When diplomacy is the "last resort"

Is Bush's overture to Iran a test designed for failure?

Published June 1, 2006 1:23PM (EDT)

Even as Congress gave him the authority to use military force in Iraq, George W. Bush insisted in October 2002 -- as he did on any number of other occasions -- that he would go to war only as a "last resort."

That claim has been undercut repeatedly by revelations about what was going on behind closed doors : The president's orders to Richard Clarke just after 9/11; the military planning that was going on all along; the Downing Street memos and the "fixing" of intelligence and facts to fit a policy and strategy that had long since been decided.

So is anything different this time around? It sure doesn't seem like it.

The White House announced Wednesday that it's willing to engage in talks with Iran, provided that it "fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities" first. But as the New York Times reports this morning, the talks -- not war -- are the "last resort" for Bush this time.

"For Bush, Talks With Iran Were Last Resort," says the world-turned-upside-down headline over David Sanger's analysis on the Times' Web site. Sanger says that Bush agreed to try talks -- or at least to make a show of trying talks -- only after he was persuaded that he had no other choice. "During the past month, according to European officials and some current and former members of the Bush administration, it became obvious to Mr. Bush that he could not hope to hold together a fractious coalition of nations to enforce sanctions -- or consider military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites -- unless he first showed a willingness to engage Iran's leadership directly over its nuclear program and exhaust every nonmilitary option."

A former official tells Sanger that Vice President Dick Cheney, who initially fought the idea of talks, dropped his opposition after he was persuaded that the United States had to "check off the box" of diplomacy -- and after he saw that Bush had already made up his mind.

Maybe it doesn't matter how the White House got here. Maybe all that matters is that it got here at all. But as Sanger writes, the price of admission to the talks -- the suspension of all uranium-related activities -- is so high that Iran isn't likely to pay it. "Few" of Bush's advisors expect Iran to bite, Sanger says, and "some participants in the drawn-out nuclear drama questioned whether this was an offer intended to fail, devised to show the extent of Iran's intransigence."

If that's the goal of Bush's diplomacy, it seems to be working already. Iran's foreign minister said today that his country welcomed the idea of talks with the United States, but he said that Iran "will not give up" its "natural right" to enrich uranium, and that it isn't interested in talking about the prospect of doing so.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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George W. Bush Iran Iraq War Middle East War Room