Victor Davis Hanson does not like echo chambers, and Washington, he claims, has become one. A number of notions, it seems, are flinging repetitively around the enclosed and reverberant spaces of the Beltway Bubbleworld and, as a result of the ceaseless reiteration, are being elevated to the status of “gospel.” One such notion is that “We need to talk to Iran.” Hanson will have none of that. Tyrannies such as Iran resort to diplomacy only when, as Hanson puts it, “their backs are against the wall or their appetites are for a time sated.” With Saddam eliminated and the Taliban, at least for now, posing no threat, Iran finds its back at a comfortable remove from any flat and vertical surface and its appetite whetted for mischief. It therefore feels no urgent need to discuss, among other items, its exasperating insistence on enriching uranium.
Crossposted at Progressive Historians
Before we talk to Tehran, we need to shove it back and make it simmer down, and Hanson knows exactly what that shoving and subduing entails. We must encourage “the Sunni world” to coalesce “into a general anti-Iranian bloc” and, of course, we must achieve victory in Iraq, thus establishing on the border of the theocratic state a viable democracy. Curiously, Hanson seems to think that Iraq will align itself with the anti-Iranian Sunni bloc he envisions, even though the Iraqi government, once stabilized, will almost certainly be a Shiite-dominated one with ties to Tehran. That small detail aside, Hanson is adamant: negotiations with Iran can only be conducted from a position of strength, and a unified bloc of Sunni nations reinforced by a victory in Iraq will put us in that position.
1. Discipline and Diplomacy
Not all neocons, however, are willing to wait for such eventualities to develop. Shelby Steele and Robert Kagan, for example, have recognized that negotiating now with Iran can prove in the long run distinctly advantageous to America. In his recent essay in The Wall Street Journal, “Obama is Right on Iran,” Steele defends Obama’s commitment to what has become “the most glamorous word in the Democratic ‘antiwar’ lexicon,” diplomacy. Steele’s defense, however, rests neither on an idealistic rejection of war nor on a realistic acceptance of war as a last resort, but rather on a distinction between two kinds of war: wars of survival and wars of discipline.
A nation, when attacked, engages in a war of survival in order to preserve itself as a sovereign and independent entity. The purpose of a war of discipline, on the other hand, is not to safeguard survival but “to preserve a favorable balance of power that is already in place in the world.” This favorable balance of power, supervised by the world’s “enforcer,” America, guarantees global peace. When “a menace” arises that threatens to upset the global balance, America responds, committing itself to war in order “to discipline the world back into a balance of power that best ensures peace.” Further, such wars, according to Steele, “are pre-emptive by definition.” That is, they preempt the menace before it gains such power and becomes inflated with such ambition that it threatens to shift the global balance precariously away from stability and order.
Steele, I assume, would not dispute that this “favorable balance of power” is tilted in favor of America. In fact, to speak of a “balance of power” is misleading since America stands alone as far and away the world’s predominant military nation. No other group of nations, let alone a single nation, can “balance” the colossal strength of each of America’s military arms. But from the perspective of neocons such as Steele and Kagan, this is exactly as it should be. From a foreign and realist perspective, the predominance of America’s military might indicates a potentially unsettling imbalance of world power. But from an American and idealist perspective, it is precisely America’s military might that guarantees a favorable balance of power not only for America but for the world.
According to the neocons, America’s role in the world is to promote freedom and to preserve peace. Unique among history’s nations, America puts its colossal power primarily at the service of these laudable and honorable ends, and, even though it is now enjoying a period of unipolar predominance, it would never think of misusing its military stature in order to advance, unjustly and dishonorably, its own “vital interests.” Therefore, when an autocratic or terrorist menace arises that threatens to destabilize the balance of power, America, secure in the knowledge that it is impelled by no covert motive of exclusive self-interest, can move preemptively to enforce discipline and chastise the outlaw.
Such a view of American power, it seems, reserves no place for diplomacy. When a new menace to global order arises and is identified as such, America must take prompt and decisive military action to eliminate it. But Steele has learned an important lesson from America’s conduct in the Iraq war. As he correctly points out, when attacked and threatened with annihilation, a nation has no choice but to fight. Also, when defending itself in a war of survival, a nation need not seek justification: defense against aggression supplies it with all the moral authority it needs.
However, a nation that threatens to disrupt the balance of power and disturb international peace poses no threat to our survival. The war that we wage to preempt its menace, therefore, is a war of choice, deliberately entered into for no other reason than to “discipline” the troublemaker and preserve the peace. But as Steele recognizes, when a nation engages in a such a war, a preemptive war of choice, “moral authority becomes a profound problem.” While a nation need not seek justification to wage a war of survival, it cannot remain morally cavalier when it chooses to wage a war of discipline. Quite the contrary, when the question hinges not on immediate survival but on a prospective threat, a nation must establish a secure moral ground before it commits itself to the violence of war.
