Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dealing in Contradictions

This was an editorial I wrote in 2004. I think it still has relevance today.

Dealing in Contradictions

Nikolas Gvosdev

One of the alarming tendencies in American discourse about foreign policy is the prevalence of "if A, then B" style thinking. Like Marxists clinging to dialectical materialism, we tend to act in a way that if our first assumption is correct, all our subsequent ones must be also.

Here are some of the reigning ones:

1) Iraqis were glad to be liberated from Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Therefore, they support U.S. plans for their country.
In 2003], Ray Takeyh and I observed, " Iraqis were happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein but show little inclination to be directed by the United States in any aspect of domestic or foreign policy." Opinion polls taken in Iraq confirm this--most Iraqis are indeed grateful that the United States removed Saddam Hussein, but this gratitude has not transformed itself into a desire to accept American control of Iraq's destiny.

2) The governments in Iran and Cuba are repressive. Therefore, they lack popular legitimacy (and do not have to be engaged).

In this era of enthusiasm for democracy, it is easy to overlook that a government that represses its citizens may still have key sources of legitimacy, especially to the extent it can tap into nationalist sentiment. Iranians may grumble about the Guardian Council's decision to ban reformist candidates and its track record of eviscerating reforms; Cubans continue to leave the island in search of a better life elsewhere. This does not mean, however, that U.S. forces bent on "regime change" would be greeted with flowers and candy by the locals. It also means that "stick only" policies--such as sanctions--are based in a flawed assumption that these regimes are "near collapse" and only require "just a little more pressure" to fold.

Selective engagement policies, on the other hand, recognize that the regimes in Havana and Tehran have some staying power without conveying a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." It recognizes that there are some immediate interests that cannot be met while waiting for a regime to "eventually" fall.

3) Countries that are democratic do not seek weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, democratization is a counter-proliferation policy.

As Adrian Karatnycky, the president of Freedom House, argues in his piece on "democratic hegemony" that will appear in the forthcoming summer 2004 issue of the magazine, tyrannies have sought weapons of mass destruction as a way to thwart or forestall pressure to liberalize and to conform to international rules of good behavior.

So if a regime is no longer tyrannical, it will no longer seek weapons of mass destruction, right?

This assumes that its motivation for developing WMD had to do with its form of internal governance. India and Israel--democracies both--developed a nuclear deterrent because they believed that the security of their states was in jeopardy without it and that other states would not rush to their defense (Israel facing the Arab world, India facing China and Pakistan).

Iran's nuclear program began under the Shah. And it is interesting that the press has been quoting young Iranians--those who are most dissatisfied with the rule of the mullahs--who proclaim that they will not stand by and allow their country to be forcibly disarmed.

My guess is that even a full-fledged liberal democracy in Iran would keep intact the country's nuclear infrastructure, even if pledging not to actually assemble weapons (as India did between 1974 and 1998) as a hedge, given the neighborhood. And my guess is that a peacefully reunified Korea might keep the infrastructure constructed by the north, for the same reason.

Assumptions are necessary to help guide thinking about policy decisions. But assumptions need to be revised in the light of actual events.

This approach is what we've been led to believe is supposed to characterize the Rice tenure at the State Department. It is also the traditional Republican position. I wonder if it will take a midterm shakeup to get things back on track.
Why the United States can't talk to Iran directly--why the act of talking itself is seen as a blow to U.S. principles--is difficult to understand, particularly with so much at stake.
To follow up on anonymous' point about talking and linking it to the Byzantine thread, the Byzantines would definitely be talking because they saw negotiations as a way to engage in intrigue and deception.
americans may be wise to not engage directly with iranians in diplomacy. russian experience is that there are many ways to sound like you are saying yes in farsi (yes we agree to your joint venture proposal for enrichment) and so on.
It is not encouraging if these four non sequiturs capture the essence of US thinking. But I wonder if the popular legitimacy of dictatorship doesn't cut two ways.

Given the declared intentions of the Third Reich and Islamic Republic of Iran, any case for the popular legitimacy of one also makes the case for the popular legitimacy of the other and for the moral responsibility of the population in both.

The Weekly Standard has devoted its current issue to the question of whether or not the Iranian regime is as dangerous as Germany in 1936. An article examines the larger consequences of a US air strike on Iran and concludes that retaliation by the mullahs against the United States would be minimal and ineffective and that within a short period of time the regime would lose credibility at home and would collapse. Even if this chain of effects does not happen, the argument goes, setting back the Iranian nuclear program by just a few years is worth the risks and costs of doing so. There is no attention in the article to what could go wrong in a war with Iran or to whether the United States is prepared for things to go wrong. But it looks like we are going to be in a larger war soon and will find out.

This raises a question about recent American history. If a war with Iran is a success, the President and his party will be vindicated; if it is not, we can expect the other party to sweep into power for an interlude like Carter or Clinton. But there has always then been some disaster that brings conservatives back with a vengeance.

With the turn of every decade since the 1960s, the country has moved left and then more sharply to the right, with the amplitude of the rightward shift increasing over time. Is this pattern just a string of coincidences, or is it facilitated by some underlying set of circumstances at home and in the way foreign policy is conceived and conducted? Will more of the same produce conservative reactions of even greater amplitude in the decade or two to come?
Acknowledging the popular legitimacy of dictatorships is important not to serve as a deterrent to action but to take away the thinking that because a regime is dictatorial it cannot rely on the support of the people and will collapse if determined pressure is applied. The nationalist reaction that Ahmadinejad has capitalized on seems to make this point.
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