Monday, April 24, 2006

Realism and Iran

For several generations our foreign policy was largely controlled by realism (a.k.a. realpolitik), a philosophy purportedly based in practicality, with stability as its chief goal. In fact, much of our foreign policy is yet guided by this school of thought, howbeit, with a strong infusion of G.W. Bush’s brand of idealism (apparently newly minted since 9/11).

Decades of realism brought us into Faustian arrangements with despots of the likes of Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, the House of Saud, etc. (just to mention a few in the Middle East). We knew they were tyrants, but they were our tyrants. Norman Podhoretz argues here that this policy did not buy us stability. Instead it brought us more than two dozen wars just in the Middle East since Israel’s inception in 1948. Podhoretz quotes President Bush as saying, “In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression, so I have changed this policy.”

Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University asserts here that the soft brand of ‘realism’ we employed was a perversion of the term. (He has a point—it certainly doesn’t seem very ‘realistic.’) He says that the Kissinger and (Utah native Brent) Scowcroft style of realism detrimentally over emphasized preventing monsters from rearing their ugly heads at just about any cost. He contends that realism in truth means “understanding the dangers of hunting monsters--but also the dangers, to ourselves and others, of failing to do so.”

Charles Krauthammer says here that our soft version of realism was “not just the futility but the danger of a foreign policy centered on the illusion of stability and equilibrium.” Krauthammer’s essay is actually a more complete discussion of American foreign policies for the past seven plus decades. While he snipes at Scowcroft’s realism, he strongly pummels the Clinton administration’s “eight years of sleepwalking, of the absurd pursuit of one treaty more useless than the last, while the rising threat--Islamic terrorism--was treated as a problem of law enforcement.”

Cohen says that the U.S. today has a healthy contention between idealism and realism in its foreign policy. He says that it makes us appear cynical, inconsistent, and morally fatuous, but he seems to think that it’s the best approach. So we work with the likes of the House of Saud, Pakistan’s Musharraf, and many other less-than-democratic elements when it meets our needs, but since 9/11 we have increasingly been guided by an overall idealism that Natan Sharansky says here is mostly due to the personal belief and willpower of President Bush.

But Sharansky notes that President Bush is increasingly standing nearly alone on this issue. His efforts to create a democratic society in Iraq, top-down sans any of the liberal institutions and lower level elements that make democracy work is proving to be much more difficult than anyone expected. Peggy Noonan laments here with respect our current problems in Iraq about the fact that all leaders have blind spots.

If we thought Saddam Hussein with WMDs was bad, we now face a threat at least as ominous—a nuclear Iran. Like Saddam, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has (and other Iranian officials have) made increasingly bold and incendiary remarks about Iran’s nuclear program. Mark Steyn writes here and here about the nature of the threat (see also William Kristol’s take here). Whether Iran has achieved the ability to enrich nuclear materials to weapon grade or not, it wants the rest of the world to believe it has. Iranian officials have been very open about their desire to nuke Israel off the face of the earth. Steyn asserts that Iran has been the one country you can count on to walk its talk since the mullahs took over 27 years ago, so the threat of nuking Israel is very real.

While the international community (the U.S. included) sits around with serious faces warning of grave consequences, Steyn laments that “no matter how thoroughly the Iranians non-comply it's never quite non-compliant enough to rise to the level of grave consequences.” He says that Ahmadinejad’s thinking that Iran’s enemies are impotent to do anything about Iran’s aggression seems quite warranted. Steyn also quotes commentary by Iranian officials showing that they are quite willing to accept massive casualties to achieve their goals.

People are still arguing that we should have left Saddam in place, containing him in Iraq. Never mind the oppression and murder he perpetrated on his own people. Oddly enough, some of the same folks that argue that we were not morally responsible for that now argue that we have a moral responsibility to intervene in Darfur. But the Iran issue is not one of simple containment. We have open and credible threats of extranational attacks on American interests and allies.

Steyn tries to put this into perspective by saying that if you stood up on an airplane and announced that you had a bomb, you would not be treated as if your statement was “harmless rhetorical flourish.” He contends that neither should we dismiss Iran’s statements as “a rhetorical stylistic device that's part of the Persian oral narrative tradition.”

I take issue with experts that tell us that Iran is five to ten years away form having a credible nuclear weapon. Iran has demonstrated a willingness to put significant resources into this effort. Iran has roughly the same industrial capacity that the U.S. had in 1941 at the start of the A-bomb project. Back then nobody knew how to make a nuclear weapon, yet four years later we had one. Today the information for creating nukes is widely available. What in the world makes us think that it will take Iran five years to create a nuclear weapon? This is not realism, it’s delusion.

Leaving Iran’s threat against Israel aside, let’s ask how a nuclear Iran might impact the U.S. homeland. Iran has long been one of the chief supporters of anti-American terrorism (see here). Nuclear weapons are currently the holy grail of terrorists. Does any sane person believe that once Iran has nuclear weapons, there will not be a push to use those weapons to perpetrate terrorist acts in the U.S.?

Disdaining “the long diplomatic dance that brought us to this moment,” Steyn calls for immediate unilateral military action to wipe out Iran’s nuclear program. Ret. Gen. Thomas McInerney says here that a military strike is feasible. But we'd have to go it alone. Just about everyone agrees that it would be suicide for Israel to take the point in such an operation, as it would give any Middle Eastern country that could in any way call itself an ally of Iran (i.e. an enemy of Israel) an excuse to attack Israel.

