Arabists and Iran

Posted by Cutler on July 06, 2006
Iran, Iraq, Right Arabists

Robert Kaplan is surely a strange bird–ideologically, at least.  In truth, I cannot really make heads or tales of his politics.  It is only tempting to care about his politics because he was one of the “critics” that Bush recently brought in for a discussion about the war.

Kaplan takes an extreme form of the Right Arabist preference for status-quo strongmen and has done so repeatedly since September 11th.  On October 14, 2001, he penned a Wall Street Journal Op-ed entitled, “Don’t Impose Our Values: Stability is more important than democracy in the Mideast.”

When [Iraq] is decapitated, it will leave a vacuum that could unleash a regional war. In countries such as Iraq… entire intellectual classes have been wiped out over the decades, leaving only Islamists and sectarian nationalists to inherit the void. That is why the surest path toward more open societies in these countries is not some overnight experiment in democracy… but moderate military regimes representing the interests of merchant communities that span sectarian lines…

Status quo monarchies and enlightened dictatorships may serve our purposes better than weak and unstable democratic regimes. 

Similarly, March 2, 2006 Washington Post Op-Ed, “We Can’t Force Democracy.”

Imperfect these rulers clearly are, but to think that who would follow them would necessarily be as stable, or as enlightened, is to engage in the kind of speculation that leads to irresponsible foreign policy. Recall that those who cheered in 1979 at the demise of the shah of Iran got something worse in return. The Saudi Arabian royal family may be the most reactionary group to run that country, except for any other that might replace it. It is unclear what, if anything, besides the monarchy could hold such a geographically ill-defined country together.

Nevertheless, in an April 17, 2006 Los Angeles Times Op-ed, “Haunted by Hussein, Humbled by Events,” Kaplan describes himself as having been “an early supporter of the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

What was that all about?  Hard to say.  It almost seems to have been personal.  In his most hawkish, pre-invasion, pro-invasion article, “Slave State: Why Saddam is Worse Than Slobo,” he mentions:

I had my passport taken away from me for ten days by the Iraqi security police in 1986.

As he acknowledges in his “Haunted by Hussein” article,

[M]y earlier support [for the war]… was…based on firsthand experiences in Iraq.

Must have really pissed him off to have his passport taken away.

In any event, he has this little rhetorical bridge he uses to reconcile his pro-war position and his otherwise principled appreciation for enlightened dictatorship.  In his “We Can’t Force Democracy” Op-ed, he writes:

In the case of Iraq, the state under Saddam Hussein was so cruel and oppressive it bore little relationship to all these other dictatorships. Because under Hussein anybody could and in fact did disappear in the middle of the night and was tortured in the most horrific manner, the Baathist state constituted a form of anarchy masquerading as tyranny.

Everybody got that?

Forgive me this long, tortured discussion of a figure I think is somewhere between totally ridiculous and incredibly frightening (I hear he and the President got on quite well during their recent confab).

My point is to say that in 1993, just before he became famous for his book on the Balkans (Clinton was seen holding a copy) he published a book entitled, “The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite.”  I find the politics of the book inconsistent when not simply inscrutable, but when looking for a label to give the Bush administration faction that so vehemently opposed the idea of terminating Sunni Arab minority rule in Iraq, Kaplan’s “Arabists” seemed to fit.

Although I tend to be somewhat dubious about giving too much explanatory weight to the “romance”–relative to say, the “geo-politics” or the alleged “lucre”–in accounting for Arabist commitments, the committments seem real and enduring.

The feature I find most intriguing–for the current “Iranian” moment–is the perspective of Arabists on the future of Iran.

In his book, Kaplan recalls a phrase: “Scratch an Arabist and you’ll find an anti-Iranian.”

I think there is plenty of evidence for this in contemporary foreign policy discussions about the Gulf.

In an October 14, 2005 Middle East Policy Council symposium entitled, “A Shia Crescent: What Fallout for the U.S.?,” Council President Charles Freeman–former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a Right Arabist if there has ever been one–opened with the following remarks:

[T]he Saudis… are concerned about… the possibility of Iranian domination of a weak and divided Shi’a-dominated Iraq. In a recent visit to the region, in fact, I found a dominant concern in the Gulf countries to be the possibility that the United States, by intervening as we did in Iraq, may inadvertently be creating a Shi’a crescent in the northern tier of the Arab world, which could offer Iran unique opportunities that it has not had for many years, to exercise a dominant role, and to exercise that role in ways that may be destabilizing to others.

The question is: What policy toward Iran follows from this Right Arabist concern?  How best to marginalize the regional power of Iran?

In Iraq, the answer seems relatively simple: restoration (in various forms and by various means) of Sunni Arab power.

In Iran itself, however, the answer seems less clear.

As I noted in a previous post, at least one significant Right Arabist–former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia James Akins–thinks regime change is the preferred path.

Akins may be a bit far out on a limb, however.  Although I have found no Right Arabists critical of Akins, I have also found little evidence of comparable hawkishness among other prominent Right Arabists (including Charles Freeman).

Many of the published comments–old and new–tend to support diplomatic engagement with the current regime.  For example, Richard Murphy–another former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia–took a moderate tone in a May 28, 2003 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Richard Murphy: [T]here’s certainly disagreements between some of the neo-conservatives who have been quite prominent in the Pentagon ranks, and the… I would call it the mainstream in State that is uncomfortable, uneasy about this talk of confronting Iran now that they have watched what happened in Iraq, they will learn the lesson of Iraq…

I don’t see any interest in Washington in launching a military attack on Iran – in discouraging Iran from a nuclear weapons program, in bringing Iran to turn over any Qaeda operatives who may be getting sanctuary in Iran – that is the interest, but not in doing it by means of a military attack…

It is certainly not Government policy to destabilise Iran, but there are elements in Washington who wouldn’t be at all disappointed to see the end of the regime there.

And they point to the evidence of the dissatisfaction with the Iranian regime, on the part of the youth of the unemployed, of the women of Iran, and some of them seem to be calculating that it is so unstable that a bit of rhetoric now and then might turn things around.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: But it is still a high-risk strategy? It could have unintended consequences?

RICHARD MURRAY: Absolutely, absolutely, and sober voices are stating that very clearly, and I repeat it is not policy to move frontally against Iran, but it is still on the President’s list of the Axis of Evil states, as you know.

Is it possible that Akins regime change agenda represents more of a hedge against Right Zionists than anything else?

If the Bush administration is going to support the Right Zionist goal of regime change in Iran, then Right Arabists had better be prepared to influence the process of change and the profile of any new regime.

And yet, wouldn’t a Right Arabist be even more content to have Iran contained, weakened, under a permanent cloud of suspicion, and relatively isolated–as the current regime would be under a UN inspection program, for example–than to have Iran serve as an “American project” that might ultimately provide a real alternative to US reliance on incumbent Arab regimes?

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