You Can Talk All You Want To But It's Different Than It Was (No It Ain't, No It Ain't - But You Gotta Know The Territory)

I’ve been meaning to ask this question of Matt Yglesias and other Obama advocates who see his big appeal as being a “new beginning” in foreign policy. The question: what is the historical model for Obama’s “meet with Iran/North Korea/Cuba/Venezuela without preconditions?”

As I wrote in an earlier post, I think there’s a fundamental problem with the most readily available historical precedents. To whit: unipolar moments are rare in human history, and we are still, in spite of relative decline, in a unipolar moment, with America the overwhelmingly predominant power. This deforms any diplomacy we might engage in, even if we honestly come to the table trying to negotiate a “win-win” scenario with an erstwhile adversary.

I wanted to look at Iran specifically and ask: what’s the historical model that we’d be following if Obama did, some time in the spring of 2009, announce that he was ready to meet with the Iranian President without preconditions? The favored historical analogy for opponents of an overture to Iran is Chamberlain in Munich. I agree that this analogy is ludicrous. So: what’s the analogy that proponents prefer?

I’ve thought of three models for such an initiative to Iran, which I’ll identify by three different possible precedents:

- Nixon goes to China – Sadat goes to Jerusalem – Reagan goes to Reykjavik

1. Nixon goes to China. This is the most obviously inapplicable precedent, which is why I’ve put it first. As we use the phrase nowadays, when we say someone can pull a “Nixon goes to China” we mean that because of his credibility on some issue, he could seriously challenge the consensus view on that issue. So: McCain could engage with Iran, and that would be a “Nixon goes to China” moment. (And, as an aside, I don’t think it’s impossible that he could or would do that – he has a history of making friends with people who should be his enemies, just as he has a history of making enemies of people who should be his friends – but I don’t expect it nor do I think people should vote for him in the hopes of such an outcome.) But why did Nixon go to China? To outflank the Soviets and the Vietnamese. What, by analogy, could an Obama Administration seek to achieve by engaging the Iranians? If we “turned” them – who would we be turning them against?

The obvious answer is: the Sunni Arab world. Iran’s ambitions to be a regional power are probably fatally hamstrung by the fact that it is a Shiite power and a non-Arab power. America was attacked on 9-11 by Sunni Arab extremists. Its existing Sunni allies are essentially worthless. Why not try to turn Iran? The palpable yearning in some circles (Michael Ledeen is the premier example) for a friendly (post-regime-change) Iran derives from the fact that it would allow such a clarifying realignment. Why wait?

The problem is that Iran has no incentive to take the part assigned. There is no threat to Iran comparable to the Soviet threat to China. Al Qaeda is an enemy of the Iranian regime, but not obviously a grave threat to it. Even if we assume that the Iranian leadership was entirely pragmatic, the analogy fails. We can’t “turn” Iran because there is no common enemy for us to unite against.

Moreover, our efforts to isolate and eliminate al Qaeda depend on working with Sunni Arab and non-Arab Sunni-dominated countries like Pakistan. It would not escape any of these that warming relations between American and Iran would weaken their positions. Specifically: it would weaken their positions as they attempt to manipulate U.S. foreign policy towards policy outcomes they favor. They would, therefore, have a considerable incentive to make it difficult for us to achieve such a warming of relations. So neither side of the analogy works: Iran won’t want to join up with us against a common enemy, and the plausible common enemies are currently quasi-allies who we don’t really want to turn against.

2. Sadat goes to Jerusalem. After the 1973 war, Sadat made the strategic decision to abandon his alliance with the Soviet Union, and switch sides to ally with the United States. That necessitated some kind of rapprochement with Israel. Sadat, in fact, saw substantial potential benefits to Egypt from such a rapprochement, independent of the American connection, because he saw that Egypt’s Pan-Arab Nationalist ambitions were never going to be realized, and in the absence of such ambitions it could achieve its baseline strategic goals – return of the Sinai and security for the Suez canal – by making peace with Israel. The move required substantial ideological readjustment on the part of the Egyptian state, but Sadat was, for a time, in a strong enough position to turn the ship and, indeed, achieved all his hoped-for goals for Egypt (not for the Palestinians, however) at the peace talks with Begin.

