To Play A Card, You Must Be At The Table

Not to bring up a sore subject, but I would like to extend and generalize my comments on Iran.

The best answer to my question about why I shouldn’t be skeptical about "peace" as well as war is that "peace" isn’t what we’re talking about – we’re talking about co-existence, non-intervention, etc. In the words of Brendan Green, who posted the only comment on my previous post on this topic:

[T]here is no guarantee that any of this would produce a stable happy region or that it would work out perfectly for all sides. Neither would it be the basis for a lasting friendship. But it is grist for a temporary deal that helps both sides, the grist of classical diplomacy. The reason this deal wont happen is not because the Iranian have nothing to gain, it is because the United States refuses to abandon its dominant role in the region. This is not a function of the strategic situation, it is a function of the ideologies of the american foreign policy elite.

Which is all well and good, but my question is still: how do we get there from here?

After all, what Brendan describes – letting Iran be the dominant regional power in exchange for an agreement on their part not to go nuclear – would be perceived by our allies in the region as a betrayal. America went to war in 1991 to prevent Iraq, an Arab state, from becoming overly dominant in the Persian Gulf. Now we’re going to hand the Gulf to non-Arab Iran? Leave aside the question of whether we actually get anything from Iran in this deal – assume (what is questionable) they really don’t see the need to proliferate once America has handed them Iraq on a platter; assume that they don’t have an active interest in aiding and abetting al Qaeda activities in states they consider to be rivals. Even so, wouldn’t the various Arab states make precisely the opposite calculation? Even if we thought of it as a limited deal, a bit of prudent balancing, who else would perceive it that way? Wouldn’t it be perceived everywhere else as either a retreat or a determination to switch horses?

Now, if you didn’t know whether America had made any historic commitments in the region (or anywhere else), and you were asked whether America should be pursuing a forward strategy of limiting Iranian influence, you could make a very good argument that no, we should not. But we do have such historic commitments. And I’m puzzled why more total-withdrawal advocates (from the right or the left) don’t articulate how we would transition – not just in Iraq but in the region generally – from engaged to disengaged.

More generally, the transitional question is the one I see least addressed from the Jeffersonian camp: how do we go from being the Leviathan we are to being a quiet, unassuming Republic (assuming that’s what we ever were)? Wasn’t the die cast very long ago on this score? Is there any historical precedent for a major power simply giving up the game, as opposed to being defeated? And if it’s never happened before, isn’t it a bit utopian to assume that we (because of our sterling character I suppose) will be the first?

Let me make an analogy. Israel has recently been conducting a rather fraught national debate about what to do with the territories. The center of gravity in Israel still, even after Lebanon and Gaza, favors unilateral withdrawal. And that center is right because it is based on two truths: first, that the status quo is enormously threatening to Israel’s survival; second, that a negotiated peace is difficult to envision. The latter truth is not due to some inherent perfidity on the part of the Palestinian Arabs but because there is nothing Israel can offer them that they could not get for nothing if they only hold out.

The American situation in the Middle East, and in Iraq especially, could be described analogously if you accept the anti-interventionist case. But the difference is that Israel is not a Great Power. Precisely because its existence is precarious, it cannot afford to form strong long-term alliances (as the South Lebanese Army learned the hard way); and it is for this reason that Israel can behave in this unilateral fashion and worry about nothing more complicated than whether its deterrent is intact. America, precisely because it does not face existential threats but has broader and more diffuse interests, has less freedom of action. That’s just one of the paradoxes of power.

Again, I want to be clear. I’m not arguing that the alternatives are war or surrender, nor am I arguing that diplomacy is equivalent to surrender, nor am I arguing that a grand opening to Iran is an inherently mad concept because of the nature of the regime. (Mao’s regime was considerably uglier than the current regime in Tehran, and the opening to China was and is widely considered a smart geostrategic move.) I’m just pointing out that the proposed "opening" to Iran does not look anything like Nixon’s trip to China or Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem. To the extent that it’s being suggested as a brilliant piece of ju-jitsu, I think that’s based on wishful thinking. To the extent that it’s being suggested as a way of getting out of the game entirely, I think that’s based on even more wishful thinking, in that I’m not convinced that’s possible.

Joshua may well be right that the only way to win is not to play. But once you are in the game, the only way not to play is to lose. So the right question, I’m sad to report, really is: what’s our next move?