The “Israel Lobby”
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld [“Dual Loyalty and the ‘Israel Lobby,’” November 2006] is right; Zionists should not be accused of “dual loyalty.” Zionists, by definition, have loyalty to Zion (Israel). This means that they are disloyal or traitors to the United States. And don’t tell me that Israeli interests and principles always and forever coincide with those of the United States. How dare you be indignant at the charge of “dual loyalty.” Zionists are not loyal to the U.S. at all!
To the Editor:
Debates in America about our special relationship with Israel, when they happen, follow a depressingly familiar ritual. A critic of Israel, convinced that free discussion of America’s support for the Jewish state is taboo, will vent his frustration in a long harangue that begins with commonplaces, rises into matters worth considering, and then disappears into fantasy land. Alarms sound, and Israel’s American defenders respond not only by criticizing the critic but by making an example of him, raising the specter of anti-Semitism, old or “new.”
Eventually the affaire dies out, but everyone is satisfied. Israel’s critic feels vindicated by the outsized response, which confirms “what we all know” about Jewish power; his adversaries congratulate themselves on slaying the dragon, confirming their narcissistic image of American Jewry as Israel’s savior. And through it all no one has mentioned real, existing Israel or its real, existing problems—which are also America’s problems.
It is a pity that in his article on the controversy surrounding John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s paper, “The Israel Lobby,” Gabriel Schoenfeld chose to participate in this scripted ritual rather than using the occasion to shift the discussion in a more productive direction. For there are certain points on which Mearsheimer and Walt are correct, beginning with their claim that in the current world situation Israel has become a “strategic liability” to the United States.
America’s support for Israel’s existence and safety is a strategic burden—and a moral badge of honor. Any “realism” that does not recognize the moral fact is not realistic; any moral defense of support for Israel that does not recognize and weigh the burden in public is eventually doomed to irrelevance. Mearsheimer and Walt’s treatment of the moral case is, as Mr. Schoenfeld ably demonstrates, twisted and tendentious. But he never mentions the strategic problem, leaving the impression that he either does not think there is one or feels it should not be addressed openly.
It will not have escaped the notice of Commentary’s readers that over the past twenty years the strategic and moral situation in the Middle East has changed so drastically that most of our old ideas about America’s support for Israel no longer apply. The end of the cold war, the spread of radical Islamism, the unconscionable entrenchment of Israel’s West Bank settlements, the death of Yasir Arafat and the rise of Hamas, the waves of suicide bombings, the slow disintegration of the Labor and Likud parties, the collapse of Palestinian society in the territories, the demoralization of the IDF due to the occupation—it is a long list. Add to it all the shock of 9/11 and blowback from the disastrous war in Iraq, and it is clear how much fresh thinking America needs about its relationship with Israel.
Had Mearsheimer and Walt limited themselves to strategic matters and treated them impartially, they might have made a small contribution, since these are not the terms in which U.S. policy toward Israel is currently discussed. But if they will not confront the issue with directness and foresight, American supporters of Israel and their organizations should.
The moral case for supporting Israel is, in my view, a good one, but it is not a simple one. It requires educating people about the passions dominating the region, the internal dynamics of Israeli and Arab politics, and the historical record, however contested it may be. It also requires a recognition that ultimately Israel’s future is in its own hands and that there is only so much the U.S. can and should do for it, given America’s own strategic interests. America’s relationship with Israel is indeed special, but the problems we jointly face are perfectly normal and need to be discussed in a normal way, frequently and in public.
Unfortunately, that does not always seem to be the view of the organizations, large and small, that make up what Mearsheimer and Walt call the “Israel Lobby.” Reading their publications and observing their activities, one has the impression they are on automatic pilot, fighting yesterday’s battles, resuscitating old fears, and avoiding an honest confrontation with the situation we—the U.S. and Israel—now face. They are adept at identifying Israel’s “friends” and “enemies,” yet incompetent at explaining what friendship might require at the present time.
