March 20, 2007
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
If an 18-year-old American soldier were caught slipping obscure military paperwork to Iranian spies, he would be arrested, pilloried in the news media and tossed into prison for years.
But in fact there’s an American who has provided services of incalculably greater value to Iran in recent years. So you have to wonder: Is Dick Cheney an Iranian mole?
Consider that the Bush administration’s first major military intervention was to overthrow Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Iran’s bitter foe to the east. Then the administration toppled Iran’s even worse enemy to the west, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
You really think that’s just a coincidence? That of all 193 nations in the world, we just happen to topple the two neighboring regimes that Iran despises?
Moreover, consider how our invasion of Iraq went down. The U.S. dismantled Iraq’s army, broke the Baath Party and helped install a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. If Iran’s ayatollahs had written the script, they couldn’t have done better — so maybe they did write the script …
We fought Iraq, and Iran won. And that’s just another coincidence?
Or think about broader Bush administration policies in the Middle East. For six years, the White House vigorously backed Israeli hard-liners and refused to engage seriously in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, thus nurturing anti-Americanism and religious fundamentalism. Then last summer, the White House backed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, which turned Iran’s proxies in Hezbollah into street heroes in much of the Arab world.
Consider also the way the administration has systematically antagonized our former allies in Europe and Asia, undermining chances of a united front to block Iranian development of nuclear weapons. Mr. Cheney may nominally push for sanctions against Iran, but by alienating our allies he makes strong sanctions harder to achieve.
And by condoning torture and extralegal detentions in Guantánamo, the White House antagonized Muslims around the world and made us look like hypocrites when we criticize Arab or Iranian human rights abuses. Take Mr. Cheney’s endorsement of the torture known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning: “It’s a no-brainer for me,” he said. The torturers in Iran’s Evin prison must have cheered. They got a pass as well.
Even at home, Iran’s leaders have been bolstered by President Bush and Mr. Cheney. Iran’s hard-liners are hugely unpopular and the regime is wobbly, but Bush administration policies have inflamed Iranian nationalism and given cover to the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Why focus on Dick Cheney rather than his boss? Partly because Mr. Cheney, even more than Mr. Bush, has systematically pushed an extreme agenda that has transparently served Iranian purposes. And domestically, his role in the Scooter Libby scandal — and his disgraceful refusal to explain just what he was doing at the crime scene — ended up paralyzing executive decision-making and humiliating our government.
Is that really just one more coincidence? Or could it be another case of Mr. Cheney’s following instructions from his Iranian bosses to damage America?
O.K., O.K. Of course, all this is absurd. Mr. Cheney isn’t an Iranian mole. Nor is he a North Korean mole, though his we-don’t-negotiate-with-evil policy toward North Korea has resulted in that country’s quadrupling its nuclear arsenal. It’s also unlikely that he is an Al Qaeda mole, even though Al Qaeda now has an important new base of support in Iraq.
Like Kennedy and Johnson wading into Vietnam, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney harmed American interests not out of malice but out of ineptitude. I concede that they honestly wanted the best for America, but we still ended up getting the worst.
So what are the lessons from this episode?
Our national interests are as vulnerable to incompetence as to malicious damage. So we must identify and abandon the policies that backfired so catastrophically. The common threads of those damaging policies are clear: a refusal to negotiate with “evil”; an aggressive willingness to use military force to solve problems; contempt for our allies; and the bending of legal and moral principles to allow indefinite detention and even torture, particularly for anyone with olive skin and a Muslim name.
Whenever we’ve suspected a mole in our midst, we’ve gone to extreme lengths to find the traitor. This time, betrayed not by a mole but by failed policies, let’s be just as resolute. It’s time to uproot policies that in the last half-dozen years have damaged American interests incomparably more than any mole or foreign spy ever has in the last 200 years.
You’re invited to post your comments about this column on Mr. Kristof’s blog, http://www.nytimes.com/ontheground