Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dr. Kagan's Iran prescription; or, Will the real Robert Kagan please stand up?

"Forget the Nukes" is the provocative title of Robert Kagan's Wash. Post column today. Never mind the "secret" uranium enrichment facility, never mind the long-range missile test; the main issue, he says, should be capitalizing on the regime's weakness by quickly applying "crippling" sanctions. This will give heart to the opposition, whose leadership "is engaged in a struggle to the death with the regime," and "might" -- I emphasize his use of might -- lead the regime to fall. At least the chance of that happening is greater than the chance that the current Iranian regime "will give up its nuclear program voluntarily," he contends.

Hmm. Let's ponder this for a sec. Just because the leadership of the Iranian opposition is locked in a death struggle with the regime does not mean the opposition as a whole is so committed. I have great admiration for the courage and determination displayed by those who demonstrated in June against the fraudulent elections. But I don't know enough about the workings of the Iranian opposition or its composition or internal dynamics to say whether sanctions will give it the boost Kagan supposes. Has there been a broad clamor within the opposition for the imposition of sanctions on the regime? If there has been, Kagan doesn't mention it.

In the column's last paragraph, Kagan makes another bet. "Americans have a fundamental strategic interest in seeing a change of leadership in Iran." Why? Because "[t]here is good reason to believe that a democratic Iran might forgo a nuclear weapon...or at least be more amenable to serious negotiations." And even if it does go nuclear, a democratic nuclear Iran will be far less dangerous than an autocratic-theocratic nuclear Iran, he maintains.

Indeed? Is this the same Robert Kagan who has been writing about the return of old-fashioned great-power politics in the twenty-first century? Interests and power rule, the hard-headed calculations of geopolitical advantage drive policy -- isn't that the message he's been delivering lately? Now, in this column, a slightly different tone seems to creep in -- domestic politics matters, what political scientists call (in typically sterile fashion) "regime type" counts for something. Of course, it's true the two positions are not in direct or logical contradiction, but there is arguably a tension in the messages here. Why is there "good reason" to suppose that a democratic Iran might give up nukes when its regional ambitions and the configuration of forces in its environment will be, presumably, pretty much the same? Neighboring Pakistan has nuclear weapons; Afghanistan is in turmoil (and don't forget the Iranian regime has never been friendly with the Taliban); and Iran, democratic or not, would want, one would think, to consolidate the increased influence that the Iraq war and its aftermath bestowed on it.

(Of course, if you believe Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, the regime will stop short of actually developing a weapon once it has the capacity to do so. In which case regime change, from a "strategic" standpoint, becomes less urgent.)

There is a lot of "might" and "maybe" in Dr. Kagan's prescription. The "right kind of sanctions could help the Iranian opposition topple these still-vulnerable rulers [Ahmadinejad and Khamanei]," he asserts. But what are the "right kind of sanctions," and exactly how would they help? Until convincing answers to these questions are forthcoming, the judgment on "Forget the Nukes" must be the old Scotch verdict: Not proven.

Update: As another blogger observes, recent developments in the negotiations indicate that by not "forgetting the nukes," the Obama admin and the Europeans have achieved some progress on the issue.


Anonymous said...

"Why is there 'good reason' to suppose that a democratic Iran might give up nukes when its regional ambitions and the configuration of forces in its environment will be, presumably, pretty much the same?"

I believe it is variously called liberal pacifism, the liberal peace etc... Democracies are less prone to make war than non-democracies because the former embody a spirit of negotiation/bargaining/compromise. Schumpeter and Kant very relevant here but there are many others who are present in this formulation as well.
There is no tension unless you see liberalism and realism as irreconcilably opposed. US policy in the last decade or so clearly shows that they can and have been combined. Whether that is a good thing or not is a different matter altogether.
Kagan obviously thinks that when we deal with democracies there is some common spirit/interest of bargaining/compromise/cooperation possible. With non-democracies (especially powerful ones(, we have to think in realist terms). Best way to achieve security for US is to democratize non-democracies. Given Iraq and Afghanistan, the US cannot invade, right? So, let's work on other means to achieve regime change. For Kagan et. al, the costs of such an endeavor are worth it. What do you think?
N (have not been able to read your blog for a while on account of work)

LFC said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, I suppose you could argue that U.S. policy in recent years has combined realism and liberalism, although one could equally well argue that the Bush admin pretty much jettisoned realism, at least in its most important decisions.

I am, of course, familiar with the general outlines (if not the mountain of specialist literature) on the democratic or liberal peace. But there is a difference between saying "mature democracies don't fight each other" -- which is the core claim of the democratic peace view -- and saying "a newly democratic regime is less likely to acquire nuclear weapons than a theocratic autocracy." It's this latter claim on which Kagan's position depends, and I am inclined, for the time being at least, to remain a bit skeptical.

I also remain skeptical of the view that we should forget about the nukes and focus on increasing the chances that the current regime will fall. I am no Iran expert, but I don't think Robert Kagan is one either. So you could look at this as a case of dueling ignoramuses. :)

P.s. I also think the deleterious effects of Iran's going nuclear have probably been exaggerated, but that is a separate question.