threats against Iran "have had the opposite effect" from what was desired, hardening the resolve of Iranian leaders to enrich uranium and giving the Islamic regime greater credibility with the Iran people.
The paper also reflected an unwillingness to dispense entirely with the military option, however, proposing that the United States "de-emphasise, but not forswear, the possibility of military action against Iran."
The paper advised against even taking the military threat off the table in return for Iran's stopping its nuclear programme, on the ground that Washington must be able to use that threat to bargain with Iran over "stopping its support for terrorism".
The principal author of the paper, James N. Miller, who is senior vice president and director of studies at CNAS, explained in an interview after the conference that he believes Dobbins' assessment of the problem is "about right". Miller said the threat to use force against Iran to coerce it on its nuclear programme "is not useful or credible now".
But Miller said he would not give up that threat, because the next president might enter into serious negotiations with Iran, and Iran might refuse to "play ball" and go ahead with plans to acquire nuclear weapons. If the president had a strong coalition behind him, he said, "The use of force is an option that one should consider."
The idea that diplomatic negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme must be backed by the threat of war is so deeply entrenched in Washington that endorsement of it seems to have become a criterion for any candidate being taken seriously by the national security community.
Thus all three top Democratic hopefuls supported it during their primary fight for the Democratic nomination.
Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in early 2007, Clinton said that, in dealing with the possibility of an Iranian nuclear capability, "no option can be taken off the table." Obama and Edwards also explicitly refused to rule out the use of force against Iran if it refused to accept U.S. demands to end its uranium enrichment programme.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
© 2008 Inter Press Service