Is there an analogy here to America and Iran? In one sense, clearly not. Sadat’s move made sense in the context of a larger global struggle in which he had an incentive to choose sides. America is far too dominant in the international system for there to be any real analogy. We can’t plausibly switch sides at all; everyone else defines their own positioning vis-a-vis where we are, not the other way around.

But in another sense, perhaps there is an analogy. Sadat’s decision to go to Jerusalem was not the beginning of an era of engagement; it was an end of an era of engagement. It relegated Egypt to the status of a bystander in Arab politics for a generation. Israel took advantage of the peace with Egypt to pursue a more aggressive policy against the PLO in Lebanon; Egypt condemned the Lebanon war but never contemplated taking action. In like fashion, I suspect that an overture to Iran would signal to the Arab world that America had no interest in being a serious player in the region, and they would presumably adjust their own foreign policies accordingly. That might be a good thing, mind you! But it’s not usually the way a policy of engagement with Iran is sold.

3. Reagan goes to Reykjavik. This is, in some ways, the most potent analogy, since it’s still unclear what Reagan’s objectives were at Reykjavik. What is clear is: Reagan offered to eliminate all nuclear weapons, Gorbachev agreed on condition that America also abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative, and Reagan refused the condition.

We can debate whether Reagan knew what he was doing. But, intentionally or not, he significantly transformed the nature of the Soviet-American standoff with this meeting. For one thing, the offer made it clear that America was in no meaningful sense committed to endless confrontation, or to “defeating” the Soviet Union. And, arguably more important, Gorbachev’s willingness to entertain the offer made it clear that the Soviets were also not so committed. There was ample room for continued distrust – did America plan to keep S.D.I. because it was secretly planning a first strike against the motherland? Were the Soviets so eager to kill S.D.I. because they were secretly planning to invade Turkey/Pakistan/West Germany/who knows? – but notwithstanding this, a fundamental change in the terms of confrontation had been inaugurated, and this change developed its own momentum over the succeeding half-decade.

The Reykjavik summit might appear to present a different Reagan from the one who said, “Mr. Gorbachev: tear down this wall!” but, in fact, they are entirely congruent. The common assumption behind both the offer at Reykjavik and the call in Berlin was that the Soviet leader could meaningfully change the terms of U.S.-Soviet relations by radical actions, actions that could be reciprocated.

Of course, as it turned out, confrontation with the United States was an important pillar of legitimacy for the Soviet system. Once the wall fell, the Soviet Union itself fell soon after. If Obama were to go to Tehran and say, on the one hand, we are ready to end our confrontation, open our markets, etc., etc., but on the other hand challenge the Iranian regime to “tear off this veil” (or whatever), the Iranian regime will react in a way that is cognizant of their own vulnerability, internally. It does not serve the regime’s interests to have an all-out confrontation with the United States. But it probably also doesn’t serve the regime’s interests to have Americans going around saying that we are eager to embrace them if only they will abandon certain policies that their own people don’t want to go to battle for (the Iranian nuclear program is very popular domestically, but how many Iranians are interested in ostracism or worse for the sake of continuing to support Hezbollah?). So the real question about this analogy is: is there an Iranian Gorbachev, a leader naive enough to believe that the system he leads could readily survive the retirement of its principal antagonist?

But the bigger problem with this analogy is probably timing. Reagan approached Gorbachev during a period when American power and prestige was ascendant, and Soviet power and prestige in absolute decline. The American economy had recovered dramatically from the late 1970s; the Soviet economy was plagued by historically low oil and gas prices on top of the usual problems of a command and control economy. The American military had been substantially upgraded after years of higher defense spending, and a decade after the end of the Vietnam War was not actively engaged anywhere on the globe; the Soviet military had been bogged down for years in Afghanistan and was suffering from severe problems of insufficient or degraded equipment. Nixon went to China at a low ebb for America, but the context of that rapprochement doesn’t have a good analogy in Iran. Reagan went to Reykjavik under opposite circumstances – but those circumstances don’t obtain today, when oil prices are at historic highs (which has done wonders for the Iranian treasury), and when America is bogged down in an open-ended military commitment. That difference in context would make all the difference in any grand gesture that might be made.