No False Choices: Chuck Hagel's Foreign Policy Roadmap

Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) yesterday afternoon gave an important speech on US-Iran relations at the University of Nebraska at Kearney's James E. Smith Conference on World Affairs.

Hagel suggested that we can't leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to turn even more ulcerous and not be resolved. He posits that diplomacy, UN mandates and engagement, regional deal-making, new regional security frameworks and credible economic incentives are in a tool kit that can be used to offer something between the bleak, binary, "false choice" between appeasing a nuclear-armed Iran or bombing Iran.

Here is a section of Hagel's diagnosis and prescription on Iran:

Today, the Middle East is more combustible and dangerous than any time in modern history. It is experiencing political upheaval driven by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, religious and ethnic differences, radical Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, despair and the war in Iraq.

Forces and events in the Middle East cannot be neatly categorized. The swirl of Middle East history creates layers upon layers of complexity. There is little transparency in the Middle East. That is a reality that is inescapable and cannot be assumed away. To ignore this reality is to risk being trapped by false choices. . .false choices such as the question, "which is worse -- Iran with nuclear weapons or war with Iran?"

These are not our only choices in dealing with the Middle East and Iran. Diplomatic initiatives, UN mandates, regional cooperation, security frameworks, and economic incentives are part of the mix of international possibilities that must be employed to comprehensively address the challenges of the Middle East.

We will fail to protect and advance America's interests -- in the Middle East and around the world -- if we allow ourselves to be trapped in a self-constructed world based not on reality but on flawed assumptions and flawed judgment leading to flawed policy and dangerous miscalculations.

The United States must approach the Middle East with a clear understanding of the complexities of the region. Our strategic policies must be regional in scope. . .integrating Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violent Islamic extremism, access to energy supplies, and political reform into a comprehensive policy equation.

This should be developed through consultation, cooperation, and coordination with our regional allies Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel. This will require a new regional diplomatic and economic framework to work within. . .a new Middle East frame of reference.

This makes so much sense and is exactly the sort of regional concert that Under Secretary of State Nick Burns mentioned last night during Q&A at his Atlantic Council speech. Burns noted that Iran has some choices -- and can move a normalization agenda forward and that Condi Rice will directly meet Iran's foreign minister if it meets some key conditions. While I think we should meet without those conditions, Burns made it sound as if we were ready to deal.

Burns noted that Iran's friends in the world today were Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea. He may have tossed another nation or two in there -- but he failed to mention Iraq. He also noted that it is remarkable to see Egypt and India voting against Iran on the IAEA Board of Governors. So, an integrated approach to foreign policy is possible -- though this seems not to be something that the Vice President or President seem to want to talk much about.

Hagel also has called for the President to appoint a special Presidential Envoy to represent the "day-to-day bolting together of a Middle East peace process." I think that the person to play that role for the President is former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

While emissaries like John Bolton are now doing all they can to undermine the President's emerging foreign policy in cases like North Korea -- Powell has been studiously loyal to Bush. He won't write or say anything of import that will undermine the President he served -- at least not until after the next President of the United States is sworn in.

Bush should take advantage of Powell's loyalty and the respect that Powell still commands globally and make him the Middle East arm-twister. Elliot Abrams, who is not a productive player when it comes to moving a new stable equilibrium forward in the Middle East, would be trumped by Powell's status and engagement.

Hagel states:

Secretary Rice's recent trip to the Middle East. . .her fourth trip in five months. . .is encouraging. However, the focus of the United States on the Middle East must be comprehensive, sustained, and at the highest levels of all the governments involved.

This will require a new disciplined follow-through from the Bush Administration that we have not yet seen. I have suggested a Presidential Envoy be appointed to represent the President in the day-to-day bolting together of a Middle East peace process that can win the support of all parties involved.

In the Middle East of the 21st Century, Iran will be a key center of gravity. . .a significant regional power. The United States cannot change that reality. America's strategic 21st century regional policy for the Middle East must acknowledge the role of Iran today and over the next 25 years.

Hagel acknowledges different, seemingly divergent parts of the Iranian national personality that helps to drive the regional machinations of Hezbollah and Hamas while at the same time a place where "spontaneous pro-U.S. demonstrations" were held on September 11, 2001.