As a result, American Jewry itself seems oddly disconnected from the realities that Israelis themselves are very conscious of and discuss with an admirable frankness and seriousness. This leaves many American Jews prey to the self-appointed demagogues who claim, for example, that our universities are incubators of anti-Semitism, that campuses need to be “watched” and professors monitored, and that subtle pressure needs to be applied to make it difficult for people to speak their minds.
For demagogues like these, Mearsheimer and Walt have been a godsend, since (as Mr. Schoenfeld points out) they make old insinuations that are genuinely alarming. But they are not the problem. A reckoning is approaching in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and it is important that Israel’s American supporters be there with lucid contributions based on a realistic assessment of America’s strategic interests and Israel’s genuine condition and actions.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s article has proved a real diversion from this work, since it has put Jewish organizations and writers into the comfortable default mode of self-defense. It is too bad that Gabriel Schoenfeld chose to meet them at this level rather than confronting the legitimate strategic issue they also raise. But then, when it comes to normalizing our thinking about American-Israeli relations, it seems we never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
University of Chicago
To the Editor:
In their paper on the “Israel Lobby,” John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt inadvertently advance two radical new ideas. One is that for the first time in history, a small country (Israel), through its lobbies in the power centers of the empire (America), has taken hostage the entire foreign policy of the colossus, and forced it consistently to act against its own national interest. The second notion is that Americans have lost their capacity to act on the First Amendment’s promise about the right of the people “to petition the government.”
These misconceived assumptions might help explain why, at a discussion devoted to their paper held at Cooper Union in New York this past fall, even those panelists who spoke in favor of it were not exactly comfortable with its core argument. Rashid Khalidi of Columbia, for example, had important things to say about America’s political culture and about the excessive power of the “Israel Lobby.” But, serious scholar that he is, he could not endorse a single-cause explanation for America’s misfortunes in the Middle East. In line with many of Mearsheimer and Walt’s critics from the Left, he challenged the simplistic notion that America’s policy in the Middle East is dictated by the “Lobby.”
I have been on record more than once warning against the convenient, obnoxious tendency (to which Gabriel Schoenfeld succumbs) to label any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. Criticizing Israel and its allies in Washington’s corridors of power, as Mearsheimer and Walt do, is not only perfectly legitimate but necessary. Moreover, I fully share their frustration at the unpardonable indifference of the Bush administration toward the plight of the Palestinians. But America’s disengagement, as it were, from its role as mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as its decision to invade Iraq, were not due to the influence of the “Israel Lobby.” The impetus for these policies is practically written into the genetic code of an administration driven by a sense of religious mission or “crusade” (to quote President Bush himself).
Bush’s policies might indeed appeal to the “Israel Lobby,” but it did not manufacture them. The administration has shown itself to be perfectly capable of adding more than one reprehensible chapter to history’s “march of follies” without the aid of the “Israel Lobby” or, for that matter, any other lobby.
Having given in to the idea that the “Lobby” is the moving force behind America’s Middle East policy, Mearsheimer and Walt were bound to end up absorbed by an obsession that slighted the interplay of factors that truly make up American foreign policy—strategic considerations, imperial ambitions, oil, the arms industry, corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton, ideology, and, last but by no means least, the political and intellectual profile of the President. Bush’s moral certitude and self-imposed divine mission makes utterly redundant the need for an “Israel Lobby” to teach him the political gospel it wants him to follow in the Middle East.
It has been remarked that anti-Semitism consists in hating the Jews beyond what is necessary. One might say that attributing disproportionate clout to the Jews in a way that scapegoats them for all the calamities that have befallen America in the Middle East and beyond might reflect that same dark creed. But, contrary to what Mr. Schoenfeld suggests, Mearsheimer and Walt are not anti-Semites; they are self-styled “realists” who are actually embarrassingly in-cognizant of the complex strategic equations in the region. Their sin lies in their deficient scholarship, not in their anti-Jewish bias. Their article’s flaws are such that they end up with a “wag the dog” theory that depicts the Jews as omnipotent and ubiquitous, and hence responsible for subverting America’s national interest.
