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Clear Eye For the Slate Guy -- How Hitchens Can Save the GOP

03/16/2006 12:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It happens to victims of neurological disease, they say. Suddenly, after years of incoherence, out of the blue they say something absolutely clear and sensible. Last week it happened to Christopher Hitchens, who's not been thinking clearly for some time. Now he's said something that's both smart and coherent, more like the Hitchens of old. And if Bush were smart enough to listen, it could save his Presidency and crush Democratic hopes for 2006 and 2008. Hitchens' idea? Negotiate with Iran.

The Hitchens Proposal

I consider Hitchens to be, above all, a marketer who's reinvented himself as a brand, which is why coherence matters less to him than publicity impact (I explain more here). His latest piece may have been written as part of his marketing strategy, or it may reflect the latest thinking in neocon circles. Or, he may just have had a good idea.

Whatever the reason, Hitchens suggested in Slate last week that Bush go to Teheran for direct negotiations with the Iranian government, in a "Nixon goes to China" scenario.

Hitchens being who he is, he comes to his conclusion in a roundabout way, by first telling us of a "family friend" who "shyly" asks in "faultless English" from beneath her chador, "Would it be possible for the Americans to invade just for a few days, get rid of the mullahs and the weapons, and then leave?"

(Hitchens appears to have been eerily blessed with the ability to encounter people abroad who articulate his own agenda in eloquent and perfect English. Somebody could interrogate him about it, but his response might be the same one Bob Dylan put in the mouth of a suspected murderer in "Idiot Wind": "I can't help it if I'm lucky.")

The rest of his piece, however, builds to its conclusion logically and clearly. Simulations show that an attack on Iran would likely fail to disarm it (trusting the intelligence now, are we?), and any attempt at a decapitating strike would be, in his words, "possibly futile as well as hazardous." (It's too bad that he and his political allies didn't think so clearly before supporting our current war.)

He rightly dismisses multi-party or UN talks, although in my opinion he does so for the wrong reasons. He calls the option "demonstrably useless and somewhat humiliating," which says a lot about the neocon mindset. (He is one, of course, protestations notwithstanding.) Diplomacy is only "humiliating" to certain testosterone-starved individuals (of either gender), and there's no proof -- certainly no "demonstrable" proof -- that it would be futile.

What has been clear for years is that the Iranians are seeking direct, one-on-one negotiations with the United States. That's the logical next step, given that the US is leading the charge for military intervention against Iran.

Many observers feel the present nuclear crisis could have been avoided had there been direct US/Iranian talks years ago, and had been urging those talks when we could have dealt with a more moderate government. Even so, it's not too late.

Negotiations as Political Theater

Imagine the public impact if Bush made an announcement tomorrow morning that said something like this: "War is sometimes necessary, as it was in Iraq -- but it is something to be avoided whenever possible, for the good of all humanity. As a great leader, John F. Kennedy, once said: 'Never negotiate out of fear -- but never fear to negotiate.' For that reason, I have scheduled direct one-on-one talks with the President of Iran. Air Force One is ready to go, and we leave for Teheran at noon."

Our current political climate is one where Republican 'moderates' like Olympia Snowe cave in to NSA wiretapping they know to be illegal, while Democrats cower in fear at criticizing either the war in Iraq, Republican criminality, or admitted lawbreaking in the Oval office.

The country is desperate for a sense of stability and leadership which neither the Democrats nor moderate Republicans are offering. A 'new Bush' could capture the headlines, and send his approval ratings soaring, with a dramatic gesture like these negotiations.

Why Bring It Up?

Somebody will no doubt comment, or write in, and say "Why are you giving suggestions to the Republicans?" Here's why: To remind the Democrats that they can't assume their present good fortune will last. A strategy that's based on hiding under your desk until the GOP self-destructs is not "safer," even if it feels that way. It's actually riskier.

For some time now Hitchens has been more of a provocateur to the Left (and he admits he enjoys it) than he's been a genuine thinker. He's got a better idea this time, though, and that's another reason I'm repeating it. Whatever the political consequences might be, we need to avoid more killing for everybody's sake. I think Hitchens is right, and that the Administration can still avoid war through diplomacy.

It's certainly worth a try.