By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
The New York Times
February 23, 2007
Watching the Bush team wrestle with Iran, North Korea and Iraq reminds me of something that used to be said of the Reagan administration: The right hand never knew what the far right hand was doing.
In fact, my bet is that when the inside history of the Bush team is written, we will discover that, contrary to its carefully managed image of a disciplined core operating from consistent, conservative principles, it has actually been one of the most internally divided administrations — ever.
The only thing the Bush folks all agreed on was that they would never do anything Bill Clinton did. Beyond that, it’s been a food fight. The trial of Scooter Libby, with its testimony about wars between the V.P.’s office and the White House, the White House and the C.I.A., and everyone against the State Department, proves that beyond a reasonable doubt.
When the former Bush U.N. ambassador John Bolton trashed the president’s recent deal with North Korea as a “charade,” though, he highlighted the biggest internal division of all within the Bush team: how to deal with rogue regimes like Iran, North Korea and Saddam’s Iraq — whether to go for regime change or behavior change.
On Iran and North Korea, “this administration does not have clear policies, it has competing impulses,” said Robert Litwak of the Wilson Center, who just published a smart book on this theme: “Regime Change: U.S. Strategy Through the Prism of 9/11.” “The administration’s mantra is ‘all options are on the table.’ But the dilemma is that too many objectives are on the table as well.”
Because this administration was divided for so long on Iran and North Korea, over regime change or behavior change, it got neither. All it got was that Iran and North Korea both went out and bought Bush insurance: a nuclear weapons program.
President Bush obviously recognizes that and is now trying to remedy it. Bill Clinton was criticized for taking more golf mulligans — do-overs — than any other president. Mr. Bush will be remembered for taking more foreign policy mulligans than any other president.
On North Korea, the president has finally decided to focus purely on changing behavior. He struck a very sensible deal last week with Kim Jong Il to take his country off our terrorism list and normalize relations, provided Mr. Kim gives up his nukes.
But we could have had a similar deal years ago — when North Korea had only two nukes — had the Bush team not been wrangling with itself over regime change or behavior change. While it wrangled, Mr. Kim built up his nuclear arsenal, adding six to 12 more bombs. If this deal is carried out, which is still uncertain, the wasted years will not have been a disaster. If it isn’t carried out, they will have been very costly.
Why do you think that a year after Mr. Bush told us we were “addicted to oil” we still have no serious plan to end that addiction? Because the market fundamentalists in his White House — led by Dick Cheney, who opposes any government effort to impose carbon caps or taxes to promote alternative energies, à la California — keep blocking the market pragmatists who do. And Mr. Bush won’t intervene.
The irony of Iraq is that it’s the one place where Mr. Bush decisively chose regime change, but he then executed it so poorly, with insufficient troops, that Iraq never stood a chance. If Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had spent as much time plotting the toppling of Saddam Hussein as they did the toppling of Colin Powell, Iraq today would be Switzerland. Today’s Bush troop surge in Iraq is just another mulligan — the president’s trying to do in 2007 what he should have done in 2003. In between, we’ve paid a huge price.
How about we avoid a mulligan on Iran? Let’s put a clear deal on the table: full diplomatic relations, security guarantees and thousands of student visas if Iran puts its nuclear program under U.N. inspection and stops supporting terrorism. If not: more sanctions and isolation. Such an offer would at least get us some leverage, unite us more with our allies outside Iran, energize our allies inside Iran and force some excruciating choices on Iran’s leaders.
“Resolving the contradiction in Washington will sharpen the contradiction in Tehran,” Mr. Litwak argued. “Taking regime change off the table in America will put behavior change on the table in Iran.”
I guess we should be thankful that Mr. Bush is trying to fix some of his mistakes, but we have paid a huge, unnecessary price for his learning curve. Which is why it’s always best to get it right the first time. The best golfers never take mulligans, and the best presidents never need them.