John Bolton Almost Knows What’s Happening

I tuned in to a little Fox News last night and watched Sean Hannity’s interview with John Bolton. Politics aside, the aggression and hysteria Sean Hannity are too suffocating to endure. However, while the political tone of his analysis is all wrong, John Bolton actually gave decent expression to a few insights (“In Defense of Democracy,” Hannity, Fox News, 22 June 2009). Specifically, he explained very well the cause of the administration’s reserve with respect to Iran:

The real reason that he [Obama] won’t speak out has nothing to do with this argument that we don’t want to meddle. The Iranian regime is already accusing us of that. The real reason is the president is determined to find a way to try and negotiate with the regime — with Khamenei, with Ahmadinejad — about their nuclear weapons program. This is a policy doomed to failure, but it explains why he won’t speak out in defense of representative government and individual liberty in Iran.

It’s not that President Obama’s position has “nothing to do with this argument that we don’t want to mettle.” Unlike certain other administrations for whom the sensitivities of foreign political cultures simply don’t exist, or are such trifles as not to figure in their calculations, President Obama is aware that the U.S. has an unpleasant past in Iran that is a significant part of Iranian national consciousness. The administration actually doesn’t want to meddle.

Qualification made, the administration’s policy toward Iran grows from multiple motives. One of which is the desire to do something about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, no matter the outcome of the election. And it’s not as if this is some bizarre act of cynicism. Iran’s nuclear program is an issue of paramount importance to the U.S. (as President Obama adequately said at a number of points in Tuesday’s press conference; video parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; transcript). And it’s not as if the assessment of the Obama Administration that a negotiated solution is possible is beyond imagining. It’s the policy that the Bush Administration would have pursued had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ever been able to outmaneuver Vice President Dick. But since The Decider never was much of a decider, the Bush Administration spent the whole of its second term paralyzed over what to do about Iran.

Which brings me to Mr. Bolton’s second point. The thing about Fox News is that it doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Mr. Hannity asks if President Obama is giving the Iranian régime a green light for a crackdown by not saying enough. Mr. Bolton’s not so sure:

Well I think it’s mostly right except I would say this: because — including during the Bush Administration — we did not prepare adequately for this potential revolutionary moment, we’re not really in a position now to offer much concrete assistance and I don’t want America to be in a position where we urge people in the streets and then watch them die. I’d rather be a little bit prudent and prepare for the long term where we really can provide concrete assistance.

So after spending the bulk of the interview using President Obama’s restrained position on Iran as a cudgel with which to bludgeon the administration, Mr. Bolton turns around and admits that there’s really nothing we can do and that he would “rather be a little bit prudent.” So what’s wrong with President Obama’s position again?

We’ve been down this road before. In February of 1991, after the First Gulf War, President George Bush, Sr. encouraged the Shi’a and the Kurds to overthrow Saddam Hussein. When an uprising began, the United States then opted to do nothing, and Hussein crushed the rebellion, killing 60-100,000 Iraqis. Mr. Bolton is correct to suggest that we don’t want to repeat that catastrophe.

September 11th

In the days after 11 September 2001, as the disbelief and shock began to subside in favor of a sense of what had happened and what came next, CNN uncovered an old documentary, Building the World Trade Center, made by the New York Port Authority and aired it’s entire twenty minutes. I was lucky to catch it and it has since become a favorite piece of film for me. The first ten minutes of the video are an interesting, if stylistically dated, discussion of some of the features of the site and novel construction techniques and design features employed in the building. What makes me return to the film again and again is that at about time 10:05 — on the factual tidbit that after the foundational structures were in place construction proceeded according to a formula at the rate of about three floors every ten days — the film switches from informative documentary to whimsical art film. Set to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Vianna Blood is an uninterrupted five minute dance of building rising. Watch a crane operator rotate a huge section of sheet metal at 12:25-12:36, the pan around the partly completed towers at 13:44-14:00 or the documentary makers themselves at 14:20-14:25 — it could be Stanly Kubrick. It’s a wonderful little paean to labor and ingenuity and capitalism.