Steele admits that we engaged Iraq in a war of choice, a preemptive war of discipline, and he also admits that we did so without having established a secure moral basis for our act. That lack of a moral foundation has had the inevitable effect of undermining both our military efforts in the field and our political relations with our allies. The lesson that we must extract from this episode is therefore clear. In the future we must conclusively establish our moral authority before undertaking to wage a war of choice. We must, that is, clearly demonstrate that the nation against which we choose preemptively to go to war has resolutely committed itself to disrupt the global balance of power. When we have demonstrated that fact, we will have securely grounded our moral authority and gained the “license” to fight this war of choice as if it were a war of survival, bringing to bear on the upstart the full weight of our military might. And how do we demonstrate that our prospective adversary has resolved to disrupt the global order, thereby rendering itself vulnerable to preemptive assault? By engaging it first in diplomacy.
Iran is a case in point. Clearly committed to disrupting the balance of power in the world, it has become a menace to peace and must be disciplined. However, before we discipline the miscreant, we must first establish our moral authority to do so by engaging it diplomatically. As Steele imagines it, an American president, in an act of heroic humility, flies to Tehran and entreats the Iranians to cease their disruptive behavior. Should they refuse to comply with our appeal to curb their ambitions and arrogantly dismiss our “high-risk” attempt at diplomacy, “then we would have the moral authority to fight as if for survival,” that is, without restraint and deploying the full preponderance of our power. Such a fight we would undoubtedly win, our victory preserving the balance Iranian ambition had threatened to disturb and protecting the peace Iranian malice had threatened to destroy.
2. Fine Word, Legitimate…
Like Steele, Robert Kagan counsels diplomacy, and like Steele he counsels it as a means to an end: providing America with the legitimacy it needs to take “strong action” against Iran. In his Washington Post essay, “Time to Talk to Iran,” Kagan argues that the NIE has, in regard to Iran, “broken” the two most effective “policy tools” in America’s geopolitical kit, military action and economic sanctions. Washington now has left at its disposal but one intact instrument: diplomacy. For Kagan, though, this seemingly negative development can have a positive outcome if the US is prescient enough to exploit it. “The next administration, especially if it is Democratic, will probably want to try to talk to Tehran,” Kagan says. Indeed it will, and if the outgoing administration has devoted a year to serious negotiation with Tehran, the incoming one will have ample evidence at hand to judge the likely results of its own diplomatic efforts. If Tehran has been and continues to be accommodating, the new administration can reciprocate by, for example, rescinding economic sanctions. If, on the other hand, Tehran has been and continues to be intransigent, the new administration will have the justification it needs to act decisively and with a clear conscience. That is, if the new administration “decides it must take strong action,” diplomatic isolation, for example, along with more severe economic sanctions, “it will have an easier time showing that all other options were exhausted.”
Kagan clearly details the demands to which Iran must accede. It must demonstrate to the IAEA that its enrichment facilities are for the purpose of civilian use only and that it has no covert program to develop nuclear weapons. Further, Kagan says, negotiations with Tehran “should go beyond the nuclear issue” and include its support of Hezbollah and Hamas and, what is most important, “its supplying of weapons to violent extremists in Iraq.” Kagan does not specify who these “violent extremists” are, but I assume he means the Badr Organization (the military arm of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) and the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al Sadr, Shiite groups with ties to Tehran.
If Tehran accedes to these demands, especially if it ceases all enrichment of uranium and cuts its ties to violent factions in Iraq, “it will be welcomed into the international community, with all the enormous economic, political and security benefits this brings.” If, on the other hand, “the Iranians stonewall or refuse to talk -- a distinct possibility -- they will establish a record of intransigence that can be used against them now and in the critical years to come.” If, that is, Iran in its fanatic stubbornness refuses to acquiesce to the demands that America puts on the diplomatic table, if it balks at submissively playing its role in the scenario that America has scripted for the Middle East, if it continues to insist that its own independent interests as a sovereign nation be attended to and respected, then it will have put on display before the world its moral depravity. Conversely, America, having made a good faith attempt to talk to the tyrant, will have established in the eyes of its allies its moral legitimacy. America can then, without hesitation, act to isolate, punish, undermine—even, perhaps, preemptively to eliminate—a regime that refuses to yield to reason and that remains committed to the destruction of peace.
3. From the Particular to the Universal
Robert Kagan and Shelby Steele have derived from the political and moral wreckage of the Iraq War a crucial lesson: America must clearly establish its moral authority before it deploys its military might in preemptive wars of choice or initiates other “strong” actions against recalcitrant regimes. In pursuit of that end, these neocons, along with their allies, the liberal interventionists (the so-called “liberal hawks”), are now engaged in a far-reaching endeavor to construct a new theoretical and practical framework for American foreign policy. Kagan and Ivo Daalder, for example, have called for a Kantian Concert of Democracies whose multilateral voice will legitimate America’s future interventions in world crises. And, as “Time to Talk to Iran” makes clear, Kagan has seen that diplomacy, when appropriately deployed, can help America deal effectively with the deceit of autocrats and terrorists.
