Iran and the Realists

by Christopher Preble | September 18th, 2006 | |Subscribe

I have heard it said that there is nothing more dangerous in Washington, DC, than being correct too early. Perhaps that is why some of the most prescient foreign policy thinking is being done by those well outside of the Beltway. (It would be a bit too arrogant for me to think that I and my colleagues at the Cato Institute are the exception, but I offer as Exhibit A our work on Iraq.)

With the debate over the next great foreign policy challenge joined, even before the last foreign policy challenge — Iraq — is resolved, fresh thinking is welcome. Everyone is talking about what to do about Iran, especially about the Iranian nuclear program. Many of the advocates for war are the same who pushed for war with Iraq. That does not mean, however, that everyone in Washington has come to the conclusion that a preventive war is the only possible solution. Others favor negotiation. Some believe that sanctions will succeed in convincing Tehran to abandon their nuclear program. Some hold out hope that nonviolent regime change will end the crisis.

Particularly striking are the two op eds awkwardly juxtaposed in the Washington Post last Friday. David Ignatius and Charles Krauthammer, commenting on the same issue, based largely on the very same reporting, seem to come to completely different conclusions as to what the president is likely to do. Ignatius stresses President Bush’s enthusiasm for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Ignatius contends that the administration’s policy on Iran “is premised on an American recognition of Iran’s role as an important nation in the Middle East.” He quotes the president’s simple and straightforward message to the Iranian people: “I would tell the Iranian people that we have no desire for conflict.”

On the other hand, Krauthammer is skeptical that the crisis can or will be resolved without war, even as he concedes that the costs of such a war would be “terrible” — including an increase in the price of oil to perhaps as much as $150 a barrel, which would “cause a worldwide recession perhaps as deep as the one triggered by the Iranian revolution of 1979.” 

“These are the costs,” Krauthammer continues, “There is no denying them. However, equally undeniable is the cost of doing nothing.” “The mullahs are infinitely more likely to use these weapons than anyone in the history of the nuclear age,” given that, “deterrence is a mere wish. Is the West prepared to wager its cities with their millions of inhabitants on that feeble gamble?” Don’t be fooled by the question mark, because this is not framed as a question, and it is not meant to be read as one.

But don’t be fooled by the false dichotomy, either. In Krauthammer’s calculus, to not launch a military strike is to do nothing. This is the bleak binary choice that the neoconservatives have presented to the American public: either bomb the Iranians or accede to an Iranian bomb. (Kudos to Steve Clemons and the New America Foundation for putting together an excellent discussion that explicitly sought to escape this false either-or choice.) 

Where else will Washington turn for fresh ideas? Perhaps to theories that have been tested by decades of experience. As Paul Starobin points out in the current issue of National Journal, foreign policy realists — long disdained as too pessimistic and cynical by American leaders who prefer to speak to the public’s sense of congenital optimism and idealism — have reemerged from the political wilderness with ideas for how to think not just about Iran, but also about U.S. policy throughout the Middle East.

As an avowed realist (and, full disclosure, as one of the founders of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy profiled in the Starobin piece), I am proud to be associated with a body of thought that still holds promise for pulling U.S. foreign policy back from the precipice. But ideas are not enough. It takes people willing to advocate them, even when the ideas are unpopular, and it takes leaders willing to think beyond the short-term benefits of a particular policy, but to also contemplate the likely long-term ramifications.

We had a few of the former in the months leading up to the Iraq war, but not nearly enough of the latter. 33 realist scholars in September 2002 warned that an attack on Iraq was not in America’s interest. Realists were some of the earliest, and most eloquent, opponents of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Now, realists are stepping forward with cogent arguments for what to do about Iran.

In a paper released today, my Cato colleage Ted Galen Carpenter lays out five policy options. My colleague Justin Logan is hard at work on another paper considering the costs and benefits of deterrence vs. preventive war. Ted and Justin collaborated on an article nearly five months ago in which they sketched out the outlines of a “grand bargain” for Iran. MIT’s Barry Posen, and Christopher Layne at Texas A&M, have offered their prescriptions.

The general consensus that emerges from these papers and articles is that a nuclear-armed Iran is an unhappy prospect. The authors examine why Iran might go down the path of nuclearization when dozens of other countries have eschewed such weapons. They ask whether a policy of deterrence might work, much as Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were deterred during the Cold War. All favor some form of direct negotiations between the United States and Iran; none advocate a preventive war.

What political leader will make the case that a policy of engagement with Iran is more likely to achieve the desired end — a non-nuclear Iran — at an acceptable cost? As Starobin points out in the conclusion to his essay, neither political party has a lock on the realist mantle. The Clintons — neither Bill nor Hillary — is comfortable with the language and logic of realism. Many on the GOP side have embraced the very sorts of nation-building missions that were once scorned by their standard bearer, George W. Bush.

But the realists are not discouraged. They have stayed in the intellectual contest, refusing to cede the ground to the neo-conservatives and the Wilsonian interventionists, and a few are even (uncharacteristically) optimistic. “The United States is likely to act in a much more realist fashion over the next decade,” the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer told Starobin, “not only because the public has lost its appetite for war but also because large portions of the elite have come to understand the limits of military force.” 

It is a curious inversion of what occured in the late 1990s. George Packer, in his book The Assassins’ Gate, recounts a conversation he had with Robert Kagan, one of the leading advocates of war with Iraq, and of a broader U.S. foreign policy based on “benevolent hegemony.” Packer writes:

I asked Robert Kagan how his ideas had traveled from the pages of Commentary to the foreign-policy apparatus of the Bush administration. He waved me off. It didn’t work that way, he said. “September 11 is the turning point. Not anything else. This is not what Bush was on September 10.”

The ideas of the neoconservatives had nothing to do with it?

Kagan sighed. “Here’s what I’m willing to say. Did we keep alive a certain way of looking at American foreign policy at a time when it was pretty unpopular? Yes. I think probably you need to have people do that so that you have something to come back to. And, in a way, then you have a ready-made approach to the world.”

Kagan hasn’t recanted his support for the Iraq war; indeed, in a recent Washington Post op ed he points to the broad bipartisan support for a continuation of the current mission in Iraq, and presumably for a repeat performance elsewhere (perhaps immediately to the east?). But realists also have a “ready-made approach to the world” — one that looks a whole lot more attractive to millions of Americans than what the neocons have been feeding us for years. The realists are ready for the next battle. And they’re just a phone call or an e-mail away for any politician, on either side of the aisle.



  1. Across the Aisle » Realists, Interventionists, Isolationists: How to Tell Them Apart? wrote,

    [...] Chris Preble’s recent post about realist thinking is quite engaging. I appreciate his argument to apply more rationale thought to American foreign policy, such as what will – and will not – work with Iran. He argues rightly against false dichotomies – such as bomb Iran or do nothing. [...]

    Pingback on September 25, 2006 @ 8:48 pm

  2. Across the Aisle » Secretary Rice: What’s the Real Plan for Taking “Action” in Darfur? wrote,

    [...] Chris Preble’s recent post here about realist thinking is quite related, actually. I appreciate his argument to apply more rationale thought to American foreign policy, such as what will – and will not – work with Iran. He argues against false dichotomies – such as bomb Iran or do nothing. What would he and his colleagues argue we should do in Sudan, and specifically in Darfur? What do realists think about other, sticky not-war, not-peace uses of diplomacy, blue paint and military forces, namely UN peace operations? Is a genocide worthy of an intervention or should the US only support operations where the goal may be easier to achieve, such as in Liberia or Timor (might)? [...]

    Pingback on September 25, 2006 @ 11:39 pm

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