Although their paper is replete with references to Jewish names and to “neocons,” Mearsheimer and Walt are careful not to speak of a “Jewish” lobby but of a “loose coalition” of pro-Israel groups. President George H.W. Bush was equally careful when he warned in 1991 of “a thousand lobbyists” working on Capitol Hill against his policies, but everyone understood he was talking about the “Jewish Lobby.” Eventually, though, he prevailed over its efforts. The overwhelming support in Congress for loan guarantees to Israel dissolved overnight, and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was dragged to the Madrid peace conference against his will. No lobby, however powerful, will stand against the resolute leadership of an American President.
Israel’s critics would better serve the cause of peace if they did not exonerate American politicians by laying the blame on the “Lobby.” The Middle East tragedy is the exclusive responsibility of the governments of the region—Israel included—and of America’s wrongheaded policies.
Shlomo Ben Ami
Toledo International Centre for Peace
To the Editor:
Gabriel Schoenfeld is to be commended for setting the record straight about the present agenda of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in its promotion of a paper on the “Israel Lobby,” but his historical account of American ambivalence about Israel and of perceptions of Jewish political power pulls too many punches. Maybe this is because he sees no good reason to attack people who are Israel’s friends today, whatever they may have thought about Israel yesterday. Or perhaps it is because so much of the history of things that lie “between the lines” does not get written when it happens and cannot be recaptured by someone who was not there.
I grew up in a political family of stout urban Democratic stock in Washington, D.C. Through my family I knew—and frequently did chores or wrote speeches for—leading legislators and lobbyists of all stripes from the 1950’s until the 1980’s. Mr. Schoenfeld’s charitable rendering of American attitudes to Israel and Jewish political influence during that time is utterly unfamiliar to me.
Regardless of what reporters or columnists for leading newspapers might have written in those days, at no time do I recall hearing anything favorable about Israel or Jewish political influence expressed at parties, barbecues, strategy sessions in the lobby of the May-flower hotel, K Street restaurant booths, or in the hallways and offices of the Capitol; quite the contrary. To be sure, politicians and lobbyists are species that survive better in the dark, and few were ever foolish enough to say in public what they regularly said about Israel and “the Jews” in private. And the last person they would have shared their thoughts with was someone who reported or wrote them down, anywhere.
The anti-Semitic animadversions of a Paul Findley or a Patrick J. Buchanan, then, are not the rare spawn that Mr. Schoenfeld seems to hope or believe they are. He goes further astraywhen he suggests that after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt somehow inoculated the American public against the “recurrence of 30’s-style anti-Semitism.” The fact is that the virusfled for only a short whileto the deeper recesses of the body politic and resurfaced with a vengeance well before the end of the war.
For a more candid and accurate account of American wartime and postwar animus against Jews, here and abroad, Mr. Schoenfeld and his readers would do well to consult Jews in the Mind of America, a book published some 40 years ago and regrettably still relevant. There they will discover that, during the war, widely published reports of mass killings of Jews in Europe caused no change whatsoever in the attitude of 80 percent of Americans toward Jews, and only 12 percent of Americans were moved to feel more sympathy for Jews after the Holocaust.
During the war, increasingly large segments of the American public, approaching 60 percent by June 1945, continued to feel that Jews had far too much power in this country. Anti-Semitic attitudes probably peaked right at the time of D-Day, when large numbers of Americans believed that Jews had gotten the country into the war in the first place, were unpatriotic, and were unwilling to be drafted or volunteer to fight. One could continue with a quick survey of American attitudes about Jews in general and Israel in particular during the Rosenberg, Hiss, and McCarthy era, but the point, I hope, has been made.
Putting aside the evident sympathy of the evangelical Right with the state of Israel today, Mr. Schoenfeld does not persuade me that that much has really changed in the past 50 years. One of the many wise lessons taught bye the late historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz was that, because so much anti-Semitism has fled outside, behind, or beneath our institutional structures, sociologists and pollsters will often miss it—but it is still very much with us.
