Bush Defends Iran Policy In WSJ Interview

There has been no shortage of coverage of former president George W. Bush’s latest memoir which details his major decisions, ranging from quitting drinking to the Iraq war. For insights into his Iran policy and how it fits with his “freedom agenda,” take a look at Kimberley A. Strassel’s Wall Street Journal interview with Bush. She identifies the “freedom agenda” – broadly spanning “from Afghanistan and Iraq, to his African AIDS work, to tax cuts” as the book’s overriding theme.

Strassel questions him on his Iraq policy, which allegedly impacted Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons:

“The notion that we went into Iraq and therefore the Iranians became emboldened—it was the opposite,” Mr. Bush says. “The Iranians, it turns out, suspended their program,” he continues, referring to a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate finding that Tehran had halted its weapons program in 2003. He says that it wasn’t until mid-2005 that Iranian elections brought to power Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who announced the process of nuclear enrichment would accelerate.

The interview further clarifies the Bush administration’s Iran policy:

One revelation in the book is the degree to which Mr. Bush’s Iran strategy hinged on internal political revolt. His goal, on the one hand, was to “slow down” the Iranian “capacity to develop a weapon,” which he choose [sic] to do with sanctions. On the other hand, his administration tried to “speed up” the ability of reformers to institute change. He writes of his belief that the success of the surge and a free Iraq would “help catalyze that change,” and he points to last year’s massive street protests following Ahmadinejad’s re-election.

Of course the Bush administration’s policy of pressure—with no discernible consideration of outreach or containment as viable strategies—did not bring about meaningful political reforms. And the “success” of the surge in Iraq brought little comparable change in Iran.

The Bush administration’s Iran policy did send a clear message to the Iranian government that the U.S. had no interest in the “grand bargain,” offered by Iran in April 2003, which would have brought an end to Iranian support for Hezbollah and a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. (Ambassador James Dobbins has also written about the passed-up opportunities for rapprochement.)

Stephen Walt, Harvard professor of international affairs weighs in on that offer in his blog post, “Delusion Points: Don’t Fall for the nostaligia – George W. Bush’s foreign policy really was that bad.”

Walt writes:

The offer was reportedly approved by Iran’s top leaders, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Bush administration turned the Iranians down flat — why negotiate with the next candidate for regime change? — and Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly reprimanded the Swiss ambassador for even delivering the message in the first place.

The aftermath was the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, and an increase in talk of war by Iranian, American and Israeli officials.

Furthermore, the Bush administration’s willingness to threaten suspected proliferators of nuclear weapons with sanctions and “regime change” offered a powerful motivation for both North Korea and Iran to pursue the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Bush concludes his book with the confident statement, “”Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it. That’s a decision point only history will reach.” Many experts, such as Walt, don’t need that much time.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.