The Middle East Channel

Strikeout: How Cook fails to bring the neocons back

Last week, my friend Steven Cook valiantly stepped to the plate to defend the counter-intuitive proposition that the neocons got some things right on the Middle East. Cook is a known baseball fan, so I assume that it was the beginning of spring training which inspired him to step up to this particular plate. He took three good cuts, identifying Syria, Iran and democracy as the things the neocons correctly interpreted -- but he whiffed on each. Three strikes, and you are out.  Unfortunately, the neocons are not out of the game despite their horrific track record on the biggest issues in the Middle East -- and now is not the time to be soft-pedaling their failures or rehabilitating their image.

Cook was right not to let the neocons off the hook on Iraq. He could have said more about their misguided approach to the "War on Terror" and Arab public opinion. And he might have mentioned that the course-correction of 2007, when Robert Gates came in and discarded much of the neoconservative agenda, does not excuse the preceding half-decade. But allow me to focus on the three things which, he claims, the neocons got right.

First, Syria. Cook contends that the neocons were right about the true nature of the Assad regime, that it would never make peace with Israel and always be hostile to the United States.  He argues that all during the Syrian-Israeli negotiations of the 1990s, Damascus never laid out what it was willing to give Israel for the return of the Golan Heights. This is just wrong. The memoirs of both Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, neither known as defenders of the Syrian regime, make clear that in fact the Syrian side gave a quite detailed outline of how they defined "peace" with Israel and what they were willing to give to get back the Golan. 

Those who followed those negotiations closely at the time will recall that these elements were leaked to the press, first in less detailed form to the international Arabic daily Al-Hayat and later in a fuller form to the Israeli daily Maariv. This was later leaked by the Israeli government itself, which was responding to domestic critics who accused it of being ready to give away the store to Damascus. The leak about a draft of a proposed Syrian-Israeli treaty that had been agreed to by both sides was meant to show how well and hard then Prime Minister Ehud Barak had bargained.  Both Indyk and Ross show Barak to have been all over the place on the Syrian negotiations, pushing for a quick conclusion, then backing off at Shepardstown (having to be coaxed off his airplane, in fact, to join the negotiations), and then begging President Clinton to meet with Assad -- even though Barak had nothing new to offer on the maddeningly minor territorial compromise he was demanding.

In the end, both Ross and Indyk blame Syria for backing away from peace with Israel, arguing that the elder Assad was pressured domestically not to take the final step. This does not ring true with me, as the Assad regime was not known for its gentle consideration of domestic criticism.  More likely, Assad just decided that the Israelis were not serious. But neither Ross nor Indyk say that Syria failed to set out in detail what it was willing to offer in exchange for the Golan.

More generally, Cook gets the dynamics that drive Syrian foreign policy wrong. He forgets that Damascus was willing to ally with the U.S. in the Gulf War of 1990-91 and that with the end of the Cold War, it slowly but surely accommodated itself to American unipolar leadership in the Middle East. It hedged its bets, to be sure, by maintaining its ties to Iran (which had their origins in the two regimes' common antipathy toward Saddam Hussein) and never gave up its desire to dominate Lebanon. But its overt anti-Americanism of the post-2003 period was a response to the neo-con-inspired hubris of American policy after the fall of Saddam, characterized by loose talk about further regime changes in the region. Damascus was balancing American power, which is not a particularly unexpected foreign policy reaction. It is hard to understand why Bashar al-Assad engaged in indirect talks with the Israelis through Turkey for years (until they were scuttled by the Gaza conflict of late 2008-early 2009) if the neocons were right about the nature of the Syrian regime.

Cook's second swing regards Iran. He contends that the neocons sniffed out the true nature of the Iranian regime, recognizing that it was ontologically incapable of reconciliation with the U.S.  But this blanket assessment ignores the important differences in Iranian policy under the Khatami and Ahmadinejad presidencies and implicitly absolves the neocons of Washington's failure to deal seriously with the former while it had the chance.

