Realism

Realism

George Packer has written that rare thing: a thoughtful, serious, and interesting post with which I almost completely disagree. It’s on the tension between realism and idealism as manifested in the Obama administration’s response to Iran. I start disagreeing here:

“For eight years, George W. Bush maintained that there was no tension, let alone contradiction, between “our interests and our values.” The result of this simplistic thinking was to turn American foreign policy into a sustained exercise in hypocrisy and double standards: we declared ourselves the world’s guarantor of freedom, while ignoring or explaining away Mubarak’s repression in Egypt, the Central Asian dictatorships that gave us basing rights, and our own misdeeds and misbegotten policies in the war on terror. We told struggling democrats across the globe that we were on their side, raising their hopes only to disappoint them, while refusing on principle to take the necessary steps toward negotiating with odious regimes like Ahmadinejad’s in Tehran. Bush’s soaring second Inaugural in defense of freedom everywhere turned out to be an exercise in moral narcissism: it made the Administration sound righteous while doing precious little to advance rights. By the time Bush left office, we had the worst of all outcomes: a policy that paralyzed American diplomacy, crippled the pursuit of our own interests, offered a token support for human rights only where we saw fit, and earned the world’s cynicism and scorn.”

I agree with Packer’s description of Bush’s foreign policy; I’d add our failure to stick up for the democracy in Lebanon, and our decision first to force an election in the Palestinian territories and then to punish the Palestinians when they voted for the wrong people. But I don’t think that this comes from thinking that “that there was no tension, let alone contradiction, between ‘our interests and our values.'” On the contrary: I think that conflicts between our overall interests and our values are rather rare, if you take a long enough view, and if you resist the temptation to identify America’s interests with, say, those of the United Fruit Company.

Dictators come and go, but the people of a country remains, and while we might forget our various interventions in their affairs, they often have long memories, as we would if the situation were reversed. For this reason, I think there ought to be a presumption that siding with a country’s people, as opposed to its dictators, is in our interests, and an extremely strong presumption against undermining democratically elected governments. Likewise, there ought to be a presumption that we should deal fairly and transparently with other countries: again, people tend to remember these things.

These presumptions would certainly have served us well in Iran, Guatemala, and a whole host of other countries where we have pursued some short-term advantage and paid a long-term price. It would plainly have been better for the people in those countries. And it would have been in accordance with our values.

Packer then argues that Obama is tilting foreign policy back from Bush’s “idealism” to “realism”, but that in the case of Iran, he risks taking this too far:

“I understand that the Administration wants to let the chaos in Iran play itself out without committing to a position that might be rendered hollow by events. I understand and agree with its continued insistence on pursuing a policy of negotiation that’s in America’s interest. I understand that this head-on collision between interests and values is not at all easy to navigate. But “realism” should no more be an ideological fetish under Obama than “freedom” was under Bush. (…)

With riot police and armed militiamen beating and, in a few reported cases, killing unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Iran’s cities, for the Obama Administration to continue parsing equivocal phrases serves no purpose other than to make it look feckless. Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality — that you know the difference between decency and barbarism when both are on display for the whole world to see. A stronger American stand — taken, as much as possible, in concert with European countries and through multilateral organizations — would do more to improve America’s negotiating position than weaken it. Acknowledging the compelling voices of the desperate young Iranians who, after all, only want their votes counted, would not deep-six the possibility of American-Iranian talks. Ahmadinejad and his partners in the clerical-military establishment will talk to us exactly when and if they think it’s in their interest. Right now, they don’t appear to. And the tens of millions of Iranians who voted for change and are the long-term future of that country will always remember what America said and did when they put their lives on the line for their values.”

The crucial assumption here is that our values imply that Obama should speak out. I don’t think that they do. I think that we ought to do whatever stands the best chance of helping Iran achieve full democracy. And it’s not at all obvious to me that that means speaking out. Offhand, I would have thought that speaking out in favor of the protestors would be about as good an idea as Britain’s endorsing its favored candidate in our Presidential election in 1808, which is to say: it would be very, very unlikely to help its intended beneficiary.

I agree with Spencer Ackerman: (emphasis added)

“What’s missing here is an effort at determining what the Iranian dissenters want from the Obama administration. The fact that it’s not clear what the answer to that question is itself serves as a powerful indicator that the protest movement is first and foremost concerned about handling this on its own. As best I can tell from NIAC and from Twitter and from talking with Iranian human-rights advocates in the U.S., the dissenters want the Obama administration to refuse to recognize the Ahmadinejad’s claims of victory; to express concern for the safety of the protesters; and then to get out of the way. (…)

It’s emotionally unsatisfying not to proclaim unequivocal support for the protesters. But the truer measure of support, as Trita Parsi told me, is to follow their lead. Moussavi, for instance, has not issued any statement about what he wants the international community to do. If the protesters begin calling for a more direct American response, then that really will have to compel the administration to reconsider its position. But until then, with so many lives at stake, the administration can’t afford to take a stance just because it makes Americans feel just and righteous.”

Scott Eric Kaufman (h/t Spencer) relays this conversation with an Iranian student whose brother is in Iran:

“When my student bemoaned the cautiousness of Obama administration’s statements, his brother confirmed one aspect of Spencer Ackerman’s account of the administration’s behavior, saying that government forces are already accusing protesters of collaborating with the U.S., and that protesters are actually worried that Obama will make an explicit show of support, as that would restore some credibility to what the government has said about the election and, more importantly, could undermine a reform coalition in which some factions are none-too-fond of America.”

Realism involves looking hard at the world as it is, and not doing things just because they make you feel good. In this case, if coming out strongly in favor of the protesters would strengthen Ahmedinejad’s hand, then we should absolutely not do it, however strongly we might be tempted.

This is not about us, and we should not make it about us.