Although I don’t doubt the seriousness of Iran’s nuclear threat, I believe Steyn’s call for an immediate U.S. led military strike on Iran is pure fantasy. Some argue that our military is too weak. I don’t subscribe to that philosophy, but I believe that the will of the American people to pull off this kind of operation is not strong enough at this point in time. Hence, President Bush does not presently have the political strength to do it.

Many believe that the military option is not the best one, and that is a valid view. But I have yet to hear any alternative that sounds remotely feasible that would produce the desired outcome. Moreover, I would argue that the Bush Administration would be derelict in its duty if it did not at least make contingency plans to deal with the threat militarily. By definition, diplomacy can only be effective if a credible military threat exists to back it up. But it’s only credible if we have the will to carry it out, and we have little evidence that diplomacy works with terrorists.

Whatever our response to Iran, it must be based in the reality of our current situation. I don’t think any us want to wake up to another 9/11.


That One Guy said...

Love the allusion to "Faustian" arrangements. Whenever I use the term in conversation, people think I meant some form of the verb "foist", which could have similar connotations in certain contexts. Maybe I need to hang out with smarter people.... my loss.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I find that I sometimes have to 'dumb down' my conversational language to get my point across. But I don't feel bad using more educated language at home with my kids. I just have to pick and choose when I do it because when I do so I'm obligated to stop and explain it to them. That can get the whole conversation derailed. My junior high schoolers actually get quite a kick out of it.

That One Guy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
That One Guy said...

also mine, after we get past the "deer in the headlights" look on their faces.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to chime in a bit, simply because this runs parallel to some thinking and discussions I've been having lately, and I would appreciate fresh voices.

Last week there were a rash of news articles on the web remembering the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide a decade ago. I was in high school at that time and paid it no real attention. However, I watched "Hotel Rwanda" a couple of years ago and was horrified. I was physically ill. How could people, human beings!, do this? And then, how could the rest of the world let it happen? It seemed to me that that was the point of the movie. How dare the UN and US allow these horrific acts to take place. I don't know of too many people that after watching that movie or others of its ilk would not affirm that it is our duty to help. We should not have let it happen. I am one of those.

I just feel that everyone has wiped their tears and gone on and forgotten. Again. The same atrocities are happening NOW. Sudan, Iran, North Korea, and others are committing atrocities against their own people. Sometimes it seems as though the entire continent of Africa is one large refugee camp. Rwanda is allowed to happen over and over again.

So who's job is it to intervene? The United States? We certainly have the military strength and funding. The United Nations? That seems a logical choice. They certainly have the resources of the world and would presumably be a joint, world effort. Ok then good, the UN should intervene in these nations.

But then I think of what happened in Rwanda. The UN cut and run at the first sign of danger. They left a million people to die.

Then I think of Iraq. The UN spent a decade dancing around with Saddam Hussein, taking bribes, issuing meaningless resolutions, etc. He played them for the fools they were, and he killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He butchered them just as horribly as anything done in Rwanda. And again the UN did nothing. So finally the US did. And now everyone hates us for it. Some of us even hate ourselves for it. What gives? The US is damned if we do, damned if we don't. We can't go invade and "liberate" every nation bent on killing themselves, can we? But we certainly can't sit idly by and let it happen. Of that I am certain.

So again I ask, what gives?

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thanks for your observations Cameron. The U.S. actually does have limited resources, so we can't put out every fire of inhumanity on the globe. We also have to realize that this kind of horror has been going on since prehistoric times. It's kind of like when Mr. Incredible at the start of the movie the Incredibles says, "No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back into peril. I feel like the maid. Can't you just keep it cleaned up for maybe 10 minutes?" No matter how ofter we clean up, human nature dictates that it will get messed up again.

We have to be very careful about involving ourselves militarily. Note that it didn't take us long to initially conquer Iraq, but three years hence we are still committing significant resources there and will continue to do so for a long time.

We might be able to temporarily halt atrocities in places like Rwanda, but then we have to deal with the aftermath. If we simply leave, guess what will happen. Do we really want to try to recreate the British Empire? The ultimate result of that hasn't been that wonderful. Maybe India isn't so bad, but the empire also brought us most of the situations in Africa and the Middle East.

We have to be careful of the hubris of thinking that we can solve all of these problems. So we pick and choose what we do with regard to foreign meddling. We necessarily focus first on threats to our interests. It's not that we don't care about the rest of the world, but we also understand that this world has a very bad track record of outside parties being able to go to a country and impose peace.

People unfortunately have to work these things out largely by themselves, perhaps with foreign help when it is properly negotiated. We have had instances in our history where we had to ask foreign governments to help us out (Revloutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War). But we didn't expect them to do it for nothing and we didn't expect them to hang around and keep taking care of us for the next century.

As for the UN, let's get real. Most of the nations represented are in the non-democratic column as well as in the human rights abuser column. What do we expect them to do? The UN was established as a diplomatic body -- that is, it is set up to talk, not to act. And talking is what it does most of the time. Pretty much every time it acts it messes things up in grand fashion. Better to leave it alone to talk.

Sorry, no real good answers to the problems here.