Differentiating Friends From Foes

Determining who wins and who loses may be more a matter of how a policy is implemented than what the policy is or, certainly, who is advocating that policy. The international contest over Palestine is a case in point, made only more complicated by the context of Iran’s challenge to the U.S.-centric global political order. The failure of policymakers to understand these subtleties costs much wasted blood and treasure.

In Foreign Policy Winners and Losers, I described a simple way to evaluate any specific foreign policy action by discriminating between who wins and who loses as a result of that action. In moral terms, the best policy is one in which we all win; the worst in which just one state (or, worse, one group or individual) wins. This would seem to be a straightforward way to clarify the highly distorted and confused debate that currently undermines national security by virtually precluding the development of a consistent and beneficial foreign policy. It would seem to facilitate distinguishing, for example, between policies that help the elite rather than the society and would seem to expose such fallacies as claiming violence by a friend is OK while violence by an enemy is bad.

But all is of course not so simple. Here’s a challenge for this method that cuts to the core of contemporary foreign policy debate:

How are we to rank on the Continuum of International Behavior the behavior of a system challenger?

Tehran presents itself today as the champion challenger to the U.S.-centric global political system, and Washington seems to concur. The degree to which either side may be pretending is hard to determine, since Washington refuses to offer Tehran the option of being accepted as an equal and respected but independent player, while Tehran’s “challenge” is so encompassed in rhetorical smoke that it can be difficult to discern much policy fire. Does Tehran want nuclear arms or does it just want the U.S. to offer it a respectful hearing and a guarantee of security and, of course, recognition that it has the sameĀ  right to nuclear arms that is exercised by Israel? Does Washington provoke Iran out of incompetence, slavish obedience to the Israeli right, or because Washington sees the uses of having an enemy and just can’t find a more imposing one, at the moment, than the military and ideological midget Iran?

Whatever the degree of sincerity on either side, both feed the image of Iran as the giant-killer, regardless of how unrealistic that image may be. Beyond that, however, disagreement is rife: whatever one side terms “required,” the other terms “unacceptable.” The endless talking of each side past the other merely serves to raise tensions and blind both observers and participants. If the policies of each side could be evaluated fairly, a needless war even more mutually disastrous than that imposed on Iraq by the U.S. might be avoided. The Continuum of International Behavior would seem to constitute a reasonable candidate tool for this purpose, except that evaluating winners and losers resulting from a policy with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the international political system is a bit harder than with a typical policy aiming at some narrow, short-term goal.

So, limiting the discussion for the moment to Iran’s policies, two problems immediately present themselves:

  1. Determining winners and losers of the specific policy;
  2. Deciding whether or not the real goal of the policy is to further Iran’s presumed goal of founding a new global political order.

Consider Tehran’s campaign in support of justice for Palestine. If Iran achieved its stated goal of justice for Palestinians, regional anti-Israeli sentiment would decline, benefiting Israeli society, but the decline in tension would cause the Israeli right to lose votes and perhaps result in a fundamental shift back toward a polity ruled by those favoring democracy, a good-neighbor policy, racial and religious equality. The losers would be the ruling rightwingers and in particular Jewish fundamentalists and Israeli expansionists. Israelis favoring democracy would win; those favoring a garrison state would lose.

And what about Iran? If Tehran received the credit for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, Tehran would surely gain regional status, so over the short term, Tehran would win and more specifically Ahmadinejad would win. But if a U.S., European, or Turkish-led movement (much less concessions voluntarily offered by Israel itself) were credited with providing justice to Palestinians, Iran not gain, while those credited with bringing justice would. Moreover, as regional tensions declined, Tehran would lose its bully pulpit, and Iran’s influence in the Levant would decline. For Iranian society, as opposed to the current Tehran regime, the issue is different; resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a way that minimized Iranian influence and activity in the Levant would go far toward ending the U.S./Israeli security threat to Iran.

In sum, the current Tehran regime benefits from espousing Palestinian independence but would be a big loser if Palestinians actually gained independence, as long as Iran did not receive the credit in regional eyes. Rather than opposing everything Tehran wants, Washington would serve its interests better by judging issues on their merits and supporting issues of common interest to all in the hopes of getting some of the credit.

At least two lessons follow. First, crudely, it is not about who advocates a policy but who gets credit for implementing it. Opposing a good policy because your antagonist thought of it first only ends up making you look churlish and giving your opponent a free ride.

Second, our allies are no more unitary actors than our enemies. Even in Washington, most policy-makers seem now to understand that enemy states may be ruling populations of perfectly normal and harmless people with whom the U.S. could potentially cooperate, but these same policy-makers remain almost totally incapable of seeing that the same principle applies to allies. An Israeli politician widely recognized in Israel as having racist or fascist tendencies does not automatically become America’s friend just by winning office. An Israeli politician widely recognized in Israel as pursuing expansionist policies that endanger Israeli national security will also endanger U.S. national security. Such Israeli politicians will be winners with policies that leave the U.S. the loser. Just as everyone in an adversarial state is not an enemy, everyone in an allied state is not a friend.

All the involved societies benefit from providing justice to Palestinians: a cancer infecting every society is removed. In each involved country special interests exploiting the tensions flowing from the dispute will be the losers if Palestinian justice is achieved. But it is not that simple. This discussion began with the premise that Tehran wants to overthrow the U.S.-centric global political order. Without judging who might be the winners and losers, if Washington wants to avoid that outcome, it should seek lower tensions in the Levant by addressing Palestinian concerns. Rather than allowing Tehran to parade as the champion of Arab justice, Washington should lead the way, leave Tehran to choose whether to follow or not, and gain the credit for accomplishing something in the interest of all who desire a secure and cooperative international environment. Achieving justice for Palestinians per se does not tell you who the winners and losers are; the determination of who wins and who loses depends on how justice for Palestinians is achieved.

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