The Magazine

The Bugs Bunny Democrats

They're all carrot and no stick.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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We should work diplomatically and aggressively to give them reasons why they [the Iranians] don't need to build a bomb, to give them incentives. . . . I'd like to use carrots as well as sticks to see if we can change the nature of the debate.

--Ned Lamont, April 25, 2006

Ned Lamont's victory over Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary was a triumph for the European wing of the Democratic party. So it's fitting that Lamont is pro-carrot. It was impossible to go to Europe during Bush's first term without getting a lecture about the utility of carrots, the futility of sticks, and the Bush administration's regrettable neglect of the former and unfortunate proclivity for the latter. So Lamont is an appropriate spokesman for what one might call the Bugs Bunny caucus that now dominates the Democratic party.

Lieberman is fighting that dominance by not conceding his seat to Lamont--but others are rushing to ingratiate themselves to the new powers that be in their party. Former Clinton U.N. ambassador and hopeful Democratic secretary of state Richard Holbrooke--something of a Liebermanite in the past--tried to get right with the Bugs Bunny-ites in a Washington Post op-ed two days after Lamont's victory. His point? More diplomacy. In particular, we need "sustained high-level diplomacy" with Syria and Iran.

Now Holbrooke is too clever to go into full Bugs Bunny mode. In fact, he is too clever to say with any precision at all what his diplomatic initiatives would consist of--and he is clever enough to try to cover his bases by emphasizing not once but twice that all of this diplomacy with Syria and Iran (and, implicitly, Hezbollah) would have to be conducted "in full consultation with Israel at every step." But it is clear that the point of this diplomacy would not be to defeat or disarm Hezbollah (a goal Holbrooke never mentions). Nor would it be to stop Iran's nuclear program (a goal whose importance he minimizes).

Instead, there should be three U.S. foreign policy priorities: "containing the violence," "finding a stable and secure solution that protects Israel," and "unwinding America's disastrous entanglement in Iraq in a manner that is not a complete humiliation and does not lead to even greater turmoil." The first really means not defeating Hezbollah. The second means nothing. As for the third--"not a complete humiliation"--now there's a foreign policy slogan for the Bugs Bunny Democrats!

So the Democrats are hopeless. Unfortunately, back in the real world, Bush administration policy hasn't been particularly strong either. During its second term, the Bush administration has come too close to embracing Holbrookean passivity. And what good has the recent affinity for carrots done us? Are our enemies in retreat? Are Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moktada al-Sadr, Bashar Assad, the Sunni holy warriors in Iraq, al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers in the United Kingdom, and Kim Jong Il on the run? Have they become more cooperative, and less bent on trouble, since Secretary of State Rice started serving up the carrots last year?

No. Consider David Brooks's important New York Times column last week summarizing the views of a Bush administration official with whom Brooks had had a conversation--a conversation that, as Brooks says, "sheds light on where we've been and where we're going."

Here's the key statement by the Bush policymaker:

We're part of a united front on Iranian nukes. The odds are there will be sanctions against Iran by the end of the year, though how strong I don't know. We're trying to build a successful government in Iraq. We have to get out from under the blow to our authority caused by the torture and detainee issues. And we have to get aggressive on the Palestinian problem. That's essential to strengthen moderate regimes.

We're not going to be spending as much blood or treasure as over the past few years. We have to make up for it with diplomacy backed by a hint of steel.

As Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley noted, the interview "suggests that we intend to subordinate firm military or even firm diplomatic action to winning the love of the Arab Street"--and, I would add, to seeking the approbation of European chanceries and Turtle Bay. The Bush policymaker seems to be indulging in what Blankley calls "a dangerous fantasy" that Iran and Hezbollah can be dealt with through clever diplomacy and continued U.N. resolutions. As Blankley mordantly comments on the "hint of steel" that will allegedly be backing up all this diplomacy: "More likely a hint of lavender."