It is now well-documented that in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein there was a serious feeler from the Khatami government for a "grand bargain" negotiation with Washington, in which all issues would be on the table. A good foreign policy strategist, sensitive to regional power realities, would have realized that this was the time for maximum American leverage in the region and taken up the Iranian offer. Instead, the Bush administration ignored the offer and continued in its policy of regime change in the other Middle East member of the "axis of evil."  By the time (in Bush's second term) that a more realistic view of Iran developed in Washington, America's regional position was much weaker and the ideologically-driven Ahmadinejad was President.

Would a serious American engagement with Iran in 2003 have led to a diplomatic deal that locked Iran into a non-proliferation promise and limited its opposition to Arab-Israeli peace? We will never know. But what we do know is that Iran's increased regional power now is the direct result of the neocons' most fervent wish -- the American war in Iraq. If Iran is more of a problem now than it was before, the neocons have to take a big part of the responsibility for that.

Cook's third cut was on democracy. He contends that the neo-con diagnosis of the region's political pathologies and their prescription that democracy would "drain the swamp" of the root causes of anti-American terrorism was on the mark. Unfortunately, the evidence just does not support this contention. The hard core terrorists in al-Qaeda hate democracy. A democratic Arab world, at peace with Israel and with close ties to the United States (which is what the neocons naively thought Arab democracy would produce), would be anathema to bin Laden and his ilk.  They would fight just as hard against the United States and Arab governments if this vision came to pass. The implicit argument behind the neo-con prescription is that the citizens of a democratic Middle East would be so satisfied politically that they would not join terrorist organizations. But there is no evidence that democracy has this effect. So it is hard to see how the neocons got it right on the need for democracy in the region if the goal is to stamp out terrorism. 

Moreover, the neocons got one thing very wrong about Arab democracy. Islamist groups do very well in free elections these days, as the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006 demonstrated. Encouraging democratic reform in American allies like Egypt would very likely bring to power governments less willing to work with the United States and less willing to maintain or join peace agreements with Israel. It is hard to see how that serves American interests.

Cook gets this conundrum about American democracy promotion in the region, but still contends that the neocons were "on to something" in their advocacy of democracy.  He says that the Bush administration's advocacy of democracy changed the terms of the regional debate. He is right in the case of Lebanon, but the restored Lebanese democracy, despite its many positive points, has not been able to turn Hizballah from a militia with its own foreign policy into a regular political party. It is true that under American pressure, Egypt had freer parliamentary elections in 2005 (the Muslim Brotherhood took 20 percent of the seats, more than 60 percent of the seats which they contested).  And American urgings certainly played a role in the Palestinian Authority's decision to go ahead with the scheduled parliamentary elections of 2006 that Hamas won. But it is not clear just how American policy "changed the terms" of the regional debate. Egypt has retreated from its tentative reforms. We know what happened in Palestine after the elections -- a brief civil war and the current division between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Jordan is probably less democratic now than it was before September 11.  There is no sign of democratic reform in Saudi Arabia or Syria, and Iran has certainly moved backwards on the democracy scale since its 2009 elections. So where is the changed regional debate? It is hard to see its effects.

Back to the baseball metaphor. Steven Cook had a tough task here. He took three good cuts, but missed on each -- that's a strikeout. Striking out in spring training isn't that bad a thing, so I can forgive him for his effort to provoke a debate. But the proposition that the neocons got some things right about the Middle East is counter-intuitive in the sense that it's wrong. The neocons took their cuts in the big leagues, and whiffed badly on the Middle East. Reality has rendered its verdict, and there are no do-overs. We as a country are still paying the price of their failures, and will be for some time to come. They failed utterly and they do not deserve a second chance to influence American policy. Send them back to the minors and keep them away from the bat rack.

F. Gregory Gause, III is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of  "The International Relations of the Persian Gulf" (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).  He is currently a visiting fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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The Middle East Channel

Iran’s Green Movement approaches irrelevance: why does Washington continue to gamble on it?

