September 2, 2008

Debating Iran Policy – Republican experts don’t hold back

Within an hour of having landed at Minneapolis airport (and having to pass up our golden opportunity to visit it’s infamous bathroom), Patrick and I found ourselves going through 3 layers of security and 5 iterations of having our names checked off of the RSVP list for the IRI panel. 


No, I promise that the ‘Islamic Republic of Iran’ is not hosting a panel discussion at the RNC, rather this was a star-studded (for you IR geeks out there) event hosted by The International Republican Institute titled: National Security in a Global Era (you can listen to it at the link).  The panelists included a former Secretary of State, a former National Security Advisor, a former Chair of the house Intelligence Committee, and its most junior member having started his illustrious career with the Reagan administration in 1981. Amateur night, this was not!




Panelists:  former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Burt, Congressman Pete Hoekstra, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and former Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Williamson. The panel was moderated by former Congressman Jim Kolbe


The event opened up with a reading of the panelist’s career highlights (which as you can imagine was no short endeavor) and a recognition of a few of the dignitaries on hand among the 200+ guests at the event (a high-ranking delegation from Georgia, a few currently-serving members of Congress, and other notables – NIAC staff excluded). 


Congressman Kolbe kicked off the event by asking each panelist to highlight the one piece of advice they would give to the next President.  The obviously partisan panel (hey, it’s the REPUBLICAN convention) spared no praise for Sen. John McCain and most lashed out very artfully at Sen. Barack Obama’s experience gap.  The quip of the day belonged to Amb. Williamson who said “Giving advice to John McCain on foreign policy is like giving golfing lessons to Tiger Woods.”


However, the conversation quickly lost its light-hearted start as the various and numerous international challenges to US foreign policy were enumerated.  The distinctive perspectives and schools of thought within the Republican party FP establishment were on full display as the pre-submitted audience questions sparked a wide-ranging discussion.


As luck would have it, Rep. Kolbe started off by combining three questions about US-Iran relations (one submitted by yours truly and another by my partner in crime here in St. Paul).  Richard Burt first responded by outlining the complexity of the Iranian leadership structure and threw cold water on the dialogue option proposed by Sen. Obama by stating “we don’t know who to talk to and if they could deliver on promises.”  He then added that the military option was the most difficult and any Israeli attack would be treated by the Iranians as a US-directed attack.


Sec. Eagleburger, no shirking violet, jumped in and conclusively stated “If Obama is elected President, the Israelis will do something militarily!”  When prompted by Rep. Kolbe about the military solution being the best, without pause he declared “YES!” (he subsequently walked-back his ‘quick’ response but maintained that Israel ‘will do it’)


Scowcroft, the realist on the panel walked the conversation back to the nuclear issue and reasoned that with a multilateral approach the US could indeed resolve this conflict diplomatically and that we would have to acknowledge that ‘they do have real dangers in their neighborhood’.   Of the panelists, he was the most critical of this administration’s policies and at one point, in a related conversation about North Korea, stated unequivocally that “[former UN ambassador] Bolton is wrong!”


Rep. Hoekstra, representing a far more hard-line approach on Iran praised Bolton stating that “engagement does not work” and decried the administration’s lack of message discipline by asserting that “The NIE was a pathetic document.”


The discussion offered a wider spectrum of opinion on Iran-policy from these conservative perspectives than I expected with lively and vibrant disagreements on what policies the next administration should take.  But there were three areas of complete agreement among the six experts:


1)   McCain is experienced and will essentially plot his own course with little need for ‘advice’ from experts

2)   Obama will be a disaster with 300+ advisors that will confuse him, he should just call up McCain for advice if he is elected and

3)   War with Iran will open up a whole new can-of-worms, will be unpredictable, and should not be an option, except that an Iran with nuclear weapons is worst and none of them could offer a viable alternative solution.


The complex foreign policy challenges faced by the next Administration were perhaps best summed up by Amb. Burt: “As serious as Iran is, Pakistan is more dangerous, they already have nukes!”


Just the kind of statement that reminds you – for all the political pageantry and showmanship that these two conventions represent – there will be very real consequences and very important decisions that these two putative leaders of the free world will have to tackle once all the fireworks, balloons, and open bars are long forgotten.


Speaking of open bars – There is a Romney event I can’t wait to go to. I hear they also have a pretty good buffet set up.

Back to top