I am sure Dawidowicz would have agreed that this is not a counsel of despair, but merely one of prudence. And I suspect she would have been a bit disappointed—to say the least—thatan editor of Commentarymight be unfamiliar with the research she didin her long and blessedly fruitful career.
J. P. Hannon
New York City
Gabriel Schoenfeld writes:
Mark Lilla faults me for attacking Mearsheimer and Walt’s paper on the “Israel Lobby” as anti-Semitic while missing an opportunity to discuss the genuinely important issue of America’s changing relationship with Israel. Their article, he says, “put Jewish organizations and writers into the comfortable default mode of self-defense,” and it “is too bad that Gabriel Schoenfeld chose to meet them at this level rather than confronting the legitimate strategic issue they . . . raise.”
Now this is interesting. For even as Mr. Lilla reproaches me for not launching an inquiry into the “strategic issue,” he dictates in advance the conclusion of any such inquiry. Without troubling to present a single piece of evidence, or to martial any analysis, he simply asserts as a settled fact that Israel is a strategic “liability” and a “burden” to the United States. Presumably, then, the only thing left for me to “confront” are the consequences of this alleged fact, not its inherent truth.
Perhaps this passes as a legitimate form of discourse at the University of Chicago, but elsewhere it is properly known as begging the question—an exercise in which Mr. Lilla follows faithfully in the footsteps of Mearsheimer and Walt, who reach the same conclusion by the same declaratory route. As it happens, however, the proposition is highly debatable. For anyone genuinely interested in an honest discussion of its merits, a forcefully argued essay by Martin Kramer, “The American Interest,” in the autumn 2006 Azure, is mandatory reading. Adhering throughout to the narrow “realist” terms employed by Mearsheimer and Walt, Kramer demonstrates incisively that, contrary to their claim, Israel in the post-cold-war era remains a major strategic asset to the United States, and indeed the very power that
underpins the pax Americana in the eastern Mediterranean [and that] has compelled Israel’s key Arab neighbors to reach peace with Israel and to enter the American orbit. . . . From a realist point of view, supporting Israel has been a low-cost way of keeping order in part of the Middle East, managed by the United States from offshore and without the commitment of any force. It is, simply, the ideal realist alliance.
Kramer contrasts the situation in the eastern Mediterranean to the one in the Persian Gulf, where the consistent difficulties faced by the U.S.
stem from the fact that it does not have an Israel equivalent there, and so it must massively deploy its own force at tremendous cost. Since no one in the Gulf is sure that the United States has the staying power to maintain such a presence over time, the Gulf keeps producing defiers of America, from Khomeini to Saddam to bin Laden to Ahmadinejad.
Of course, our tie with Israel has never been based on raw balance-of-power considerations alone. But Mr. Lilla’s rigid division of American interests into “strategic” and “moral” categories has him climbing a rickety intellectual scaffolding from which it is easy to slip off. In a world in which moral ideas and ideals are potent motivating agents of political behavior, “moral” and “strategic” are hardly discrete, let alone antipodal, categories; to regard them as such is to succumb to a mode of simplification that obscures more than it reveals and is, indeed, unrealistic in the extreme.
As for my declining to explore these questions in my article, I gladly plead guilty. As I tried to show, Mearsheimer and Walt are anything but proper interlocutors for any such rational discussion. Even Mr. Lilla is forced to concede as much when he suggests that I should have “shifted the discussion in a more productive direction”—in plainer English, that I should have pretended that Mearsheimer and Walt were mainly not engaged in peddling anti-Semitic slanders, or what Mr. Lilla daintily calls “old insinuations that are genuinely alarming.”
On this point, I find it remarkable that even as Mr. Lilla bashfully resorts to euphemism in characterizing the animus of Mearsheimer-Walt, he has no hesitation reaching for a broad brush with which to smear a variety of unspecified Jews, Jewish organizations, and “Jewish writers” as “demagogues” flying “on automatic pilot, fighting yesterday’s battles, resuscitating old fears, and avoiding an honest confrontation with the situation we—the U.S. and Israel—now face.”
