Glimmers of Hope at the Five-Year Mark

The fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks will produce heavy bursts of rhetoric—the president alone is giving three speeches.

George W. Bush claims to be fighting two extremist forces as deadly as communism and fascism. The world made a mistake by ignoring Adolf Hitler’s words in “Mein Kampf” and V.I. Lenin’s in his pamphlet “What Is to Be Done.”

Those two men, too long ignored, went on to be the leaders of the totalitarians states of Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union. Now it would be foolish, the argument goes, to ignore the “different faces of the same threat”—violent Islamic radicalism. Shia extremism is Hezbollah and the Sunni version is Al-Qaeda.

“They draw inspiration from different sources, but both seek to impose a dark vision of violent Islamic radicalism across the Middle East,” the president has told us.

Al Qaeda has killed the most Americans, but Hezbollah has an ally in Iran, the president further explained. The Iranian president, in fact, has declared that “nations who want good relations wit Iran must bow down before the greatness of the Iranian nation and surrender.”

Bush got warm applause when he shot back, “America will not bow down to tyrants.”

But the Republicans do understand, as Karl Rove put it last May, that Americans are “just sour right now on the war.” The president will supply bombast for the 9/11 anniversary, but nevertheless gets it—promises to stand tall five years into his war on terror will not bring the big changes that Americans will want by Election Day.

So it is useful to look at clues that contradict the president’s rhetoric of continuing the war and a policy of never compromising with terrorists.

One big one is the “unofficial” visit to the United States by Mohammed Khatami, the former Iranian president and a senior member of the Iranian clergy who control their government. It was the first visit by an Iranian leader since Jimmy Carter was president. Could Bush be willing to talk to Iran, Hezbollah’s ally?

Another first took place in Tehran on September 5. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and the country’s finance and trade ministers flew directly from Baghdad to Tehran to prepare for an official visit later this month by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to Iran. Iraq is apparently hoping to have normal relations with Iran.

And then there are Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on Israel. Israel agreed to a ceasefire quickly without repeating the United States’ mistakes in Iraq. Israeli soldiers did not become an army of occupation and a sitting target for armed guerillas. Israel punished Lebanon for harboring Hezbollah, but pulled back and allowed negotiations to proceed.

In Iraq, the United is adopting a desperate strategy. It has concentrated its forces in Baghdad to see if they can stop the violence there. However, most people believe progress will be temporary, at best. Once the troops are redeployed to other areas, the formerly occupied zone will return to disorder. The U.S. has recognized that it doesn’t have enough troops to pacify Iraq, and the move to put Iraqis in charge may accelerate.

The success of this policy depends entirely on Iran. If the United States can reach an understanding with Iran then it may be able to withdraw troops from Iraq. Yet, it remains hard to imagine the U.S. reaching an understanding with a nation that is Hezbollah’s guarantor.

But the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs, the foreign policy establishment’s Bible, is filled with discussions of the thorny question of religion and international relations. An article by Stanford Professor Scott D. Sagan, director of the university’s Center for International Security and Cooperation warns of the dangers of a nuclear Iran. The Bush administration must be willing to abandon its policy of regime change for Iran, in return for a nuclear stand-down.

“In any final settlement,” Sagan advises, “Tehran will need to agree to freeze its nuclear program and end its support for terrorism.” Washington—along with China, Russia, and the European Union—must issue “a joint security guarantee that respects Iran’s political sovereignty, thus committing the United States to promote democracy only by peaceful means. Peaceful coexistence does not require friendly relations, but it does mean exercising mutual restraint. Relinquishing the threat of regime change by force is a necessary and acceptable price for the United States to pay to stop Tehran from getting the bomb.”

There will be no peace in Iraq until we have peace with Iran, and as far as I can tell nobody, Democrat or Republican, has great confidence in Bush’s ability to bring about these changes in policy. However if Bush does undertake a diplomatic initiative then the Democrats’ current polling strength may diminish.

The road ahead, of course, is filled with potholes for nearly everyone.