And Hagel fires back -- my emphasis, not his -- at those who say that this Bush administration has not had productive encounters with Iran by reminding people that in 2002, under this very same administration of President George W. Bush:

Iran has cooperated with the United States on Afghanistan to help the Afghans establish a new government after the Taliban was ousted. Iran continues to invest heavily in the reconstruction of western Afghanistan.

On Afghanistan, the United States and Iran found common interests -- defeating the Taliban and Islamic radicals, stabilizing Afghanistan, stopping the opium production and flow of opium coming into Iran. From these common interests emerged common actions working toward a common purpose. It was in the interests of Iran to work with the U.S. in Afghanistan. It was not a matter of helping America or strengthening America's presence in Central Asia. It was a clear-eyed and self-serving action for Iran.

Complex sets of factors drive the dynamics inside Iran as well as Iran's actions in the Middle East.

Hagel also demystifies Iran President Ahmadinejad and essentially outlines why our understanding of "presidencies" and "presidents" have been warped by the Bush presidency which attempted to squash America's system of political checks and balances.

Hagel stated:

Iran is not monolithic. Iran is governed by competing centers of power. The President and the parliament -- known as the Majles -- are elected. But it is the Supreme Council, lead by the Supreme Leader. . .currently Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. . .who serves as the Commander in Chief and has formal authority over Iran's armed forces and foreign policy.

Ayatollah Khamenei has the power to dismiss Iran's President. A separate elected body -- the Assembly of Experts -- selects. . .and has the power to dismiss. . .the Supreme Leader.

Yet another body -- the Council of Guardians -- screens presidential and parliamentary candidates, and reviews laws passed by the Majles. A third body -- the Expediency Council -- arbitrates disputes between the Council of Guardians and the Majles. Finally, the principal government and clerical officials from all of these entities have a seat on the Supreme National Security Council.

Power and influence in Iran evolve and shift. . .and are difficult to understand.

Supreme Leader Khamenei did not support President Ahmadinejad's presidential bid. In December 2006, Ahmadinejad's supporters suffered major defeats in elections for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts. Last month, an Iranian newspaper owned by Ayatollah Khamenei admonished Ahmadinejad to remove himself from the nuclear issue.

Two-thirds of Iran's population is under the age of 30. Iran is undergoing a generational shift that will shape Iran's outlook. . .and its opinions of the United States. . .for decades to come.

Iran's young people use the internet in large numbers, wear American jeans, listen to American music and are positive about America and the West. We do not want to lose this pro-American generation by turning them away from us. They are the hope of Iran. They bristle under the heavy yoke of the Ayatollahs' strident limitations of personal freedom.

Hagel then advises that America be "cautious" and not "follow the same destructive path on Iran as we did on Iraq." He writes:

We blundered into Iraq because of flawed intelligence, flawed assumptions, flawed judgments, and questionable intentions.

The United States must find a new regional diplomatic strategy to deal with Iran that integrates our regional allies, military power and economic leverage.

As Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the President's nominee to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, responded last week to my question regarding Iran before the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, "Iran should be engaged." He then went on to condition that engagement.

As the 2006 Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq concluded, "The United States should engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues."

As the 2004 Council on Foreign Relations report on Iran co-chaired by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski concluded, "It is in the interests of the United States to engage selectively with Iran to promote regional stability, dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, preserve reliable energy supplies, reduce the threat of terror, and address the 'democracy deficit' that pervades the Middle East as a whole."

Our differences with Iran are very real. However, by refusing to engage Iran, we are perpetuating dangerous geo-political unpredictabilities. Our refusal to recognize Iran's influence does not decrease its influence, but rather increases it. Engagement creates dialogue and opportunities to identify common interests, demonstrate America's strengths, as well as make clear disagreements.

Diplomacy is an essential tool in world affairs using it where possible to ratchet down the pressure of conflict and increase the leverage of strength.

Hagel then supported Iraq Prime Minister Maliki's proposal for an Iraq-led regional conference:

A regional conference led by Iraq would be an opportunity for the United States to engage Iran, with an agenda that is open to all areas of agreement and disagreement.

Last month, Dr. Abbas Milani, the co-Director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institute, testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee, saying:

The US should offer to negotiate with Iran on all the outstanding issues. Comprehensive negotiations are not a "grand bargain."