This sanctimonious lecture to the Jewish community issues from an academic whose only previous expression of interest in issues of moment confronting American Jewry consists, unless I am mistaken, of his recent spearheading of a petition denouncing a major Jewish organization for, allegedly, abridging the free-speech rights of a Jewish professor who has called for the disbanding of the state of Israel. (The charge against the organization was ginned-up.) Where Mr. Lilla lives, this sort of thing may be thought of as high-mindedness; others are free to regard it as vulgar grandstanding.
Shlomo Ben Ami, a former foreign minister of Israel in the government of Ehud Barak, raises a different set of issues. I am still struggling to understand what exactly they are.
According to Mr. Ben-Ami, in criticizing Mearsheimer and Walt I succumbed to a “convenient, obnoxious tendency . . . to label any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.” From this I deduce that he does not think their paper anti-Semitic. Next, however, he avers that “attributing disproportionate clout to the Jews in a way that scapegoats them for all the calamities that have befallen America,” as Mearsheimer and Walt do, “might reflect” the “dark creed” of anti-Semitism. From this I deduce that he does think their paper might be anti-Semitic.
Then Mr. Ben Ami claims that Mearsheimer and Walt are “not anti-Semites” and that their “sin” lies elsewhere than in “anti-Jewish bias.” Reversing himself almost instantly, he then reproves Mearsheimer and Walt for being “absorbed by an obsession,” and for adhering to a “theory that depicts the Jews as omnipotent and ubiquitous and hence responsible for subverting America’s national interest.” Which “theory” might that be?
All in all—and I have by no means listed every twist and turn in Mr. Ben Ami’s letter—I have not encountered so great a tangle in so compressed a space since I last bought a pretzel in Times Square. Nor, for the record, did I ever once assert in my article that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, or anything of the kind.
I do not want to leave unnoticed Mr. Ben Ami’s free-form animadversions against the Bush administration, whose “reprehensible” policies in the Middle East he traces to a “genetic code” that is itself the product of President Bush’s insufferable “moral certitude and self-imposed divine mission.” Mr. Ben Ami’s virulence here, unbecoming in a professional diplomat of an allied country in any circumstances, is even more unbecoming in someone whose own reflexive “moral certitude,” in this case about the pacific intentions of Yasir Arafat, contributed during negotiations overseen by President Bill Clinton to the final, ignominious collapse of the ill-conceived Oslo “peace process” and the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000.
J. P. Hannon has evidently had a far more extensive first-hand acquaintance than have I with certain enduring attitudes toward Jews among certain classes of Americans. Still, I am not persuaded that he is right in the main. The 1966 book to which he refers, Jews in the Mind of America—a collection of essays based on opinion polling over the period 1937-1962—offers less a corrective to my analysis than a confirmation. One of its contributors, Morton Keller, sums up the survey data this way:
Many traditional forms of hostility toward Jews seem to be withering away. Thus, despite the manifest rise in American Jewish wealth and influence, fear of “Jewish power” has declined. In February 1946, 55 percent of a national sample thought that American Jews had too much power and 33 percent did not, whereas by May 1962, only 17 percent thought so and 66 percent demurred. . . . Even the most sensitive indices—acceptance of Jews as neighbors, as fellow workers, as in-laws—follow the same pattern.
The writings of Lucy S. Dawidowicz, with which Mr. Hannon wrongly suggests I am unacquainted, also support my conclusion. Far from claiming, as Mr. Hannon suggests, that anti-Semitism “is still very much with us,” she wrote as follows in her 1982 monograph On Equal Terms:
Anti-Semitism in postwar America, according to public-opinion polls, declined to unprecedentedly low levels. Those anti-Semitic organizations that continued to operate conducted their activities on the fringes of society, without measurable impact on the country’s social and political life. The chilling revelations of the German dictatorship’s murder of the European Jews stripped away the façade of polite prejudice and social superiority behind which anti-Semitism in the United States had often concealed itself. In post-Auschwitz United States, as indeed in most of the Western world, anti-Semitism no longer was morally acceptable.
