While I am not one to give the benefit of the doubt to tyrannical, evil regimes, and while I have often argued that hints by Iran and North Korea of willingness to work with the west in dealing with their nuclear ambitions have been smoke screens, a pair of stories today begin to sound like something real may be happening.

First, the IAEA reports that Iran has lifted its ban on inspections of its primary nuclear facility at Arak. This is a good step, if a baby step. My primary concern here is that Iran has moved some of the more aggressive and offensive work to other locations. However, if the inspectors are any good, and given that they’ve been to Arak before, they may be able to detect that sort of artifice by what is not visible as much as by what is visible.

Second, a news article this morning reports that “North Korea’s military wants talks with the US.” This is another very dicey situation. Recent talks with North Korea have implied that they are going to shut down their plutonium-generating reactor, but their public statements (likely meant more for domestic consumption but still disconcerting) remain belligerent and paranoid.

If the Administration can get either of these problems dealt with, at least for the medium term, it will have accomplished something important. If it is Korea, we probably won’t hear about it much in the news. If Iran, we’ll hear more, but I’m sure Bush still won’t get any credit.

On a related note: One of the primary arguments made for keeping US troops in Iraq is that if we pull out, it means al Qaeda wins, with the implication being that middle eastern regimes (Iran in particular) will no longer fear us as they had. I believe this thinking is wrong in an important way. Where it is probably right is in how individual jihadists might feel. They might feel as if al Qaeda and friends outlasted the great Satan. And while that might help their recruiting efforts, our diminished presence would somewhat offset that as they wouldn’t regularly be reminded of “the infidel” on their land.

More importantly, however, is Iran. If we pull out of Iraq in any substantial way, Iran’s fear of us will substantially increase, not decrease, as they realize we are now much more flexible and more able to deploy troops and bombs elsewhere, such as Arak, Natanz, or Iran’s very limited oil refining capacity. (Despite being a huge oil producer, Iran is a massive gasoline importer.)

My regular readers know that I am quite torn about the right thing to do in Iraq right now, in no small part because continuing on this path is likely to give us another President Clinton, or even worse (if you can imagine anything worse) a President Obama. My best guess at this time is that we should strongly support the “surge” for the balance of this year, and then begin substantial troop withdrawals in the first half of next year. This sort of plan is the most likely way to get the Iraqis to realize that they must step up to handle their own country (which I believe is already happening better than it has in the past). It is the most likely to scare Iran into behaving better. It is the most likely way to avoid a socialist president. The only political downside is that the Democrats will claim that the pullout happened because of their pressure, but we’ll just have to live with that and make the obvious arguments against it.

In any case, while Iraq is going very badly, I think there is still a chance that it can end up in some way that isn’t a total disaster. And the specter of our pulling back from Iraq applies some very helpful psychological pressure on other enemies.

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