If Washington were willing to recognize that Iranians have fear of nuclear powers who threaten them, want to be treated with honor, and have the same set of interests that all other countries have, then Washington would be well on the way toward devising a successful policy toward Iran.
Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs Dempsey gave a brilliant one sentence “International Relations 101” to a bunch of bewildered Congresspeople in late February in a pointed remark about Iran:
I heartily congratulate the Obama Administration for what may be the most intelligent soundbite on foreign policy heard this century from a Washington official. Perhaps there is hope after all.
But here’s the puzzle: if the Administration understands that all states make strategy in reaction to “fear, honor, and interests,” then why does Washington persist in ignoring these three factors in formulating its policy toward Iran?
Fear. Iran has faced daily threats of nuclear attack from Israel and the U.S. for a decade. Not only do various officials continuously make outrageous verbal threats of nuclear attack on non-nuclear Iran, but the disposition of U.S. and Israeli forces backs up those threats with patently aggressive postures. No rational Iranian can fail to wish for some means of defending his homeland.
Honor. Few and far between are the regimes that have been in power for three decades in a major state without being diplomatically recognized by the U.S. Instead of apologizing for overthrowing Iran’s peaceful democratic movement in the early 1950s, supporting a right-wing police state under the Shah, and helping Saddam Hussein make war against Iran for eight indescribably bloody years, Washington dishonors the Islamic Republic by pretending it does not merit the near-automatic granting of diplomatic recognition that goes to any regime capable of enforcing its will over its territory.
Interests. Iran has an “interest” in self-defense, so a Washington hoping to be taken as sincere should distinguish between, say, Russian ground-to-air self-defense missiles and Iranian future possession of nuclear bombs. Iran has an “interest” in the removal of extremely powerful foreign armies from the states on its borders, so Washington should be discussing and offering to coordinate the process of its military withdrawal from the region with Tehran. Tehran has an “interest” in participating normally in international trade, so Washington should make crystal clear that the immediate termination of all sanctions is “on the table,” and solely at the price of total nuclear transparency. Tehran has an “interest” in playing a role in regional affairs commensurate with its capabilities, and Washington should also make it crystal clear that all the noise about Iran’s nuclear potential is in no way an excuse to re-colonize Iran or change its regime.
Fear. Honor. Interests. Now make policy.
U.S. foreign policy since the beginning of the 21st century has been a strategy of military empire, with results that arrogant Washington politicians might not have been able to foresee but that Marcus Aurelius certainly would have had something to say about. Offering the obvious alternative–peace, compromise, searching for positive-sum outcomes–is easy to do, but what, exactly, might such a grand strategy be built of?
Grand strategy is composed of a coordinated set of policies. Faced with Hitler or Attila, one naturally turns to violence because destruction appears the only alternative. Fortunately, no such threat is even remotely visible on the political horizon, so the U.S. has choices. Counterintuitively, however, the U.S. has restricted itself since 9/11 (with the exception of some fine words, e.g., in Cairo) to a grand strategy of military empire, arbitrarily denying to itself a range of powerful foreign policy tools that, in the hands of a skillful superpower, can have impressive effectiveness.
The ineffectiveness of brute military force for creating a new world of long-term benefit to American society has in barely a decade been made glaringly clear. Iraq and Lebanon are in Iran’s orbit, Somalia a basket case, Afghanistan a looming U.S. defeat, and Pakistan a crisis very visible on the horizon. Turkey is alienated, and Israeli democracy under domestic attack. The U.S. should seize the opportunity to come up with a more effective grand strategy than the combination of invasion, drone bombings, and blatant military threats backing up economic sanctions to force adversaries to surrender in return for the right to kneel at the “negotiating” table.