In brief, I see no need to modify or qualify anything I wrote on the basis of Mr. Hannon’s observations. This is hardly to deny the accuracy of his report of what he himself heard and witnessed, but rather to place it in a larger perspective, one that indeed enables us to see more starkly just how much things have changed (or, as I would put it, reverted) when fraudulent scholarship of the kind practiced by Mearsheimer and Walt should once again succeed in injecting old and long-discredited poison into the bloodstream of American cultural life.
Of this return of the repressed, the letter by James Rogers is a prime exhibit. “How dare you be indignant at the charge of ‘dual loyalty,’” he exclaims. “Zionists are not loyal to the U.S. at all!” About this display of the passions fed and encouraged by Mearsheimer and Walt, the least one can say is that it is mercifully brief.
To the Editor:
In their respective articles in the November 2006 Commentary, under the collective title “Getting Serious About Iran,” both Arthur Herman [“A Military Option”] and Amir Taheri [“For Regime Change”] provide a cornucopia of information about the history of the Islamic Republic and its hostility toward the United States. Both understand that there can be no peace with this regime. Mr. Herman advocates military action (primarily against military targets and the oil industry), which he believes would result in regime change, while Mr. Taheri, in pursuit of the same objective, does not talk about military options but about political and diplomatic measures. To their credit, both make the enormously important point that the public debate is hung up on the nuclear question, distorting our strategic thinking.
Serious thinking about Iran must begin with the fact that the mullahs in Tehran have been waging war on us for nearly three decades. The latest fronts in that war are in Somalia, Afghanistan, Israel and the territories, Lebanon, and Iraq. In all of these places, Iran arms, funds, trains, and directs a variety of terror groups, including Sunnis, Shiites, and Marxists. Oddly, Mr. Herman ignores the terror component of Iran’s warfighting practices. He says that Iran wants nuclear weapons to “achieve great-power status,” control the Persian Gulf, and spread “its ideology of global jihad.”But that ideology may well be the whole story: Iran’s leaders talk as if they would welcome the end of the world—to usher in the millennium, under the sway of the long-vanished 12th imam—and to hasten it by using atomic bombs against Israel and mass suicide terrorism against us. That is not the quest for major-power status; it is a chiliastic vision that entails the murder of millions of infidels.
Mr. Herman has a well-conceived plan to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, blocking its ability to control the sea lanes through the vital Hormuz Straits and making it impossible for the mullahs to retaliate. He argues, convincingly, that such a total humiliation of Tehran would have many happy consequences, from the fall of the regime to the fatal weakening of terror proxies like Hizballah and Moqtada al-Sadr. He dismisses the concern, which he mistakenly attributes to me, that decisive American action might “permanently traumatize Iranian national pride and alienate its democrats for generations to come.” In fact, I do think that effective actions against the regime would encourage, rather than dismay, the tens of millions of Iranians who are more or less openly opposed to the mullahcracy.
My objection to such a program is more modest: I do not think it is necessary. I think regime change can be accomplished without resort to bombing, strafing, and invading the country. I agree with Mr. Herman that decisive military action is less likely to damage chances for regime change than our current blithering, which Iranians see either as appeasement or as ineptitude. But vigorous support for the vast forces of democratic revolution is surely better, with military action in reserve for when all else fails. If we could bring down the Soviet empire with the active support of a small fraction of the population, how can anyone be pessimistic about the chances for a similar revolutionary change in Iran, where we probably have 80 percent or more in support?
Aside from a few historical quibbles about Mr. Taheri’s article—Iran attacked American forces in Afghanistan at the same time that it was “helping” us at the diplomatic level—I largely agree with it. Above all, I welcome his Hippocratic advice: do not do anything to damage the vital link between American policy and the Iranian people. Anything that looks like American cooperation with the mullahs must be avoided at all costs; the Iranian people will see it as surrender. In like manner, we should eschew sanctions, which hurt the people without damaging the tyrants.
