Reihan Salam wrote a column in the Daily Beast: “Obama’s Inner Neocon.”
Yet his statements haven’t been consistent for the good and understandable reason that the White House is trying to thread an unthreadable needle. No one doubts that the president wants to condemn the crackdown in Tehran, yet he’s also hoping to cut a deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The trouble is that Obama fundamentally misreads the Islamic Republic, just as he once misread Iraq and Afghanistan. To his credit, however, the president eventually reversed course on both fronts, without ever saying so. On Iraq, he retained many of the architects of George W. Bush’s post-surge strategy. In Afghanistan, he abandoned early efforts to “lower our sights” in favor of a robust expansion of the American role in strengthening the country’s security forces, winning him praise from his erstwhile neoconservative enemies.
Slowly, the president’s embrace of crabbed realism is coming undone. Throughout the presidential campaign, the Obama foreign policy team was quick to draw a contrast between the alleged messianism of George W. Bush’s first term with the sober realpolitik of Bush the Elder, which they enthusiastically embraced.
But though Bush 41 was in many respects a smashing foreign policy success, he also made a number of egregious missteps, including the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he essentially endorsed the survival of the multinational Soviet empire and not the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europe.
Daniel Larison had many posts worth of problems with the piece, but first to Matt Frost:
Reihan says in his latest column for The Daily Beast: “The great danger of Obama’s response to the street protests in Iran has been that he’d choose Iran’s thuggish ruling class over Iran’s masses on the grounds that Serious People don’t fret about human rights when grand strategy is at stake.”
“Choosing Iran’s masses” sounds to me just as bad as tacitly supporting the “thuggish ruling class.” Our solidarity with the Iranian protesters is, necessarily, a snub to “Iran’s masses,” many of whom make up the basiji milita and Ahmadinejad’s constituency. If Reihan wants Obama to support a particular Iranian faction and their goals of liberalization and reform, he’s welcome to argue so, but he ought not demand that the US president become the advocate for an imagined Iranian polity.
Now, to Larison post #1:
Matt’s reminder that there are real political divisions and genuine pro-regime sentiment among millions of non-elite Iranians is a much-needed one, but I would qualify his concluding remarks by stressing how so much of this contest is a contest over which elites will dominate the state apparatus. If Obama chose to side more openly with the protesters, he would not be siding with “the masses” against “the ruling class,” but would be for all intents and purposes allying himself with Rafsanjani’s power play inside the Iranian ruling class. Say what you will about him and his corruption, but Rafsanjani is not stupid–Mousavi takes all the risks, while Rafsanjani stands to reap the rewards if the play succeeds. If it doesn’t, he will bide his time until another opportunity arises. Oligarchs use factions of the people against each other in their competitions for position, and some try to identify their cause with that of “the people,” and this has gone on for ages. It now takes place in an era of mass politics, and so we have massive factions arrayed behind different oligarchs, which are deceptively large enough to be treated as being representative of “the people.” The tragic thing is that there are probably millions of Iranians who genuinely desire a very different kind of government and if they are lucky will get Rafsanjani’s clique instead. If the critics entirely had their way, Obama would participate in this farce by investing the triumph of one clique of oligarchs with some greater meaning.
Unfortunately, Reihan gets other things wrong. He writes:
Now, however, at least some of the engagers are coming to understand that the violence in the streets is clear evidence that Khamenei’s gang is less pragmatic than they enthusiastically believed.
This isn’t clear evidence of any such thing. I do wish we would stop using the word pragmatic as if it automatically implied something moderate and decent. Nothing has made it more clear that these are shabby dealers interested only in self-preservation than the last ten days. These are precisely the people with whom one cuts deals. There are people who are fanatical about religious claims because they are genuinely willing to sacrifice everything on their behalf, which ironically means that they can sometimes be constrained and controlled by the dictates of their own religion, and there are people who use religion instrumentally for control.
Reihan gets something else pretty badly wrong:
If the regime can’t do business with the likes of Mousavi, they certainly can’t do business with Obama, no matter how many barbecues he invites them to.
Reihan must know that this doesn’t make sense. If an authoritarian regime won’t “do business” with an internal critic and would-be opposition leader, does it follow that it won’t and can’t “do business” with a foreign government? It’s one of those things that sounds good at first (”they are implacable fanatics!”), but it is something that we know simply isn’t true. Repressive regimes have been happy to “do business” with the U.S. and other major powers for decades while simultaneously suppressing internal opponents, and as we know perfectly well Washington has been prepared to not only “do business” but also to forge decades-long alliances with authoritarian states that refuse to tolerate a viable political opposition. No one could take this kind of question seriously if it had been applied to Mubarak and Nour today, or Musharraf and Sharif a couple years ago, or even Putin and Khodorkovsky. 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.
Rather than reassure the Iranians with a wink and a nod that we’re ready to do business, President Obama should be building an international coalition to isolate a recalcitrant Iran as thoroughly as the the West once isolated apartheid-era South Africa. Bush, to the chagrin of the neocons, could never pull this off [bold mine-DL]. But Obama can. ~Reihan Salam
I don’t mean to beat this one column into the ground, but there are a lot of problems with it. It would help Reihan’s argument a lot if neoconservatives had actually been chagrined by Bush’s inability to mobilize international support for his policies, but when they weren’t elaborating on the grand possibilities of the “unipolar moment” they were for the most part they busily mocking the impulse to work through multilateral institutions. At the same time, they wanted credit for enforcing U.N. resolutions. They were a little too preoccupied celebrating the glories of “New Europe” and the “coalition of the willing” and pretending that cajoling the governments of small, weak countries into aligning with us on Iraq represented diplomatic triumphs on par with those of Bush’s father. When Turkey refused to permit our forces to launch part of the invasion from their territory, I don’t recall any neoconservatives complaining that Bush was bungling the diplomacy. Instead, they railed against Turkish anti-Americanism, which they found as inexplicable as it was offensive to them.