The standing of Iran's so-called Green Movement is a deeply serious matter, with potentially profound implications for America's Iran policy. Since the Islamic Republic's June 12, 2009 presidential election, it has become widely accepted among Iran analysts in the United States and the Western political class more broadly that the emergence of the Green Movement in the wake of that election represents a fundamental challenge to Iran's current political order.

As we have discussed previously, the Obama Administration is increasingly incorporating "support" for the Green Movement as a factor in its policymaking calculations about Iran. Congress is now becoming engaged with legislative proposals to make "regime change" the explicit goal of America's Iran policy and to provide material support for Iranian oppositionists-just as Congress and President Clinton enacted the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, formally defining regime change as the goal of America's Iraq policy and providing a wide range of material assistance to Iraqi opposition groups.

But, if the Green Movement is not what many Iran analysts and other foreign policy and political pundits have cracked it up to be, adopting such a policy course with regard to Iran would be, to recall Talleyrand's memorable observation, "worse than a crime"; it would be a "mistake"-a mistake with potentially devastating consequences for the United States and its interests in one of the most strategically vital parts of the world. We have argued since last June that the Green Movement is not the ascendant political force that its Western champions would have us believe.

Recent events in Iran provide further evidence for the proposition that the movement, in fact, is fading fast into strategic irrelevance. Yesterday, March 16, was celebrated in Iran as chahar shanbeh suri-an ancient Persian festival marking the beginning of preparations for the celebration of Nowruz, the traditional Persian New Year, on March 21. (Chahar shanbeh suri means "Wednesday" in Farsi, and s?ri means both "festival" and "red"; the celebration of chahar shanbeh suri takes place on the eve of the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar year.) Chahar shanbeh suri, like Nowruz itself, marks not only the turn of the Persian New Year but also the revival of spring. From time immemorial, Iranians have celebrated the holiday with fire-making bonfires and jumping over them or, in the modern period, shooting off firecrackers. (Some of our Iranian friends complain about how much money their kids compel them to spend each year on fireworks to celebrate chahar shanbeh suri.) Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, there has always been some measure of tension between the Islamic Republic's religious worldview and the Iranian public's enthusiasm for observing chahar shanbeh suri, which is clearly pre-Islamic in its origins. But, each year, Iranians continue to celebrate chahar shanbeh suri to mark the beginning of their New Year holidays. In recent years, some Iranians have gone beyond the limits of the law in their celebrations-just last year, there were reports of younger people burning tires and garbage bins and even tossing Molotov cocktails at police.

Both in Iran and outside the country, Green Movement partisans anticipated that, this year, chahar shanbeh suri would be an occasion for the movement to show the depth and breadth of its social support and recover from its failure to elicit overt demonstrations of popular support on February 11, the anniversary of the Islamic Republic's founding. In the run up to the February 11 observance this year, Green Movement supporters talked about how the movement would mobilize hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the streets of Tehran, marking the "beginning of the end" of the Islamic Republic. But February 11 came and went with very small numbers of actual protestors on the streets. (It was this result which prompted our favorite sentence in Michael Crowley's recent effort to critique our work on Iran in The New Republic; after summarizing our analysis of Iranian domestic politics since the June 12, 2009 presidential election, Crowley seemed to feel obliged to write, "It's not obvious that this analysis is wrong-especially in the wake of a disappointing Green turnout...on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution.")

Iranian contacts tell us that, this year, chahar shanbeh suri was quieter than usual-almost certainly because, a few days before, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a public statement reiterating that the holiday had no basis in the Islamic religion and prompted various types of "harm and corruption" that it would be "appropriate" to avoid. And, once again, a major public commemoration or holiday has taken place in Iran, and the Green Movement has failed to make its presence felt to any significant degree. According to The Guardian, which had a live blog providing "real time" coverage of events on Tuesday afternoon and evening in Tehran, the Tehran fire department reported 164 "incidents" or calls for "fire service", some involving homemade fireworks; perhaps a few dozen people were arrested, but without any clear indication that they were arrested for political protest as opposed to apolitical rowdiness. Even pro-Green Movement journalists like Nazila Fathi of The New York Times had to acknowledge that "given the traditional pyrotechnics of the occasion, [the] number [of people reported injured] was not unusual".