In the end, though, Mr. Taheri’s essay is a bit light on actual policy prescriptions. I would have welcomed calls for building up strike funds for Iranian workers, for large-scale denunciations of Tehran’s horrific human-rights violations, and a vigorous broadcasting operation instead of the feckless material served up by Voice of America’s Farsi service and Radio Farda. We should inform the Iranians about events inside their country and educate them about the ways and means to carry out a largely peaceful democratic revolution.
Finally, I think Mr. Taheri, like Mr. Herman, too often sounds as if he thinks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei as traditional geopoliticians rather than millenarian fanatics. When he says that Ahmadinejad wants a mini-conflict with the U.S. in order to “divert attention from the gathering storm inside Iran,” I want to ask: but what if Ahmadinejad wants a full-blown conflict with the U.S. in order to destroy us and our Israeli allies, and usher in the millennium? They say it every day; why not believe them?
American Enterprise Institute
To the Editor:
Iranians are known for their wicked sense of humor, which is often expressed in the form of pithy one-liners directed at authorities of various kinds. A well-known riff in political circles is reserved for the exiled opposition, whose members have been predicting, since the outset of the 1979 revolution, that the Islamic Republic has just “two months”—always delivered with two fingers and a broad smile—before it collapses or somehow morphs into something better.
Amir Taheri’s call for the U.S. to promote regime change brought this quip to mind. His argument is two-pronged: that the government in Tehran is too illegitimate, duplicitous, dangerous, unreasonable, or unworthy to engage with; and that the U.S. can change it by pursuing policies that excite the internal anti-government dynamics. But precisely or even generally how the U.S. can do this he never delineates. For the clueless American policy community, it is apparently sufficient to point out that the Iranian government is appalling, disliked by the majority of the Iranian people, and bursting with internal dissension.
What is conveniently left out is the rest of the story. In fact, elite dissension or competition—dare we call it pluralism?—has been the hallmark of Iran’s peculiar revolution from day one. There has never been a unified revolutionary political party in Iran, despite attempts to forge one. Despite popular dissatisfaction with the regime—which itself may be more about its behavior than its existence—over 50 percent of the population regularly participates in flawed but not totally “cooked” elections. In the election held last December for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, over 60 percent of the electorate voted to deliver a stinging defeat to the supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Taheri fails to confront the reality that a good chunk of the population—at least the 12 percent who voted for Ahmadinejad in the first round of the last presidential election and perhaps many others who voted for other conservative candidates—consists of die-hard supporters of the regime. This segment has benefited from its policies of the past three decades and is probably willing and capable of using violence in the face of a perceived threat. Remember Iraq?
Mr. Taheri also omits the unhappy history of American (and, before it, British) meddling in Iran’s politics. Nor does he discuss the fact that most Iranian citizens today, even the unhappy ones, are skeptical of intrusions into their country’s domestic affairs. If this point is doubted, just ask the State Department about the difficulty it is having in dispersing the $75 million dollars allocated for the “promotion of democracy” inside Iran. (There is, of course, no shortage of takers among the exiles.) To be sure, much of this has to do with the government’s crackdown on the use of foreign funds, but there is also real hesitation on the part of political and civil-society activists on nationalist grounds.
The revolution of 1979 was for most Iranians a double-edged affair, involving aspirations for freedom and national sovereignty. In the words of Behzad Nabavi, a former reformist parliamentarian and cabinet minister whose candidacy was rejected by the Guardian Council in the last parliamentary elections: “We still think in traditional ways. . . . If we are forced to choose between freedom and national sovereignty, we choose the latter. We hope we don’t have to choose.” But America’s hostile public stance against the Iranian government has helped create a martial, authoritarian environment, limiting the ability to maneuver (and perhaps even the desire) of many reformers like Nabavi.
