Driving to work yesterday, I gave a pretty good lecture to my long-suffering partner on another pet subject for which I have no academic or professional credentialing: foreign policy. This time the subject was Iran (and to a lesser degree, Afghanistan), and what President Obama might do in the absence of good choices.
I’ve been positively snowed under at work because of this, so I literally have no time to do extra-curricular analysis. Which makes it difficult to accurately capture the nuances of yesterday’s geopolitical ruminations. Yet, I shall try, in the ten minutes I have before I get back to the grind.
I’m assuming that if you made it to this paragraph, you probably have been paying some attention to the news of another “secret” Iranian nuclear facility. This comes in addition to the country’s test firing of Shahab-3 and Sejil-2 missiles, which have 800-1200 mile ranges, respectively — meaning Israel could definitely take it on the chin if these babies were properly outfitted.
Now, before I get into our options (or lack thereof) in dealing with these potential threats, I need to get something off my chest. One thing I HATE about conservatives is that even when we might share ideas on how to deal with certain issues, their binary view of the world is infuriatingly limiting. I’m something of a quasi-hawk when it comes to international matters, but I always try to game out complete scenarios and look to unintended consequences of military engagement overseas. My conservative compatriots (neo and otherwise), not so much.
But back to the issues at hand. Clearly, Israel has been itching to knock Iran a few steps back by launching some kind of targeted arial strike on their nuclear facilities and/or missile bases. In order for this to work, we’d have to trust that Mossad (from whom we purchase most of our Mid East intelligence) has credible info about where these facilities are located. Is this something we’re willing to bank on? Israel’s recent forays in Lebanon generated tremendously bad PR on the Arab street, despite their aggressive (and questionably legal) attempts to control reporting in the area. I shudder to think what would happen if an Iran strike goes poorly.
That said, I’m not totally against the idea of letting Israel do our military dirty laundry. Typically, I’m against immanetizing the eschaton, but sometimes you just gotta lance that boil. Things to worry about should this course of action be pursued:
So a “hot war” with Iran, by proxy or otherwise, is really not an option at all. One thing to keep in mind about American foreign policy in general is that it really doesn’t differ that much from administration to administration, and when it does, although it may seem “radical,” it’s usually the result of a couple decade’s worth of behind-the-scenes maneuvering at think tanks, universities and federal agencies. The necon “Doctrine of Preemption” is a classic example — most of the tenets it contained had been cooking since the Ford administration. Frustrated by Realism’s perceived lack of effect in expanding international capital markets (read: “spreading democracy”), the neocons articulated a new set of theories that said America can, pursuant to our national security, neutralize yet-to emerge threats by military force. (That “national security” has become an inviolable buzzword of our political discourse is a testament to the skills of George W. Bush.
Anyway, military preemption in the pursuit of regime change is not a possibility with Iran. So what can we do? Well, it’s important to consider the opposition’s own motivations before we settle on a course of action.
It’s clear to me (and hopefully some in the administration and the State Department) that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his theocratic puppetmasters are desperate to legitimize their recent “reelection.” Iran’s leaders are no doubt uncomfortable with the level of sustained protests they witnessed following Ahmadinejad’s alleged victory at the polls. Never before have they been so close to internal revolution without the hands of a foreign actor (like, say, America) tipping the scales. But as any good Machiavellian knows, the best way to bring an unruly populace around to your side is to rally them around a perceived external threat. Hence the “disclosure” of a secret nuclear facility and the missile tests. Iran is gambling (correctly, in my opinion), that America will respond with sanctions and harsh rhetoric that will play into an Iranian ideology of self-determination. Even moderates in the country are susceptible to nationalist sentiment. And is America really so different? Look at the pro-Patriot Act votes in Congress if you doubt my assertion.
Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld fucking blew it. Half of America’s “hard power” is based in our enemy’s PERCEPTION of that power. By fighting two protracted wars, we’ve signaled to the world that America’s military might ain’t quite as advertised. Of course, they knew that Iran was never a good military option, which is why they took us into Iraq. (Well, that and oil.)
But back to the current situation. No matter what Secretary Clinton suggests, sanctions against Iran are unlikely to be “crippling.” Russia and China would always leave a backdoor open. So Iran wins on two fronts: they can bolster the legitimacy of their regime by using the sanctions and rhetoric to stir up nationalist passions, AND they get to conduct business as usual. Does this mean we shouldn’t continue with this approach? Absolutely not. We just need to do it in concert with a couple of other (admittedly paltry) options we have before us.
We can assume that any diplomatic efforts in the region are not secure. Whatever we tell Egypt — even at the highest levels — will hit the Arab street, as will any discussions with Saudi Arabia, Syria, etc., etc. We can use that to our advantage to start spreading contradictory messages that will confuse Tehran. Let’s talk to Damascus about what an Israeli strike would look like, knowing that that info is sure to reach the mullahs in Iran. Let’s do what we USED to do before our intelligence services became merely paramilitary and interrogation units and subtly suggest that we will back any anti-Ahmadinejad revolution inside Iran. (We won’t of course, nor will they believe us given our history in the region, but we should do it anyway.)
Finally, as put forth in an editorial in today’s New York Times, we should pursue a strategy of strategic rapprochement with Iran, similar to President Nixon‘s policies with China. That way they can’t claim that we aren’t offering them anything in exchange for their cooperation on the nuclear issue. (Keep in mind this is while we’re doing the other things — all of which are key to bamboozling our “enemy.”)
In a situation like this, thinking outside of the traditional geopolitical status quo is necessary. Realism — with its non-interventionist “management of affairs” between states — won’t work. Nor will preemption. But that doesn’t mean we can’t use aspects of each (at least give the impression that they are options).
Does anyone want to pay me to take a sabbatical to craft a neorealist manifesto?