Saturday, December 09, 2006

Learning Nothing and Forgetting Nothing, the Realist Foreign Policy Comes to Iraq

James Baker, co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, has, along with his group, called for negotiating with the Iranians over Iraq. The idea is that either the Iranians will talk and stop supporting the violence in Iraq, or they won’t show or stop supporting the chaos in Iraq and we will show the world that Iran is the problem. This is a standard argument made by the diplomacy always crowd. I’ve heard it too many times to count since I began paying attention to world politics a dozen years. It is tried time and time again despite one simple reality, it almost never works and offers the rogue nation the opportunity to constrain the power who initiated it.

The basic problem with this policy is that it assumes many things that are usually not true. Firstly it assumes that the offending country is interested in meeting and compromising on an issue. It next assumes that whatever countries are meant to be impressed by this display will actually be impressed and offer support after the offending nation rejects or refuses the advance. Essentially this means that these countries are willing and able to do something but are not doing anything merely because the offending nation has not been offered the chance to resolve the dispute diplomatically (the fact that the offending nation has not itself tried diplomacy doesn’t matter of course). Lastly it assumes that even should the offending nation show up and agree to stop its behavior for some carrots, that it will actually stop its behavior as it promises.

Due to its history of failure and its inaccurate understanding of the current situation we can fully expect such a policy to fail every bit as miserably today with Iran as it has in the past. Each of the above assumptions is wildly off in today’s standoff with Iran:

Iran wants a stable Iraq like the rest of us

This is only correct if you allow for Iran’s different definition of a “stable Iraq”. Sure they want it stable, under the Ayatollahs as a totalitarian Shiite government like Iran’s. This is obviously not what most of the world considers a “stable Iraq”. Iran is also damaging our geopolitical position and making it much more difficult for us to do anything about their nuclear program because of the continued violence. The violence is ensuring that no American government will initiate another preemptive war anytime soon. Thus it is in Iran’s long-term interests to see that things are as bad as possible as long as possible in Iraq to make sure this opinion reigns in the US for as long as possible. Why then would Iran help us form a stable Iraq that is in our interests and not their’s?

Europe, Russia, and China will finally accept the need to do something about Iran

Not likely. These powers do not support our efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program and restoration of the Achaemenid Empire because they have no ability to do so and would lose too much in the process. Russia and China support Iran as part of their campaign to multi-polarize the world. Iran is working miracles for them in this regard so they are not going to support us no matter what. Europe will be no more capable of doing anything to stop Iran tomorrow as they are today. Except for the British (who aren’t in a position to help anyways), they have no projectable military power and won’t support sanctions since it would cost them business contracts with Iran. Iran imports almost $6 billion worth of goods from Germany, $3 billion from Italy, and $2.5 billion from France. None of those countries has seen much economic growth in the last 15 years, and none are willing to take an economic hit for us or the world. Europe further knows that if Iran does become a major threat, they can beg us to rescue them, and we’ll ride to their rescue as we have for the last 100 years. We are after all building missile defense sites to protect Europe from Iranian missiles free of charge in Poland.

Iran will accept a good offer and stop supporting the violence in Iraq

The first half of that statement is almost certainly true. If we offer Iran tribute to stop being bad they’d be idiots not to accept it. That doesn’t mean they will stop supporting violence. If we make a deal with them and they continue supporting the violence, then what? We have a deal with them Europe, China, and Russia will intone; we cannot risk wrecking the deal over such a trifle thing as Iran not living up to its end of the bargain. Rather than add impetus to the effort to stop Iran, all we will have done is pay off the Iranian government, give it credibility amongst the Iranian people, and further hamper any effort to head off the major storm coming down the road.

Even though a clear understanding of the situation and the interests of the powers involved would indicate the deal will not work and will only hurt us, there is also history to add to the argument against it. The Munich agreement would of course be the most glaring and devastating example of this. Hitler accepts a deal, doesn’t live up to it and everyone looks the other way. Israel has had countless similar deals with the Palestinians. Most notable was the Camp David Accords of 2000. Israel offered the Palestinians almost everything they want. Arafat not only walked away but soon after started the second intifada. Initially the diplomacy always crowd argued this was great for Israel since the Palestinians had shown that they were the true obstacles to peace. Despite this, world support for Israel lasted only as long as Israel did nothing about the suicide bombers attacking her civilians (that is to say a very short time indeed). I’m not even going to go through the 17 times we tried this with Saddam, including not once but twice prior to the 2003 invasion. Most relevant of all, what happened to world support for punishing Iran when it didn’t stop enriching uranium on August 31st? The idea was Iran would stop enriching or else. If they didn’t the world would supposedly see that Iran was the problem and support efforts to stop their nuclear program. Well, Iran didn’t stop and what was the world’s reaction?

Russia- said no to sanctions or any action; but they did regret Iran’s actions.
Europe- demanded…. more talks since 8 years is obviously to short a time to rush to impose visa sanctions on Iran’s leaders.
UN- nothing, not even a statement since it was the ambassador from Ghana’s last day, and as he told reporters, “give me a break.”