Instead such negotiations can offer [Iran's leaders] powerful inducements, such as a lifting the economic embargo and even establishing diplomatic ties. But contrary to the "grand bargain" suggestion, central to such negotiations must be the issue of the human rights of the Iranian people.

Contrary to the masses of nearly all other Muslim nations, and contrary to the declining popularity of the US in the world, Iranian people are favorably disposed towards the United States. An offer of serious, frank discussions with the regime on all of these issues will, regardless of whether the regime accepts or rejects the offer, be a win-win situation for the United States, for the Iranian democrats and for the existing UN coalition against the regime's adventurism.

There will be no stability in the Middle East until the broader interests of Iran, the region and the world are addressed.

Hagel then cites the potential, emerging diplomatic success with North Korea and echoes the fact that as I have written before, a new equilibrium of interests in Asia clicked together finally. This template should be applied in the Middle East.

Hagel stated:

The United States must be resolute and clear-headed in our dealings with Iran. . .just as the Administration has been in the latest round of the Six Party Talks regarding North Korea's nuclear weapons. The agreement that Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill reached on February 13 with his colleagues from China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia reflects the power of adept diplomacy, supported through regional coordination, strengthened by financial pressure, and our military presence in South Korea, Japan and across the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States must employ similar, wise statecraft to redirect deepening Middle East tensions toward a higher ground of resolution.

We must be clear that the United States does not seek regime change in Iran.

We must be clear that our objections are to the actions of the Iranian government. . .not the Iranian people.

Our decisions to deploy a second carrier battlegroup and other military assets into the Persian Gulf as well as the decision to target Iranian military assistance flowing into Iraq should be coupled with a clear and credible commitment to diplomatically engage Iran. America must have a strategic and comprehensive Middle East framework of resolution using all the levers of influence available to the U.S. and its allies.

The United States must be prepared to act boldly and exploit opportunities to re-frame our relationship with Iran. Engagement should not be limited to government-to-government contact. . .but rather find new and imaginative ways to reach out to the Iranian people.

Part of that initiative could be offering to re-open a consulate in Tehran. . .not formal diplomatic relations. . .but a Consulate. . .to help encourage and facilitate people-to-people exchange. All nations of Europe and most of our allies in the Middle East and Asia have diplomatic relations with Iran.

Kenneth Timmerman, a nominee along with John Bolton at one time for the Nobel Peace Prize, is an avid regime change advocate and has worked with numerous groups inside Iran to try and promote democracy led from within. Timmerman and I get along well and discuss these matters frequently -- and I'm sure that he would (and will) take strong exception to the Senator's call to stop an American policy of regime change.

I think that this is a debate that needs to be had down the road. What is regime change? Is it the kind of transformational, institution building and development of civil society operations and political party networks that George Soros's Open Society Institute has engaged in relatively successfully in Eastern Europe. The National Democratic Institute has engaged in this work in Africa as well as the International Republican Institute in South and Southeast Asia.

Or is regime change the decapitation of a regime through external or internal force? Perhaps both.

But it seems to me that both sides need to pause and ask, particularly over the long term, "what works?"

I think systematic isolation disconnected from policy does not work. I also think that the Timmerman like cultivation of domestic interest groups can be a smart strategy -- but one that takes Americans inside Iran -- particularly Americans and Europeans there in NGO roles like NDI, IRI, or the Open Society Institute. But one can't just turn on a quick switch to animate change in Iran. Relationships need to be built -- and that is better done with some forms of real engagement.

I also think America is pursuing its foreign policy and national security objectives on the cheap. Nick Burns -- in his Atlantic Council comments last night -- indicated a small change in that equation suggesting that whereas the US had committed $14 billion to Afghanistan in aid and reconstruction funds in the last five years, we were now upping that amount to $11.4 billion in the next two years.

That's a beginning -- but Afghanistan is only one part of a moving puzzle in the Middle East and world.

Let me offer for readers the end of the speech, which I think is just masterfully crafted and important -- particularly the part about Ronald Reagan's transformation from firing up the "Soviet Union as evil empire" metaphor to becoming the deal-maker with the Soviets on arms control, and ultimately the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Here again is a link to the entire speech, but now Senator Hagel's kicker:

The failure of Iran to comply with yesterday's UN Security Council deadline to halt its uranium enrichment activities should be an opportunity for the United States to reaffirm and expand the international consensus to address Iran's nuclear program. The will of the international community gives credibility to its demands of Iran.