But though Bush 41 was in many respects a smashing foreign policy success, he also made a number of egregious missteps, including the notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he essentially endorsed the survival of the multinational Soviet empire and not the nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europe. ~Reihan Salam
That Kiev speech really sticks in the craw, doesn’t it? I haven’t heard so much about the elder Bush’s 1991 Kiev speech in the last fifteen years as I have heard about it in the last week and a half. It seems to be a touchstone for everyone dissatisfied with “crabbed realism,” as if the “nationalist aspirations of Eastern Europe” didn’t include the aspirations to displace and slaughter one’s neighbors, expel entire populations and pursue self-destructive policies in the name of restoring national glory. All of a sudden, nationalism in Europe, which was once the scourge that neoconservatives wanted to squash in the ’90s and which horrifies them when it takes peaceful, democratic forms in western Europe, has become something in retrospect that it was wrong to discourage at the end of the Cold War.*
Over the last eighteen years, the idea that there was something unforgiveably wrong in urging Ukrainians–whose country is now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy under the rule of squabbling kleptocrats–to resist seeking independence seems increasingly absurd. Warning against the dangers of nationalism as a multinational empire was coming apart at the seams was very sensible. The example of how the Ottoman Empire had come apart in the late 19th and early 20th centuries offered a sobering reminder that political fragmentation along nationalist lines in ethnically mixed societies can carry a high cost in human suffering. Given the experience of the Balkans and the Caucasus over the last eighteen years, does anyone want to look back and say that the President of the United States should have endorsed nationalist aspirations?
And that’s it for Larison. But there’s also Michael Goldfarb:
There is a huge gap between Obama’s soaring rhetoric during the campaign and the hyper-realism of his foreign policy as president. Hayes went through Obama’s Berlin speech yesterday noting the enormous discrepancy between his rhetoric then and now, and Greg Pollowitz pulls another bit of Obama’s campaign trail rhetoric: “Change is realizing that meeting today’s threats requires not just our firepower, but the power of our diplomacy—tough, direct diplomacy where the president of the United States isn’t afraid to let any petty dictator know where America stands and what we stand for.” Can any Obama supporter claim with a straight face that this president hasn’t been afraid to let the petty dictators in Iran “know where America stands.”
Obama’s “realist” foreign policy has already proved an overcorrection from the Bush years and is so at odds with the rhetoric of his campaign and his self-image as a crusader for justice — it’s unsustainable. Even Steve Clemons is going neocon in response to events in Iran. The president can’t be that far behind.
And finally, Freddie at The League:
Anyway, I think that Reihan’s views on foreign policy demonstrate the limitations of both brilliance and good intentions. Reihan is unquestionably a brilliant person and hugely talented writer, and he has enormously good intentions when he meditates on foreign policy, and he is desperately wrong when it comes to foreign policy. Foreign policy is where Reihan’s tendency to view conservative ideas with rose-colored glasses as thick as Coke bottles hurts the deepest, because it is in foreign policy where mainstream conservatism has damaged the country the most considerably. Despite his swipes at “crabbed realism”, and my own disgust with realist callousness, one would have to say that realism has served this country and the world far better in the last decade than neoconservatism. But those again are the wages of ideological wishful thinking; the constant search for beautiful losers leads one to imagine the beauty and fail to see the loser sitting right in front of you.
For the issue at hand, I have little to add beyond what Larison has ably described, except to add two things that apply to many people considering this issue: first, that it is folly, sheer folly, to consider yourself to have the best intentions for a people while willfully ignoring what they intend for themselves. This cuts both ways. It should both undermine the continued desire to bomb Iranians to kingdom come, because reformer, “fascist” and other, Iranians seem united in not wanting to be bombed; it also must undermine our feelings of friendship with those Iranians we most prefer, because democratists or not, liberal reformers or not, enemies-of-our-enemies or not, those revolting in Iran have powerful disagreements with most any American pundits about what Iran should and should not pursue. I have struggled and am struggling with so many mixed thoughts and emotions about this Green revolt, but I have become convinced that I have to distrust any feeling that isn’t qualified or provisional.
UPDATE: Reihan responds to Matt, Larison and Freddie and ends with:
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.
Conor goes Meta and looks at the debate from 3,000 feet:
It is helpful to see an author concede, qualify and reassert. I now possess a better understanding of his argument, the matters he cares most about emphasizing, and the parts of his foreign policy posture that persuade me to re-examine my own. Everyone involved in this exchange is better for it—almost as if forceful disagreement among open-minded, intellectually honest people leads at least toward a better understanding of where disagreements lie, and often toward a clearer understanding of the world.
Of course, this could have gone another way. Matt might have decided against offering any criticism of Reihan due to the fact that both are on Team American Scene. Reihan could have responded to Daniel by sanctimoniously lamenting that he is anti-freedom, and dismissed Freddie as unworthy of a substantive response because he is a liberal, and therefore evil. All the while, folks in the comments section could have cheered Reihan on by aiming juvenile insults at his critics and impugning their motives.