Between Idealism And Realism In Iran

by Peter Scoblic | June 16, 2009

Peter Scoblic is the executive editor of The New Republic and the author of U.S. vs. Them, which is now out in paperback.

Like my colleagues, I am rapt by the sight of the Iranian protests. In fact, listening to NPR's coverage from Tehran this morning, I found myself rapt by the sound of the protests, the kind of roar that only a stadium-sized group of people can produce. It's an inspiring moment in Iranian politics. But I think the fact that Richard is surprised and impressed by the breadth of American support for the protesters betrays a misunderstanding of the differences between idealists and their critics--differences that I think are both more subtle and more stark than he realizes.

For one thing, I don't accept the suggestion that if one is not an idealist, one is necessarily a cold-blooded realist. Although there are certainly those who believe that the internal affairs of other countries are irrelevant or unimportant, it is possible to care about human rights while questioning America's ability to influence the internal affairs of other countries and while doubting that our values and our interests are always synonymous. The United States has other priorities as well. Thus one can be skeptical of the efficacy and wisdom of diplomatic and military pressure in the name of human rights without being amoral. Moreover, although realism may be "cold," its ideological opposite, which puts the nature of regimes at the center of our foreign policy, is even more problematic. In this view, one espoused chiefly by conservatives and neoconservatives, the fact that a regime is good or evil becomes not simply a moral observation but a strategic guide. Idealism's concern with regimes, in other words, can rapidly deteriorate into a dangerous Manichaeism.

Take, for example, John McCain, whose stalwart support for Georgia last year Richard cites favorably. As John Judis has pointed out, McCain's assertion that "we are all Georgians" was not simply a statement of solidarity with a people, it was a suggestion (backed by McCain's support for Georgian admission to NATO), that our strategic interests read: our willingness to fight a war-line up with those of the government in Tbilisi. That is a questionable assertion and a serious commitment. McCain's ostensible "idealism" has also led him to deride talks with North Korea as "appeasement" and to scoff at the idea of engagement with Iran, even though diplomacy is really our only chance, however thin, at nuclear rollback. Indeed, the moral allure of Manichaeism frequently breaks down at the level of action. When Jake Tapper asked McCain what would happen in Iran, he blandly (and unconvincingly) insisted that "if we are steadfast eventually the Iranian people will prevail."

I think it is possible to have a foreign policy that harbors no illusions about the nature of enemy regimes, but that recognizes our limited capacity to change those regimes and therefore our need to engage them. I think it is possible to have a moral foreign policy that is not moralist. But how, exactly, do we pursue our idealist instincts without sabotaging the security of the United States and our allies? How can we be appropriately self-interested without being utterly selfish? These are the questions we're wrestling with right now. At first glance, the answers may seem to differ only in balance and degree. (Does one speak loudly and decry the evil of the mullah-cracy in order to support the protestors, or does one hold back, recognizing that interference could backfire not only against Mousavi's backers but against American interests more broadly?) But these are not simply tactical questions, as Richard writes, they are the manifestations of fundamentally different worldviews, which is to say they represent different assessments of our strategic priorities and our capabilities.

On these difficult questions, I think the Obama administration has come down in the right place thus far. Supporting a fair election aligns the United States with those in the streets while holding the Iranian government to the standards it claims to uphold. It preserves our ability to interact with either a Mousavi or an Ahmadinejad government while simultaneously tightening our bond with the Europeans, who have voiced their distress at the election and whose cooperation we need to pressure Iran to halt its uranium program. This approach may be less satisfying than full-throated support for the "liberals," by which I think Richard means those who would overthrow the regime. (It is possible, after all, that Ahmadinejad did win the election). But it allows us to do the right thing while also doing the smart thing.

--Peter Scoblic

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