Since he published Of Paradise and Power in 2003, Kagan has not so much evolved as adapted to the new geopolitical reality that America’s war in the Middle East has created. Military force remains his tool of choice, but he has come to understand that it must work in conjunction with other policy instruments. Diplomacy and multilateral action, he now allows, are useful, even vital means to achieve America’s final end. But though he might have amended the means, for Kagan that final end, the one that America has been born to achieve, a paradise of world peace created and sustained by American power, has not changed and will not change.
As Kagan argues in the closing section of his book, the central fact about America as a nation is that it is expansionist. “The myth of America’s ‘isolationist’ tradition is remarkably resilient,” Kagan says. “But it is a myth. Expansion of territory and influence has been the inescapable reality of American history, and it has not been an unconscious expansion” (86). America’s expansion during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a deliberate and territorial one. But it is a fundamental error to think that America’s expansionist impulse since the end of World War II has been focused on physical territory. Demonstrably it has not. That impulse, sublimated and transformed, now seeks to expand the reach not of American territory but of American ideology. Born out of freedom, America is now striving to complete its historical mission: to universalize the particular, that is, to introduce its specifically American values of freedom and democracy into every nation on earth.
This expansionist impulse has been inherent in America since its birth, and it defines America’s transcendent importance as a nation in the grand narrative of human history. “The proof of the transcendent importance of the American experiment,” Kagan claims, is found “not only in the continual perfection of American institutions at home but also in the spread of American influence in the world” (88). The ongoing march of history has justified, and will continue to justify, America’s expansion of its ideological reach. America is the nation in which freedom and democracy were first incarnated and made flesh, and it has no intention of isolating these fundamental human values and keeping them confined within its own borders. Universal values will irrepressibly transcend the finite boundaries of the nation in which they originated and assimilate into themselves every other nation in the world. America’s destiny, its mission in history, is thus indisputably clear and indisputably transcendent: to take that which is particular, American democracy, and, by carrying it to every corner of the globe and installing it in every nation on earth, make it what it has always in essence been—universal.
America’s national ideal and national purpose are thus universal in nature and global in scope. But America seeks hegemony for its national ideology not because it seeks to deprive other nations of their autonomy and freedom but precisely because it wants to initiate other nations into their autonomy and freedom, to break the shackles of fanaticism and tyranny that enslave them and liberate them into their true potential as free and productive members of what Kant called the Federation of Peace. For this reason, Kagan says, Americans have always believed, and still believe, that by striving to introduce their American ideals into the world they “advance the interests of humanity” (88). As Benjamin Franklin said, “America’s cause is the cause of all mankind,” and this bedrock idealism is an inherent and unchanging aspect of the American character.
This enduring American view of their nation’s exceptional place in history, their conviction that their interests and the world’s interests are one, may be welcomed, ridiculed, or lamented. But it should not be doubted. And just as there is little reason to expect Europe to change its fundamental course, there is little cause to believe the United States will change its own course, or begin to conduct itself in the world in a fundamentally different manner. (88)
Indeed it will not. Neither will the neocons conduct themselves “in a fundamentally different manner.” They and their interventionist allies in the liberal camp will continue to provide the theoretical support for America’s long term and historically sanctioned endeavor. That theoretical support must now modify itself to take into account the lessons learned from Iraq, but the neocons will leave untouched their basic view of the world, a view that Kagan, in Of Paradise and Power, expertly presents in all its satisfying simplicity. Within the confines of their continent, as Kagan tells it, the nations of Europe have constructed a paradise of Kantian peace based on reason and rules. Outside those confines, however, remains and will remain for the foreseeable future a wilderness of Hobbesian anarchy in which autocratic states and terrorist networks renounce the rule of law and use only deceit and force to gain their ends. On the fragile boundary that separates the paradise of Kantian reason from the wilderness of Hobbesian anarchy stands the world’s Sheriff, America, bravely and steadfastly defending the paradise of reason and rules from the outlaws intent on destroying it. “Americans can still sometimes see themselves in heroic terms,” Kagan claims, “as Gary Cooper at high noon.” And like all good and steadfast men of the law, who clearly see the covert motives of the lawless, Americans are not swayed by the doubts and apprehensions of those they protect. “They will defend the townspeople, whether the townspeople want them to or not” (95).
The townspeople in Kagan’s scenario are, of course, the Europeans, who abide by a “logic of reason.” America, as the world’s Sheriff, also abides by that logic. But as the “enforcer,” the indispensable nation that guarantees stability and peace in a world still populated by rogues and outlaws, America must also abide by a different logic, a “logic of force,” and next time, in the last installment of this series, I’ll summarize Kagan’s argument and discuss the two logics that together define for Kagan America's role in the world.