The roots of an incoherent policy

My Examiner column argues that President got it wrong in Iran by misapplying a flawed theory of international relations, namely realism. Here is what I wrote:

President Obama’s unwillingness to provide wholehearted support for the objectives of those seeking to topple the murderous, America-hating regime in Iran has left some observers scratching their heads. But to many old foreign policy hands, Obama’s tepid approach has invoked a knowing smile of appreciation for the president’s foreign policy “realism.”

The term “realism” as applied to foreign policy is loosely tossed around. There are Minimal Realists, Maximal Realists, English Realists, American Realists (Condoleezza Rice’s self-description), Classical Realists, Neo-realists, and Neo-classical Realists. Calling oneself a realist is often just another way of claiming that you understand reality.

Nonetheless, the term has a core meaning. Realists believe that states are rational actors, all moving relentlessly and often brutally in the pursuit of their own interest, especially their interest in national security. In this system, morality has no place and should not be injected into the discussion.

Realism is sometimes referred to as “the billiard ball theory of foreign relations.” As Charles Krauthammer had described the construct, nations move like billiard balls, as if impelled by an external force, and attention need not be paid to what’s inside the billiard ball — i.e., who is governing the country and how they are governing it.

Obama himself has made it clear that in what he calls the “argument between ideology and foreign policy realism,” his sympathies reside with the realists. Thus, he has expressed his admiration for the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush as formulated to no small degree by Brent Scowcroft, the consummate realist .

Applied to Iran, “realism” means (as Obama has suggested) that it doesn’t really matter whether Ahmadinejad or Mousavi is elected; Iran will pursue its interests in essentially the same manner either way. Nor should we distract ourselves by worrying much about how the current regime treats Iranians. Our focus instead should be on Iran’s external actions.

The president’s job, in this account, is to see whether we can divert Iran’s pursuit of its interest into channels compatible with our own. If we cannot, his job will then be to work with other nations whose self-interest militates in favor of thwarting Iran. This has been Obama’s stated policy.

But Obama does not really believe that who governs a country, and how they govern it, has only minimal relevance to the way the country acts. For example, Obama surely believe that the U.S. is behaving differently as a result of the fact that he is in charge.

Obama may view himself as too exceptional (too God-like, as Newsweek’s Evan Thomas has said) to allow the U.S. to be a mere billiard ball under his command. But it also matters to Obama who leads the Palestinians and how they operate internally. During his Cairo address, in setting forth his vision of how to bring peace to the Middle East, Obama stated: “The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern with institutions that serve the needs of its people.”

It also matters to the U.S. who is in charge in Tehran. Under the Shah, Iran was pro-American and had decent relations with Israel. All of that changed on a dime after the Shah fell.

The differences between the current regime and any likely successor will be much less pronounced. But, as Robert Kaplan has pointed out, Iran is so central to the fate of the Middle East that even a partial shift in behavior brought about by new leadership could dramatically affect the region.

Even for realists, then, there is no use pretending that the U.S. should be indifferent about who governs Iran.

The better argument in favor of Obama’s hesitant approach to Iranian unrest
is that, realistically, there is little hope of overthrowing the current regime. Under these circumstances the argument goes, it is contrary to U.S. interests to upset the leaders with whom the president still intends, perhaps, to deal.

But this argument runs counter to the most valid insight of foreign policy realism – that nations relentlessly pursue their self-interest. As just noted, different regimes, with different ideologies, view their nation’s self-interest differently. However, a given regime will likely have a fixed view of the national interest which it will pursue single-mindedly.

The Iranian regime believes, quite rationally, that its interests are best served by developing nuclear weapons and by using bloody outfits like Hezbollah to extend Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. President Obama claims to have “a persuasive argument” that Iran’s interests are best served by abandoning this course.

Most realists would be skeptical of such a claim. They would find it difficult to imagine that Obama has anything to offer the regime that might be more valuable than an arsenal of nuclear weapons and the ability to extend its regional influence through violent, anti-American proxy groups.

But if Obama has identified such an inducement, foreign policy realism tells us that the mullahs will grab it regardless of what Obama has said about Iran’s domestic situation. Common sense tells us the same thing. The course of any negotiations with Iran will be determined by the perceived interests of the parties, not rhetoric about Iran’s domestic affairs.

Our dealings with the Soviet Union during the Cold War illustrate the point. Until President Reagan took office, serious criticism of the Soviet regime’s treatment of its people generally was considered off-limits. And the legitimacy of the Communist government was considered a given.

Reagan took a different approach. Describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” he left no doubt that he considered the Communist regime illegitimate and destined to collapse. Yet no American president made more progress in negotiating concessions from that “Empire” on arms control and other vital issues.

There is no guarantee that Obama will have similar success in negotiating with Iran’s mullahs; indeed, it seems unlikely that he will. The impediment, though, will not be how Obama describes the nature of the regime, but rather the nature of the regime itself. Which is why Obama should wholeheartedly support regime change.


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