Reviewing Bush’s Bomb-or-Blame Strategy

Buried in an interview with former high-ranking Bush Administration official Elliott Abrams is this nugget of insight into the options being considered by the President re: Sudan. The interviewer — the sister of Abrams’ wife, and a member of quite the family of neocons — asks whether Abrams thought the administration was considering bombing Iran. His answer? Darfur.

There was one telltale sign: his decision not to bomb the air force in Sudan so that it could not be used to kill more people in Darfur. And it wouldn’t have been that hard to do. But he decided against it, fearing that – after having attacked Afghanistan and Iraq – attacking yet another Arab country would have been very poorly received in the Arab world – and much of the rest of the world….

So, given the consensus about Darfur, and given the military ease with which an operation could be carried out against Sudan, if Bush didn’t do it, that was certainly a hint that he wasn’t going to turn around and feel it was fine to bomb Iran. [emphasis mine]

Abrams’ point can be demonstrated by a little arboreal analogy: if Bush didn’t take the low-hanging fruit of bombing Sudan, then he wasn’t going to reach for the higher-up fruit of a similar Arab Middle Eastern er, generically autocratic tree. The flaw in Abrams’ comparison is clear, as Sudan and Iran were very dissimilar cases (not to mention not both “Arab” states), and I’m sympathetic to Michael Crowley’s confusion at his logicDarfur could have just been not as important on the administration’s agenda, and therefore not as worthy of bombing. Nonetheless, Abrams’ comments do reveal some interesting dynamics within the Bush team’s Darfur thinking.

First, if the option of bombing Sudan’s air force was indeed considered, then that means that the administration was thinking seriously — or at least wants us to believe in retrospect that it was thinking seriously — about imposing tough measures on Khartoum. Second, if the decision to eschew a strategy of bombing Sudan had such resounding effects on a much bigger foreign policy fish for the administration (Iran), then we can be sure that the ripples were felt within the Darfur portfolio. Namely, if not bombing Sudan made the United States not bomb Iran, then it also severely attenuated the actions that it did take on Darfur. Indeed, having turned away from the unilateral military option, the Bush administration basically washed its hands of the question of how to bring U.S. pressure to bear on Khartoum, instead punting the problem to the UN.

Then again, consistent with an argument I’ve made before, Abrams’ account of the decision not to bomb may fall under the more self-serving objective of exonerating the administration’s inaction in one case (Darfur), while praising its ultimate caution in another (Iran). Central to the former is the creation of a false dichotomy — bomb Sudan or shunt all responsibility over to the UN — that both appeases Darfur constituencies and makes the administration appear multilateral. But in actuality, the Iran-Darfur comparison should both bolster Crowley’s skepticism and prove the faultiness — logically and on a policy basis — of the bomb-or-blame-the-UN paradigm. Whereas the alternative to bombing Sudan proved to be very limited U.S. engagement on the issue, the administration by no means shuttered its Iran portfolio even after allegedly foreclosing the military option. So the biggest “might have been” that I take out of Abrams’ problematic comparison is not the possible bombing of the Sudanese air force, but a concerted leveraging of American pressure on Khartoum that could have approached the level of intensity with which the administration dealt with Iran.

Hat tip: SB

(image from flickr user dev null under a Creative Commons license)