Why anyone believes the world’s reaction will be any different this time round is beyond me. Whether Iran simply refuses to talk or takes our tribute and continues supporting violence in Iraq, the result will be the same. Unless we accept, and accept soon, that Iraq does not exist in a vacuum, that our titular allies have neither the will nor the capability to do anything, and that Iran, Russia, and China have no interest in seeing us succeed in forming a stable mostly free/democratic Iraq, we will lose in Iraq and the price for us and the world will be incalculable. The realists’ motto appears to be, “Pounds for the cure tomorrow, not an ounce for prevention today”. However, guessing by last month's elections, it is how the American people want it, so it is how the world will get it.

I'd add liberal foreign policy in the title, but for liberals to have a foreign policy that learns nothing and forgets nothing, they'd, well, first have to have a foreign policy (and no, blaming America and Israel for everything, worshipping the UN, and extolling the virtues of oppressive anti-American Third World despots doesn't count as a foreign policy).


  1. Iran and Syria will demand a high price to step in and save America & GB's hide.
    Can you blame them if they turned around and said no after the rhetoric coming from Bush & Blair?
    They will bide there time and wait until this pair have gone and do business with a new leader, one less inclined to use the stick rather than the carrot.
    And can anyone blame them?

  2. Thanks for another comment. Firstly I don't blame any country for looking out for its own interests and not others, I only wish we did that more often. Iran is playing traditional power politics and cleaning our clock as we insist on our "post modernist we are the world UN mumbo jumbo" policies (who after all went to the UN to get an ok, well 17 ok's, to intervene in Iraq? Not Iran). But that's our problem not Iran's.

    Also not Iran's problem is saving Bush and Blair, that's Bush and Blair's responsibility. Paying off Iran won't make it go away; it'll only cause it to ask for more. This has happened so many times in history, I don't know why we keep trying it (except when it is simply done in absence of any ideas, which I think is the case here). At some point Iran will go too far, they always do, and we'll be wishing we used a smaller stick earlier.

  3. I should also add that by stick I don't just mean war. Though I don't think there is a solution besides war at this point, it doesn't mean these options weren't available and wasted earlier. There's economic sanctions, though in this case they'd be pointless due to the Europe problem mentioned in the post. Internal subversion is another option. The Ayatollahs are deeply unpopular, but that option was lost when we refused to support the massive anti-gov demonstrations back in the summer of 2003 (doesn’t take much to guess what event sparked the demonstrations). Clandestine operations to weaken the regime could have possibly worked until the bungling CIA "accidentally" mailed its Iranian agent contact list to the Iranian government (needless to say none of them are alive and no one is going to take their place). Lastly, and most revolutionary, we could support the various minorities in Iran in their quest to be free of the Persian yoke. I personally favor that option the most but we won't do it since it would mean breaking up Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan since many of the peoples live in two of those countries. For whatever reason, we consider the borders drawn up by the British Colonial Office to suit the interests of Queen Victoria's Empire sacrosanct.

  4. Philip3:07 AM

    Maybe we should just accept that the people will not suport small wars now to prevent large wars later. People are like this in many ways, like with medical check ups. Look at how hard it is to get people to do something early about medical problems, and that impacts their life. We cant expect average voters to understand the issues a nuclear Iran would cause them in teh future. Anyways, interesting blog.

  5. Thanks for the comment Philip. I don't know, I'd prefer to think people can still learn from history, though given the state of history instruction in school I guess I may have too much faith in them. Even if they can't, Cassandras still have their place.

    I saw a show once on the History Channel about a British Naval Officer named Bywater. He spent the 20's and 30's warning every govt official in the US (he even met FDR) about the mistakes they were making militarily and diplomatically vis-a-vis Japan. He didn't argue the war could be avoided but rather that the US was foolishly making the war be much worse than it had to. He based it on the kind of raw analysis of military capability, geography, and perceived national interest that I favor. He was ignored of course though almost all of his predictions were correct. So, yeah, they have a role I guess was the point of that. Glad you like the blog.

  6. I would have to agree with you Jarod that my preferred option would also be to support the more moderate parties in Iran although meddling in other countries politics makes me very uneasy but anything is preferable to war.

  7. I agree with both those points Lucy. The challenging part is how do you support moderates in many of these countries when they will simply be killed, jailed, or otherwise terrorized by the dictators or terror groups. Those groups have to be removed somehow. Take Lebanon for example, getting the Syrian colonizers out and allowing a more free government hasn't done much with Hezbollah still in existence. Pressing Egypt has had little effect since Mubarak simply imprisons and tortures anyone who went too far challenging the his dictatorship. Even in former Soviet republics like the Ukraine and Uzbekistan our efforts ran into to Russian influence and desire to hold onto their "near-abroad". Admittedly, trying to form human rights respecting governments while these forces still exist isn't working either.

  8. Hey Joe Settler, I knew what that link was to the moment I saw It's humorous, accurate, and sad at the same time.