Inner Neocons

Matt Frost and Freddie de Boer and Daniel Larison disagree pretty strongly with a Daily Beast column I wrote last night on Obama and Iran.

Matt makes the excellent point that many of those who are cheering on the (dwindling number of) protesters are projecting their hopes onto a movement they — I should say we — don’t fully understand. And as President Obama said in his press briefing, he has a special obligation to speak on behalf of the United States, not his own moral outrage.

Yet I do think that the president, by virtue of his political prowess and Iran’s vulnerability and the relative goodwill he enjoys in Europe, has an opportunity to put a a great deal pressure on Iran. Because I haven’t fully resigned myself to a nuclear-armed Iran, I think now is the time to apply this pressure.

The political turmoil in the country has deep roots: it derives to a great extent from the pain caused by an unbalanced state-dominated economy that directs scarce resources to the security services rather than to social needs. (This will sound familiar to left-of-center readers in particular.) I’m struck by the parallel with apartheid-era South Africa, which suffered from an abysmally low economic growth rate during its last decade, which was defined by paranoia and military adventurism on the part of the ruling clique.

Larison and I disagree at a fairly basic level about the normative dimension of foreign policy. To some degree, I think this guarantees that we’ll talk past each other. But as always, Larison makes very strong arguments that I need to take seriously.

On “Chicken Kiev,” he’s absolutely right that the nationalist aspirations of post-communist Europe were far from unproblematic. That’s putting it lightly. It’s also true that the bloody unraveling of the Balkans had a number of complicated causes, and that mixed signals sent by the Bush and Clinton administrations contributed to the disaster. On the basic point, Larison and I simply disagree: I think that the independence of the republics, including Ukraine and the Baltic states and, Larison’s favorite, Georgia, was a good thing, in part because I can imagine very grim counterfactuals. But of course I also think the Russian Federation would have been better off had Chechnya been allowed to go its own way. Larison has a very deep understanding of post-communist Europe, whereas my knowledge derives almost entirely from secondary sources and a seminar on Ukrainian history I took a decade ago. So I won’t blame you if he take his word over mine!

Larison also notes the calm and judicious tone of Bush’s speech, which bears a family resemblance to Obama’s early statements on Iran and Bush’s later reaction to the Tiananmen Square uprising. I’ll note only that time and context matter, and that the speech was a calibrated intervention designed to dampen nationalist enthusiasms. That’s not really in dispute.

In another post, Larison suggests that my admittedly crude model of Khamenei’s decision-making process doesn’t make sense.

One may or may not approve of the business being done, but the idea that the authoritarian government is the one that cannot by its very nature do business with Washington is just completely wrong.

That’s actually not my view at all, though of course Larison is responding to a brief sketch, so I can hardly blame him. There are many authoritarian governments that we can “do business with”; we do it all the time, after all. And some authoritarian governments are better than others. Larison is right to suggest that Mousavi represents a particularly potent threat to Khamenei, and that the axis of internal threat is different from the axis of external threat. That Khamenei wants to neutralize the threat posed by Mousavi doesn’t mean that he can’t do business with an agreeable US by necessity.

I suppose I was offering a psychological theory. I tend to think that a weak authoritarian government, one that feels threatened by internal rivals, is more likely to go to the negotiating table. Why? Because cutting a deal with your most potent external threat gives you breathing room to consolidate your power. Why would we want to play along, particularly if there’s a non-trivial chance that the regime might collapse? Say we cut a deal with South Africa National Party that gave them just enough room to liquidate key ANC cadres — but not enough to prevent a bloody revolution, one that would create an indigenous-majority government that would be implacably hostile to the West?

Khamenei’s crackdown suggests that he thought he was sufficiently strong to put down an internal threat. So yes, he’ll negotiate with the US. And then he’ll do exactly as he pleases. This is something I’ve heard for years from people who know far more about Iran than I do, most of whom believe that we should negotiate nevertheless to gain the moral high ground. I suppose I don’t see the point in gaining the moral high ground if it still means that Iran has a nuclear arsenal, one that will set off a destabilizing arms race in the region.

Larison also writes about the complex clerical rivalries that define Iran’s internal politics. I’ll happily concede that I used “pragmatic” clumsily: the problem isn’t so much that Khamenei and co. aren’t “pragmatic”; it’s that they aren’t very sensible. I absolutely agree with him re: their cynical use of religious rhetoric.

And that’s just the thing: I agree with Larison that the Iranian regime values survival above all else, and I even agree that a policy of not interfering with Iran’s internal affairs makes a nuclear deal (faintly) possible. I happen to think that there is a better achievable outcome, a la post-1994 South Africa.

Freddie writes a characteristically Freddie-ish post: incisive and astute and delightfully-written. Basically, Freddie has me pegged. I am a fairly conventional neocon, though more in the vein of Jeff Gedmin than that of my more combative friend Mike Goldfarb. Though I don’t think of myself as invasion-happy or trigger-happy, I still think that the decision to invade Iraq made a good deal of sense given what we knew at the time. I also think that we have a special obligation to the people of Afghanistan to help them build a decent, viable state. Re: Iran, I’d rather be on the side of the Mandelas than the Verwoerds.

I saw a man on CNN the other night (his name escapes me) who pronounced that there was no difference between those revolting and the government that they are revolting against, because both want nuclear weapons. Which, you know, is a handy and perfect example of how most of America’s intelligence and foreign policy communities see the world around us.

I’ll just point out that I disagree with the man on CNN. Nukes in the hands of Manmohan Singh worry me a lot less than nukes in the hands of, say, Subhas Chandra Bose.* [A reader was very exercised by my typo. I apologize for nothing.]

I’ll also note that I feel very privileged to be referred to as a rather vanilla Bill Kristol, though I’d much prefer to be known as the chocolate Bill Kristol, or perhaps the butter pecan Bill Kristol.