“The next American president will inherit many foreign policy challenges, but surely one of the biggest will be the cold war,” writes Tom Friedman in this morning’s New York Times. “Yes, the next president is going to be a cold-war president-but this cold war is with Iran.”
Clearly the Iranians see it as Friedman does. To support his cold war thesis, he cites a Sunday editorial from Kayhan, an Iranian daily: “In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides: Iran and the United States.” Yet just because Tehran sees us as its principal adversary does not mean that we have to view Tehran as ours. And I believe that we should not. After all, Friedman has violated Oscar Wilde’s first rule of international relations: “A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”
Once a nation chooses its enemy, it inevitably selects its friends. If Iran were the Soviet Union, then we would naturally side with Tehran’s adversaries, the generally autocratic and corrupt Sunni Arab states. Indeed, Friedman lists them as our allies in his “cold war.” This makes perfect sense if the United States were, like England once was, just another offshore balancer.
Yet America is more than one of those. If there is any justification for us to exercise power beyond our borders, it is because we stand for a set of important principles. Because Iranian leaders oppose all that Americans believe-representative governance and free markets, for instance-they are by definition our foes.
And to defend our principles we should avoid the unsavory bargains that nations tend to make when they see themselves involved in global existential struggles. Nothing undermines us more than failure to adhere to what we believe. We can achieve short-term objectives with cynical arrangements-like supporting the Shah, for example-but we usually end up creating more problems than we solve.
Yes, we should oppose Iran today. But we can do that best when it is in the context of an effort to defend values and international norms. The goal for “Team America,” as Friedman calls us, is not to prevail over “Iran.” It is to establish a just and peaceful international system-with a free and democratic Iran as a part of it.