What Price Bluster?

I completely agree with Tom Friedman that merely because Iran doesn't have an active nuclear weapons program doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned with their enrichment activities. Friedman focuses this on the issues surrounding enrichment itself, but I'd say a better way of putting it is that there's a big difference between a nuclear weapons program that's on ice (what we think Iran has) and a nuclear weapons program that's verifiably shut down (what would give Gulf Arabs and Israelis peace of mind) and that it's well worth continuing to work toward getting ourselves where we want to be. That said, Friedman's notion that it makes sense to condemn the Intelligence Community for releasing accurate information is ridiculous.

Friedman offers two concerns. One is that people may misunderstand the significance of these findings. That's true -- misunderstanding happens. That's why I try on my blog to clarify the meaning of things for readers. If I had a New York Times column, I'd do the same. Still, for the Intelligence Community to not use the proper analytic categories would be perverse -- we in the press just need to explain what they mean. His second concern is that he quotes Gary Samore as saying that the NIE "has given the Russians and Chinese a good excuse to make sanctions even weaker."

The implicit model of international relations here is pretty odd. Russia's not a seven year-old. China's not a wayward dog. These are countries. Countries that have people who understand the technical meaning of American intelligence assessments and countries that have intelligence assessments of their own. Their Iran policy is going to be guided by their assessments of the objective situation and what it is they want to do about it. Sure, they might come up with an excuse or two to do something, but the availability of excuses isn't the core consideration. By contrast, their assessment of what American policy is all about might effect their decision-making. If we look like a country whose concerns about Iranian nuclear activities are grounded in honest assessments of the facts -- a country governed by rational people in touch with the world around them -- then that makes cooperation more likely. Inevitable? No. But more likely.

If, by contrast, we seem (as we did seem to many just a few months ago) like a country whose leadership was invested in offering a distorted view of the situation in pursuit of an unsound agenda, then cooperation becomes less likely. The idea that we could somehow trick Russia into adopting policies it doesn't want to adopt by refusing to release accurate information or by insisting on the use of improper analytic categories is silly.