Those of us who have called for engagement with Iran since the mid-1990’s, when the Clinton administration chose a policy of containment in response to Tehran’s offer of economic engagement, have argued that internal processes and the give-and-take among elites must be taken seriously, as should the non-radicalism of the majority of the Iranian populace. By engaging Iran, by not allowing the hard-liners to use security as a pretext, the gradual (and, admittedly, slow) process of reform will move Iran in positive directions. There will be setbacks, as was the case during the Khatami era; the existence of hardliners with a muscular social base cannot be wished away. But there is no getting around the need to engage with the internal political process if the objective is to bring about change in behavior, laws, and in the way laws are implemented.
Mr. Taheri and other advocates of regime change will have none of this. For them, nothing short of the purge of the “Khomeinist” winners of the Iranian revolution is sufficient. The only alternative, Mr. Taheri would have us believe, is to acquiesce in Tehran’s demands (whatever they are). That U.S. policy-makers should see only these extremes, and lack confidence in the superpower’s ability to shape the behavior of a mid-size regional power through engagement, is truly stunning. No wonder the hardliners in Tehran are howling. With enemies like Amir Taheri, who needs friends.
University of Hawaii
Amir Taheri writes:
Michael Ledeen criticizes me for not offering policy suggestions for confronting the Islamic Republic. My purpose, however, was not to draft a policy paper but to argue an intellectual case: the Islamic Republic is genetically programmed to be an enemy of the United States and other democracies. Contrary to some Western statesmen and pundits, it cannot be engaged, let alone appeased; on this, Mr. Ledeen and I are in agreement.
Certainly the Islamic Republic cannot be engaged, as Farideh Farhi imagines, through some “Grand Bargain” diplomacy. This does not mean that no temporary accommodation on specific issues is ever possible. In fact, Farideh Farhi’s attack on me notwithstanding, I explicitly said as much in my article. But acknowledging this would require her to rebut my arguments with credible arguments of her own in favor of the Khomeinist regime.
Her reference to Behzad Nabavi is revealing. Like him, she does not recognize that in a country whose people are not free, the concept of national sovereignty becomes meaningless. Only free people can build and exercise sovereignty. In countries ruled by despotic regimes, as is the case in Iran today, sovereignty is an empty slogan mouthed by those who lack the moral courage to fight for freedom.
Farideh Farhi must also know that, although I believe that the preconditions for regime change are in place, and its prospects favorable, I have never predicted the Khomeinist regime’s early demise. An evil regime’s longevity, however, is no justification for not fighting it, let alone forbecoming its apologist.
Arthur Herman writes:
The crucial difference between Michael Ledeen and myself seems to be whether we think Iran’s current rulers are more committed to their apocalyptic ideology than to Iranian power and prestige, or even their own self-preservation. I do not doubt for a moment that President Ahmadinejad believes what he says about destroying Israel and precipitating the arrival of the 12th imam and the end of the world. Still, it strikes me that the leading characteristic of Iran’s theocratic rulers is not religious fervor but an instinct for survival (a not uncommon trait among Middle Eastern politicians) and the comprehension that nothing succeeds like success.
Whatever approach the United States adopts toward Iran, the mullahs need to know that we can call their bluff, and that direct, decisive military action against them is not only a feasible option but an attractive one. They have played the great powers against one another and built Iran’s regional influence with great skill. That they have done so mainly with impunity is where the real danger lies. By continuing to proclaim that there are “no good military options” in dealing with Iran, Western opinion-makers only encourage Tehran and its terrorist allies to believe it.
The West has been waiting for a long time for democratic forces to emerge in Iran—so far, I would say, with negligible results. I am glad Mr. Ledeen thinks that military intervention on the scale I have proposed would encourage rather than dismay the mullahs’ opponents. Private reactions to my article from Iranian dissidents confirm that view.
In the long term, a democratic Iran could be a closer and more valuable strategic partner to the United States than Iraq. In the short term, however, we need to concentrate the mullahs’ minds on their own mortality by offering them a stark choice between continued belligerence and their hold on power.