As Dr. Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, wrote in the Washington Post last November:

A diplomacy that excludes adversaries is a contradiction in terms. . .Diplomacy -- especially with an adversary -- can succeed only if it brings about a balance of interests. . .To evoke a more balanced view should be an important goal for U.S. diplomacy.

Iran may come to understand sooner or later that, for the foreseeable future, it is a relatively poor developing country in no position to challenge all the industrialized nations. But such an evolution presupposes the development of a precise and concrete strategic and negotiating program by the United States and its associates.

Without a wise and integrated strategy, we risk drifting into conflict with Iran.

America's military might alone will not bring stability and security. . .to the Middle East. That is an enduring fact of international relations that the late President Ronald Reagan understood well.

Throughout his eight years as President, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a global struggle, the Cold War. It was a war fought using containment, alliances, and political, diplomatic, economic and military power. Yet, nuclear war was averted and no shot was ever fired between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

President Reagan was always clear and resolute that the Soviet Union was our foe. . .that deep, fundamental differences divided the United States and the Soviet Union. He referred to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire."

In a speech before the National Association of Evangelicals on March 8, 1983, President Reagan said:

I urge you to beware the temptation of pride -- the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault -- to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.

Yet it was President Reagan who, in 1986, almost reached an agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to abolish nuclear weapons. President Reagan understood the need for America to engage. . .to understand our friends and our adversaries. . .to explore our options. . .to identify common interests.

President Reagan understood that great powers engage because they are secure in their beliefs and purpose but humble and wise in their policies and actions.

The United States must have a policy on Iran. . .on Iraq. . .on the broader Middle East. . .that the American people understand, and will trust and support. Our words and our actions must seek to make America more secure, and the world more peaceful and prosperous. The world must know that, like all sovereign nations, the United States will defend itself and its interests, but that military conflict will always be the last resort.

The American people are deeply concerned about our direction in the Middle East. The American people expect and deserve a strategy that shows prospects for resolution. A U.S. military conflict with Iran would inflame the Middle East and global Muslim populations, crippling U.S. security, political, economic and strategic interests worldwide. I do not believe that the American people will believe that such an outcome improves America's security, stability and prosperity.

America cannot sustain political, diplomatic, economic or military engagement in the Middle East without the support of the American people. The rising tensions with Iran, the chaos in Iraq, the enduring Israeli-Palestinian conflict present a deepening crisis in the Middle East. America's policies must help lead the region out of the crisis. The American people increasingly understand this present and future danger.

Today, some of America's own actions are undermining the very interests that we must protect and advance in the Middle East. A recent poll conducted by Zogby International in the countries of Arab allies. . .Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. . .found that only twelve percent expressed favorable attitudes toward the United States.

As David Ignatius wrote earlier this week in the Washington Post from a conference in Doha, Qatar, "It isn't a tiny handful of people in the Arab world who oppose what America is doing. It's nearly everyone."

If we lose our ability to influence outcomes in the Middle East, the consequences and implications for America and the world will be severe. We risk unstable energy supplies. . .growth in radical Islamic terrorism. . .increasing threats to Israel. . .and nuclear proliferation.

We are living today at an historic transformational time in history. The great challenges of the 21st century will require U.S. leadership that is trusted and respected, not feared nor resented. America cannot project only military power. Inspirational leadership and confidence in America's purpose, not imposed power, will be essential for world peace. If we fail, we will lose the next generation in Iran and around the world. This would result in a far more dangerous world than any we have ever known.

For the 21st Century, the U.S.-Iran relationship will frame the structure and dynamics of the Middle East. We must be sure of our actions and wise with our words. The prospects for peace that have eluded all nations of the Middle East for so long may be on the edge of a convergence of historic intersects. America can help shape the outcome with active and focused diplomacy. . .worthy of our heritage.

I think that Hagel's speech is visionary and, yes, i will say it -- presidential.

I think this speech says things, meaningful things. It makes concrete proposals about how to get America's foreign and national security portfolio back in shape and offers suggestions that Americans can debate.

Some will attack Senator Hagel -- from the right and the left -- but this will also serve as a clarion call to others to rally to this sort of sensible, problem-solving enlightened American realism in foreign affairs.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note