Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004
 
The Douthat-Ledeen contretemps continues!

I think Douthat is by far getting the better of the exchange, but I should be clear what that means. Ledeen argues by trotting out general principles that it seems peevish to disagree with. And, indeed, I don't disagree with them. John Quincy Adams said that America, while the "well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all" is "the champion and vindicator only of her own." I turned that famous phrase around in the conclusion to the convention acceptance speech I wrote (in a fit of presumption) for President Bush back in August, as follows: "America is the custodian only of our own freedom. But we are, and we must be, the friend of freedom everywhere." So I'm on-board with America's mission in the world and so forth.

But that is not the end of the argument, and Ledeen seems to think it is. Russia had a democratic revolution - an inspiring one remarkably free of bloodshed. A bit more than a decade later, she seems to be descending back into tyranny. India has been a democracy since independence, a vibrant and important one, and one that, arguably, refutes the contention of some that poor countries cannot be successful democracies. But India has also fought a series of wars with neighboring Pakistan as well as a war with China, and was the first third-world country to become a nuclear power. And those wars were not fought because of some inevitable conflict between freedom and tyranny; they were fought over territory and national interest. (For that matter, France and Prussia were both arguably fairly democratic and certainly highly developed when they fought their wars in 1870 and 1914-1918.)

Democracies can vote for belligerent politics. The Palestinian Arabs recently had fairly free elections, and 40% of the vote went to Hamas. Now, the Iranians, if allowed to vote freely, are very unlikely to vote for Islamist parties. But who's to say they won't vote for Persian ultra-nationalism? Who's to say the great challenge of the years 2015-2025 won't be a Turkish-Iranian rivalry for influence across Central Asia - a region previously dominated by Russia (which is now in catastrophic decline) and whose peoples are mostly either of Persian or Turkic origin? Again: I'm not making an argument why democracy in Iran would be bad; I'm making an argument why democracy in Iran is not a cure-all.

I'll also note that in addition to India, France and Israel are two democracies that became nuclear powers because they felt that nuclearization was in the national interest. And Iranian opponents of the regime have not attacked the nuclear question; if anything, they have supported the idea of a nuclear Iran. I quote Franklin Foer in his piece on neocon dissention over Iran:
[E]ven longtime opponents of the regime have defended Tehran's atomic
ambitions. Ardeshir Zahedi, who served as a foreign minister under the Shah,
argued earlier this year in The Wall Street Journal that there's nothing
inherently wrong with an Iranian bomb: "A peaceful Iran with no ambitions to
export an ideology or seek regional hegemony would be no more threatening than
Britain, which also has a nuclear arsenal." And some longtime advocates of
republican government in Iran have gone so far as to applaud the mullahs for
protecting the country's sovereign right to develop a nuclear program.

This is what Ledeen doesn't want to engage with: the fact that while a democratic Iran would be better than what we're facing right now, there's no reason to believe that a democratic Iran would necessarily be an American ally or that it would cease to pursue nuclear weapons. Democracy in Iran would be a good thing. But it would not solve all our problems - and pursuing that aim might have trade-offs with other policies that might be more urgent. That is a legitimate argument and must be addressed.

As for Douthat's remark about the Iranians not being "our people" - I think Douthat's follow-up is a bit disingenuous, but I also think he was right the first time. Douthat did not just mean that America is fundamentally responsible for the welfare of its own citizens, not for people in other countries. He does believe that, I'm sure, but that wasn't what he meant by the statement that the Iranians are not "our people." Rather, he meant some combination of the following two things: (1) Iran's national interests may conflict in important ways with America's, so we shouldn't assume that even a post-revolutionary Iran will be all buddy-buddy with us; and (2) Iran is not part of Western civilization, and so it is not unreasonable to assume that a primary motivation behind the Orange Revolution in Ukraine - the desire to join (or re-join) the West - may not really be operative in Iran.

Both of these objections to the Ledeen program strike me as salient. Iran's rivals in the region include Pakistan (a nuclear power), Russia (a nuclear power), Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel (a nuclear power) and Turkey. While American embrace has done a good job of moderating and smothering the rivalries between Greece and Turkey, or between South Korea and Japan, embracing the entire Middle East is another order altogether.

And the business about not being part of the West is important as well. Japan is a very special case (Turkey is another) of a non-Western country that actively embraced the ambition to join the West. Russia has announced that ambition several times, and has always fallen back. Maybe this time it will make it; maybe not. I'm hopeful, but no longer optimistic. Turkey is still something of an open question as well, though I remain quite optimistic, and more so rather than less so because of the emergence of the AKP. And Japan, remember, is the only country to have suffered an attack with atomic weapons, and the United States the only country to have conquered Japan, so there are profound reasons for its exceptionalism entirely apart from any unique characteristics of Japanese civilization.

I asked this question of Daniel Pipes once, and didn't get an adequate answer. In the Cold War, our opponents, to a considerable extent, wanted to become like us, and this was an important factor in the end-game of that conflict. Reagan's line, remember, was "tear down this wall" - let Europe be whole again. The people who rose up in Gdansk and Berlin and Budapest and Prague were rising up to declare that they were part of Europe and the West; to a considerable extent, Boris Yeltsin and his supporters were declaring the same thing, and Victor Yuschenko and his supporters are certainly declaring the same thing. In our current war, we face peoples who do not, fundamentally, want to be like us. They may want to learn from us, accommodate us, teach us, surpass us, convert us or destroy us. But they do not, generally, want to become us. The Kurds of Iraq, some of our best friends in the region, do not want to order their society along American - or Western - lines. That is an enormous difference from the Cold War, where the bulk of the people of Hungary and East Germany and Poland and Latvia who thought about such things - and certainly the bulk of those who actively opposed the Communist regimes - basically wanted to become just like the people of France and West Germany and Britain and Belgium (or an idealized notion of what those people were like, or had been like once, or what-have-you), and order their societies similarly. That difference implies a necessary change of strategy.

Again, I want to stress, I'm not talking about fundamental principles here. I don't think only Western peoples can "do" democracy. I don't think Western Civilization lacks universal aspirations or is not universally applicable. Many non-Greeks became Hellenists and many non-Romans became citizens - and many non-Western countries have, and hopefully more will, become liberal democracies. But first principles are not enough to know about reality. And the reality is: Iran is not part of the West; most Iranians don't want to become Western; and this probably means that the analogy to Ukraine has problems.

I think Ledeen is probably right that a democratic Iran would not harbor al Qaeda and would probably drop support for Hezbollah and become more neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Iranians would not like Israel, but they also don't like Arabs. I think he's wrong in assuming the country would abandon its nuclear program or that it would necessarily seek an alliance with the United States.

But the biggest problem with the whole debate is that it's focused on only one aspect of Douthat's critique - the question of what a post-revolutionary Iran would be like. The much more important aspect of the critique is: how do we get there? There are very good questions about how weak the regime really is and whether the kinds of measures proposed by Ledeen would do anything substantial to bring about his desired outcome. Douthat is not the only one raising these questions. Ledeen is not really answering them - and he's consistent in not answering them. That should not inspire confidence in anything Ledeen says on the subject.

It is very disappointing to me that so many in the NRO camp prefer boosterism to sober analysis. It should not be necessary for everyone who writes on the subject to, over and over again, assure everyone that they believe in democracy and the brotherhood of man, that they are not racists, that they believe in the power of freedom to change the world, etc., etc. before they are allowed to raise any objection to either tactics or strategy in our war. I'm going to propose a syllogism: any course of action that follows directly from first principles is almost certainly wrong. We need facts, and we need to hear serious responses to critiques rather than a re-statement of said first principles as if that settled everything.