Devising an alternative grand strategy is not simple, however, for it consists of an infinite array of distinct policies that must be coordinated so that they work toward the same goal. Otherwise, instead of strategy, one has nothing but a mess, and a mess is what the U.S. already has. Implementing such a grand strategy will be even more difficult than designing it, especially now that U.S. corporations are “people” and U.S. elections up for sale. But a good first step is to identify the specific policies that such a new grand strategy would need to include, and there are more than a few that come readily to mind.
|Potential for U.S.-Iranian Cooperation on Afghanistan|
It must surely be obvious that walking away from Afghanistan would simply be to repeat past errors and lay the groundwork for the roosting of more chickens. Yet endless self-defeating and self-degrading violence, from drone attacks on civilians to torture of prisoners to outright American terrorism, is not the only choice. Muslim countries from Turkey to Iran to Saudi Arabia stand ready to make a contribution to Afghanistan, and the U.S. should encourage global Muslim activism in support of Afghan reform, stability, and development, an umbrella that could provide cover for an honorable U.S. military withdrawal.
A Pakistani policy shift could follow a similar line, but focusing on encouraging and empowering Pakistani civil society to lead the defense of its democracy with global Muslims in second place and the U.S. a distant but supportive third. Once again, every effort should be made to terminate the U.S. military involvement in Pakistani domestic affairs as fast as possible.
|Positive Sum: Cooperation for Transparency|
Iran policy follows naturally from this, for a key to developing a positive-sum relationship with Pakistan is supporting its desperate need for energy imports, which must include supporting its long-planned pipeline to import Iranian gas. Why would the U.S. want to do this? Simply put, encouraging countries to share resources via an expensive physical infrastructure automatically entices them to pursue moderate foreign policies: war is hard on infrastructure. The implication of U.S. support would obviously be that the U.S. was finally willing to share the world with an Iran that wants its own independent place on the world stage. The world has been shown to be too small to support a rampaging, militant U.S. but is surely big enough to include a moderate U.S. and an independent but cautious Iran. Iran talks tough (sort of like a Santorum) but acts cautiously. A profitable pipeline would help it to see the utility of less tough talk and more caution. In the context of a lucrative pipeline and a sincere U.S. invitation to put “all options” on the negotiating table, Iranian national security thinkers like Ali Larijani would be able to make more persuasive arguments for a policy of nuclear transparency, and that fake issue–promoted in Tel Aviv to cover up Israel’s West Bank land grab and in Washington as proxy for opposing Iran’s right to challenge the U.S.-centric global political system–would soon evaporate.
Of the many essential components in a positive-sum grand strategy, one of the most important would be U.S. policy toward Turkey, for Turkey represents the best hope the U.S. has for seeing the emergence of a moderate Muslim Mideast. It will require some hard swallowing of pride on the Potomac, however, just as a positive-sum Iran policy must encompass, indeed be based on, the recognition that Iran has a right to speak out in opposition to a U.S.-centric global political system, a rational Turkey policy must be based on the recognition that Turkey’s advocacy of a moderate Islamic activism independent of the U.S. is good for the U.S.
Analogous policy reforms based on the same principles would guide policy toward the rest of the world. The U.S. would have to consider European views before asserting its right to make unilateral decisions concerning such theoretically international institutions as the World Bank, for example. And the analogy between policy shifts toward the Muslim world and Latin America are so tight that one could replace words like “Turkey” and “Iran” with “Brazil” and “Venezuela” in the above paragraphs and change almost literally nothing else at all and end up with vastly improved policies.
The real obstacle to such a transformation of the U.S. role in the world is not “the world,” messy as the place is. The real obstacle lies at home. The implementation of a positive-sum grand strategy simple is not going to happen without a fundamental strengthening of American democracy; abolition of the pernicious nonsense of a corporation being a person; and the elimination of “too big to fail, too big to manage, too big to control” investment gambling houses. In short, politicians do not just have to wash the venom of hubris out of their veins but make a fundamental choice to protect our weakening democracy against the rising corporatist state.
I would not bet my mortgage on this happening any time soon, but perhaps laying out these policies will make it obvious how logical and beneficial a positive-sum grand strategy could be.