Iran should be at the table

As I wrote the other day for the Christian Science Monitor, the decision to exclude Iran from the Montreux talks is a huge diplomatic mistake.

Tehran’s help could be crucial in forging a coordinated diplomatic strategy for resolving the crisis in Syria and enhancing regional security. As a major backer of the current regime, Iran has enormous potential leverage in Damascus.

Iran’s goal in neighboring Syria is to have a regime that is friendly to its interests and that protects the Alewite community. But this does not mean Iranian officials are wedded to the discredited Assad regime. They might be willing to consider an alternative arrangement if it addresses their needs.

It was unwise for the U.S. to insist that Iran publicly commit to replacing Assad before the talks begin. Insisting on preconditions for negotiations is not the way to successful diplomacy.

Tehran shares Washington’s goal of ending a war that is causing widespread instability and violence in the region. Iran also shares the goal of ending the growing threat of Al Qaida-based militancy in Syria.

By inviting Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia to the negotiations but excluding Shia-majority Iran the United States is taking sides in a regional ethnic power struggle. This could exacerbate the deepening Sunni-Shia divide and further undermine security in the region.

Washington would do better to adopt a more even-handed strategy that seeks to balance differing interests and works toward more inclusive power sharing in Syria and across the region.

Biden was right

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates claims in his new memoir that Joe Biden was ‘wrong about every major foreign policy decision of the last 40 years.’ He reiterated that view yesterday in his interview with NPR and identified some of the issues on which Biden was supposedly off base.

I was involved in all of the issues he mentioned, from opposing the Vietnam War and U.S. support for dictators, to urging sanctions and diplomacy rather than war in Iraq. In my view Biden was right on all the policies Gates mentioned:

  • Voting with the Congressional majority in 1973-74 to reduce financial support for the soon-to-collapse Saigon regime, which the United States had tried unsuccessfully to prop up and turn into a viable government through more than a decade of war.
  • Hailing the fall of the tyrannical Shah of Iran in 1979 as an advance for human rights, which it was initially until the ayatollahs suppressed the secular opposition and installed a new form of theocratic oppression.
  • Voting in the early 1980s against the excessive and bellicose military buildup of the Reagan Administration, especially the boondoggle B-1 bomber and the even more absurd Pentagon monstrosity, the MX mobile missile system.
  • Showing the courage to vote in January 1991 against authorization for the first Gulf War, arguing along with 46 other Senators for sanctions and diplomacy rather than military attack.

On these and other issues Biden stood against war and military intervention and for greater diplomacy and restraint in American foreign policy. He was also correct in supporting President Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and in advising the President not to escalate in Afghanistan.

I agree with some of the policies Gates has advocated over the years, especially his skepticism about militarized approaches to countering terrorism. I often quote his 2008 speech on security strategy in which he said that military operations “should be subordinate to measures to promote participation in government, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies and among the discontented from which the terrorists recruit.”

In his critique of Biden, however, Gates seems stuck on cold war thinking and failed policies of the past. The MX mobile missile? Do we really need to debate that again?

Let’s focus instead on policies for the future that can enhance our security and prevent war.