Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Failure of Imagination about the Mideast: Pt. 1. Nuclear Transparency

U.S. freedom of maneuver toward the Mideast is crippled by failure of imagination. What would happen if American decision-makers actually starting considering "all options?"

As the world's only superpower in an environment of great instability but no overwhelming immediate threat, the U.S. has, in principle, enormous freedom of action to implement an effective Mideast policy. Yet, its Mideast policy is an unmitigated disaster, a constant drain on U.S. blood and treasure and a humiliating demonstration of American incompetence that leaves even its favored client Israel feeling insecure and moving steadily away from democracy toward racism and authoritarianism. American weakness derives from Washington's failure of imagination. American leaders simply do not see the selections on the vast buffet table of policy options.

To address this failure of imagination, some fundamental questions that Washington decision-makers appear not to have even asked will be considered in a series of essays. The first question concerns nuclear transparency:

What would happen if Washington endorsed international calls for a nuclear-free Mideast and called on Israel and Iran jointly to adopt a policy of nuclear transparency? 

The most immediate change would be to demonstrate that the world's most powerful country was now thinking creatively and taking charge. That in and of itself would enhance Washington's influence by giving it the leadership position that it has increasingly been ceding to Ankara. The whole rest of the world would immediately start playing catch-up.

Such a policy announcement would also enhance Washington's tattered reputation as the world's moral leader. 

A call for nuclear transparency would surely be attacked by Israeli rightwingers but would also empower Israeli liberals, both those concerned about proliferation and those concerned about the state of Israeli democracy. The result would probably be a healthy domestic Israeli debate about the merits of its nuclear policy. It would be difficult for Israeli rightwingers to make a serious case that Israel was being harmed since calling for transparency would have no immediate or obvious impact on actual power relationships: no change would occur in the possession of actual military hardware.

In Iran as well a debate over nuclear strategy would probably be stimulated, though it would perhaps be closely held within the national security community. Calling on both Iran and Israel to accept the same standard would surely open the door to the argument that Iran could benefit by cooperating more with the international community.

Transparency should in the end be easy for Israel to accept since it would retain its nuclear monopoly. Transparency should also be easy in the end for Iran to accept since it already claims to support such a policy and would now see a benefit to adhering more carefully to the spirit of that policy. With the US in the lead, promotion of nuclear transparency would give momentum to Obama's anti-proliferation policy. Transparency would serve as an easy first step toward the much more challenging goals of preventing proliferation, cutting back stockpiles of nuclear arms, but the mere fact of the international community taking a first step that applied to all would at least minimally reassure everyone, thus cutting tensions somewhat and thereby facilitating the next step. It could thus, at little if any cost, turn into an historic opening.  

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