Thursday, May 15, 2008

Talking to Iran: Bush Administration's Divided Voice

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 249

Addressing Israel's national legislative body, the Knesset, today, President Bush spoke these words:

"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.

"We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is - the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."

Rhetorically, of course, this is known as a straw man argument, in which the speaker posits an opinion held by unnamed persons, and then uses that as an occasion to discredit the argument and cast aspersion upon anyone who might disagree with them. Logically, the straw man argument is categorized as fallacious.

President Bush is an old hand at this practice, so his use of the straw man fallacy comes as no surprise. What ought to cause some astonishment, however, is that the president should engage in this tactic just one day after his own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, had this to say about Iran, one of the nations the president includes in his "Axis of Evil":

"We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage . . . and then sit down and talk with them. If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can't go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us."

Setting aside, for the moment, the central question of whether Bush or Gates is espousing the better policy approach to Iran, let me ask this: is it too much to expect, even from this administration, that the president and his principal adviser on national defense to be on the same page about how to address a critical international challenge?

It is small wonder, in the circumstances, that other nations - both friendly and unfriendly - regard the prospect of diplomacy with this administration with uncertainty, and have lost confidence in the United States as a negotiating partner. Whether by design, or, as is far more likely, by inattention and incompetence, this administration shows, time and again with this as but the latest example, that it cannot be relied upon to speak with a unified voice to the international community. Let me emphasize: this is not an example of the president being contradicted by an opposition member of the House or Senate, but rather the president and his secretary of defense contradicting one another in statements made on successive days.

This appalling spectacle is yet another sad reflection upon the United States, and a further indication, as if one were needed, of the scale of the task looming before the next president of extricating the country from the mire into which George W. Bush and his administration has driven us.

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