A paradigm shift in US diplomacy?

The assumption that the United States should exploit its military dominance to exert pressure on adversaries has long dominated the thinking of the US national security and political elite in the past. But this central tenet of conventional security doctrine was sharply rejected this week by a senior practitioner of crisis diplomacy at the debut of a major new centrist foreign policy think tank.

At the first conference of the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS), Ambassador James Dobbins, who was the Bill Clinton administration’s special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo and the George W Bush administration’s first special envoy to Afghanistan, sharply rejected the well-established concept of coercive diplomacy. Dobbins declared in a panel on Iran policy, “I reject the theory that the implicit threat of force is a necessary prerequisite to successful diplomacy.”

The Dobbins argument represents the first high-profile challenge by a veteran of the US national security community to a central tenet of national security officials and the US political elite ever since the end of the Cold War. The recently established CNAS has strong connections with former Clinton administration national security officials and the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. CNAS president Michele A. Flournoy and CEO Kurt M. Campbell both held positions in the Clinton Defence Department. William J. Perry and Madeleine K. Albright, Clinton’s secretaries of defence and state, respectively, gave opening remarks at the conference.

The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party and of the national security elite has long associated itself with the idea that the threat of military force — and even force itself — should be at the centre of US policy in the Middle East. Key figures from the Clinton administration, including Perry, Albright, former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, former assistant secretary of state James P. Rubin and former deputy national security adviser James Steinberg, lined up in support of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A paper on Iran policy coauthored by Campbell and released at the conference Wednesday reflects a new scepticism toward the threat of an attack on Iran as a way of obtaining Iranian cooperation. It argues that US military threats against Iran “have had the opposite effect” from what was desired, hardening the resolve of Iranian leaders to enrich uranium and giving the Islamic regime greater credibility with the Iran people.

The idea that diplomatic negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme must be backed by the threat of war is so deeply entrenched in Washington that endorsement of it seems to have become a criterion for any candidate being taken seriously by the national security community. Thus all three top Democratic hopefuls supported it during their primary fight for the Democratic nomination.

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in early 2007, Clinton said that, in dealing with the possibility of an Iranian nuclear capability, “no option can be

taken off the table.” Obama and Edwards also explicitly refused to rule out the use

of force against Iran if it refused to accept United States demands to end its uranium enrichment programme. — IPS