Diplomatic Sleight of Hand: Bush, Iran and the Magician of the Tarot
By Col. DAN SMITH
“At the edge of the Rubicon, men don’t go fishing.” “Richard Nixon” in the 1987 Opera, “Nixon in China”
“I can predict that the historians will say that George W. Bush recognized the threats of the 21st century, clearly defined them, and had great faith in the capacity of liberty to transform hopelessness to hope, and laid the foundation for peace by making some awfully difficult decisions.” George W. Bush, January 4th, 2008 Interview for Israel’s Channel 2
Those familiar with the Tarot know that the figure depicted on the first card in the deck is the Magician. The Magician is a very powerful figure, for seemingly he creates realities where before there was nothing. A clear indication of this creative power is the presence on the card of the mathematical sign for infinity — — representing the possessor of all knowledge (magi), all space, all time going forward.
But those who would ask the Magician to “perform” need be wary of what the response is. In some cultures, the magician is a trickster whose real objective is to deceive–sometime with devastating consequences for the interlocutor. And when that interlocutor is the President of the United States, the consequences of deception can be earth-shattering.
Think back to June 16th, 2001, when George Bush and Vladimir Putin met for the first time in Slovenia. In answer to a reporter’s question about whether the U.S. could trust Russia (and by implication, Putin), Bush replied: “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul. I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.” At this time, before Russia regained economic strength from rising oil prices, before September 11th, 2001, before Iraq, Bush saw himself as the man who would make things happen. After all, as the new millennium opened, the United States was indisputably the most powerful nation in the history of the world.
In short, even then Bush saw himself as the Magician, as the “decider.” In reality, those who see themselves in that role are sure to be deceived, for they are focused on that which is intended to distract attention from what is really happening. The power of any good Magician, after all, is to be able to conjure an illusion that holds the attention of his audience long enough to reveal the reality that has always existed but was hidden.
Fast forward to late 2007-early 2008. With one year left in his presidency, George Bush has no significant positive foreign policy achievements. At the beginning of 2007, he sent 40,000 additional U.S. troops into Iraq to stave off increased sectarian and ethnic depredations. In January 2008, he is sending 3,200 more troops into Afghanistan to try to stabilize conditions there. The attempt to push forward the “roadmap” for Mid-East peace–starting with the November 22nd Annapolis summit, had bogged down and, unless re-invigorated, would likely stall as had all previous efforts.
We may never know who the “Magician” behind the curtain was who kept the props in place while the actors played their parts on history’s center stage. But assume he or she finally succeeded in pushing forward one other long-standing issue whose resolution in 2008 would guarantee George Bush’s coveted positive mark on world history. It would, if successful, rival the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China in 1972 in its impact.
But like Nixon-Kissinger in 1972, powerful centers in the U.S. would oppose the opening–and the same could be expected in the country to which the opening would be made. The whole project would have to be concealed; the attention of the media, the American public, and most of those in the U.S. administration, had to be diverted. The presidential campaigns in the U.S. would help, but the background rhetoric would have to be steady and highly critical.
What the Magician intended–and Bush finally agreed to do–was to go to Tehran to end 30 years of estrangement with Iran.
The grand distraction would be a trip ostensibly to reenergize the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But while everyone was focused on that process, the “exploratory” talks about talks in Baghdad between the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kasemi Qumi, really would be working out details of the visit to Iran.
Among all the warnings of the dangers a nuclear Iran represented to the other Gulf states, despite the charges that Iran was supplying Iraqi insurgents with weapons used to kill U.S. troops in Iraq, the hidden exchanges never faltered–unlike in 2003 when the U.S. abruptly cut contact with Tehran.
It was in his December 4th, 2007 press conference, after release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, that Bush signaled he was prepared to make the leap: “On the one hand, we should exert pressure, and on the other hand, we should provide the Iranians a way forward. And our hope is that the Iranians will get diplomacy back on track.”
Thirty days passed. Just as Nixon had worried that something would derail his opening to China, Bush could see his legacy disappearing. Then on January 3rd, 2008, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking to a small group of Iranian students, signaled back: “I would be the first one to support these relations. Of course we never said the severed relations were forever. But for the time being, it (restoring ties) (would) provide an opportunity for security agents to come and go, as well as for espionage.”
But was this reply a yes or a no? Were the Iranians about to pull the rug from under the secret negotiations for the visit? Three days passed. Suddenly the whole project seemed lost because of what appeared to be a serious incident-at-sea between three U.S. warships and five Iranian fast patrol boats. Someone in a senior position in Tehran, opposed to any rapprochement and having control of military sea craft, must have suspected something was about to happen.
And although the U.S. press played up the encounter’s hazards–and began to probe deeper into other incidents that might lead them toward the Magician and his illusion of countries-at-odds–the official Iranian version (after denying that the encounter ever occurred) stressed that the meeting was a routine exchange of ship identities, course and intent and that no hostile actions took place.
Nonetheless, some in the U.S. press immediately equated this modern-day encounter to the August 1964 “Gulf of Tonkin” incident which led to a major escalation of U.S. troop units in South Vietnam. Interestingly, word of the encounter leaked first from the White House, but reporters had to go to the Pentagon for the details–most of which were still murky.
Departure day for the Mid-East trip arrived. As Air Force One became airborne, Bush found himself in a quandary similar to Richard Nixon in 1972: then, when the American president landed in Beijing, he still had no assurance he would be able to meet directly with Chairman Mao.
He did, and changed U.S. relations in Asia and the globe. Then the issues were 55,000 dead in South Vietnam, a looming recession, the price of oil soon to (for then) skyrocket, and the abandonment of the gold standard.
Today the issues for Bush are 4,400 U.S. dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, a looming recession, the price of oil on the verge of skyrocketing, the precipitous decline of the dollar against other currencies, the troubled housing market, global warming, and U.S. Iranian relations. Of these, only on the latter is Bush still “the decider”–or rather co-decider.
* If he didn’t go to Tehran, obviously nothing in U.S.-Iranian relations would change, and Bush would miss the last opportunity for a legacy.
* If he went but Khamenei refused to see him, his “grand opening” would be incomplete and thus his historical stature would be forever diminished.
* But should he go, and should he and Khamenei meet, even though nothing substantive occurred, the illusion would dominate.
Is there still a Magician in the house?
Col. Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.