Still, opposition websites tried to present the participation of thousands of people in these celebrations as a sign of the Green Movement's "success", while Nazila Fathi proclaimed from, we presume, Toronto, in a completely unsourced lead that should not have survived responsible editing, that "Iranians defied a ban on events marking a traditional festival on Tuesday, turning an annual celebration into a show of antigovernment sentiment". One of our Iranian friends compared this to the Green Movement calling on people to drive around Tehran during rush hour and then claiming "victory" because of the traffic. The Guardian concluded that, all in all, "the opposition must be disappointed not to have witnessed a greater show of strength".

Clearly, the Green Movement is not, at this point, a social force with any significant potential to impose fundamental change on the Islamic Republic's political order by operating "outside" that order. Events on the ground continue to confirm our assessment that the social base for the Green Movement is shrinking, not growing. Most Iranians, it seems, lead normal lives, focused on their families, jobs, their children's educations, etc., and are not attracted by the prospect of sustained political and social disruption. Even those Iranians who want to see the Islamic Republic evolve in ways that Westerners might see as more "liberal" are not hankering for another revolution.

The future course of Iranian politics will be charted within the parameters of the Islamic Republic, not by efforts to overthrow it. Of course, there are individual political figures and political factions that associated themselves with Mir Hossein Mousavi's presidential candidacy and, later on, with the Green Movement and who will continue to play roles in Iranian politics. But these political figures and factions have not helped themselves by their association with the Green Movement. For reformists, in particular, their performance in the run up to and the aftermath of the Islamic Republic's June 12, 2009 presidential election will be an additional burden for them to overcome as they attempt to regain greater salience in Iranian politics.

As we noted earlier this month, after our return from a visit to Tehran, "there is no significant elite challenge to the current political structure". Mousavi is increasingly marginalized. This week, with Nowruz looming, Mousavi could only note on his website that "we have to call the next year the year of patience and endurance until the aims of the Green Movement are achieved." But, at this juncture, what, precisely, are those aims, and how do "patience and endurance" constitute a strategy for achieving them? Former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi has even less of a public following than Mousavi. Former President Khatami has already demonstrated during his career that he does not want to challenge the core constitutional elements of the Islamic Republic's political order; in recent weeks, he has been largely silent in public.

With regard to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current head of both the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council, we wrote as early as last June that it was foolhardy for Western analysts to hypothesize that he was prepared to challenge fundamentally the authority of Ayatollah Khamenei as the Supreme Leader or lead a behind-the-scenes effort to remove him. The personal ties of the two men go back too far to permit that, and their political ties have been forged and tested across long periods of great adversity. That forecast was absolutely on the money; while we were in Tehran late last month, the Assembly of Experts convened for one of its regular, twice-a-year meetings. In his opening address, Rafsanjani said clearly that "those who care for the revolution must clarify their position vis-à-vis supporters of regime change and opponents of the Supreme Leader, and must regard him as the center of unity" (emphasis added).

This analysis will, no doubt, prove discomfiting, even disturbing for many who read it. But it is correct, which is the only test that should matter where analytic judgments are concerned.

The record of most Western analysts in interpreting and predicting the course of Iranian politics since the Islamic Republic's June 12, 2009 presidential election has been, to put it gently, disappointing. It is also altogether too reminiscent of the analytic failures, wishful thinking, and determination to find a "smoking gun" when one did not exist that fed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. To those Western analysts and political pundits who made their personal aspirations for the course of Iran's political evolution the basis for their analytic judgments, we would respectfully ask, what is your evidence that the Green Movement is not shrinking before our eyes? What is your evidence that the Green Movement is capable of affecting political outcomes in the Islamic Republic over the next several months or even the next few years in a strategically significant way?

These questions matter, and need to be addressed seriously. The United States cannot afford more "mistakes" in the Middle East.

Flynt Leverett directs the New America Foundation’s Iran Initiative and is a professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. Hillary Mann Leverett heads a political risk consultancy. They publish the Web site The Race for Iran.

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