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January 27, 2010

Iran is not the AFC Championship
Posted by Patrick Barry

I sometimes pine for a day when the world stops responding whenever Robert Kagan expresses an opinion, but so long as he keeps getting op-eds placed in the Washington Post, I’ll have to keep on dreaming.  What’s so objectionable about Kagan’s latest piece resurrecting regime change?  Surprisingly, it’s not everything.  Let’s start with what he gets right:

It would be similarly tragic if Israel damaged the likelihood of political change by carrying out an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities in the coming year. That would provide a huge boost to the Tehran regime just when it is on the ropes -- and for what? The uncertain prospect of setting back the nuclear program for a couple of years?

I agree 100%! An airstrike or military action against Iran would be tragic and ineffective, not to mention hugely damaging to U.S. interests in the region.  But unfortunately, that brief hint of reality is about as close as Kagan gets to turning in his neoconservative credentials.  The rest of the op-ed is replete with the worn-out ideological tropes we've come to expect from neconservatives.

Trope #1: Sudden, dramatic action is preferable to the alternative of [insert current policy here, alongside label of ‘overly-cautious’]

Kagan accuses the administration of proceeding “as if the political upheaval had only marginal significance, and the real prize remains some deal with Tehran.”That’s an odd accusation, seeing as the Obama administration has expressed strong rhetorical support for Iranians’ human rights, attended to calls for the U.S. to do what it can to maintain the flow of information inside Iran, and cautioned against sanctions that could throttle the dissidents.  What Kagan actually wants is for the U.S. to completely abandon dialog with the Iranian government over the nuclear issue in favor of an explicit policy of regime change.  Not only are the benefits of that approach unclear, but the risks are massive.  Any blessing conferred on Iranian dissidents would have an uncertain impact largely because it would simultaneously restore the “‘foreign stooges’ propaganda tool” to the regime.  And in the event that the dissidents’ efforts became protracted, the U.S. would have almost zero ability to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, which by Kagan’s own understanding would be a problem since its leaders are “rushing to obtain a nuclear weapon”

Trope #2: The U.S. only has a small window of opportunity before it is too late [add Reagan quote for effect]

What would a Kagan op-ed be without a strategically placed Reagan quote?  This time Kagan turns to the ‘Gipper’ to suggest that the Obama administration has reached a decisive, but fleeting “‘tear down this wall’ moment.”  So after just saying that the green movement has shown itself to be a durable challenge to the regime, Kagan asserts that the window for regime change is fleeting? There’s a simple explanation for why those ideas seem contradictory: they are.  It also shows why these sort of “now is the moment” analogies are useful if you're Rex Ryan, but not if you are trying to make sense of democratic transitions.  As Max Bergmann wrote in December, authoritarian regimes fall not because of “a military rebellion led by an insurgent force that suddenly storms the capital,” but the “gradual erosion of support by mass movements.”

Trope #3 There’s good reason [insert something unknowable] to believe the results will pay huge dividends to the U.S.

Here I’m tempted to just post Matt Duss’ take in its entirety.  It’s a masterful take-down.  I would point out that it’s particularly aggravating to see Kagan trot out the argument that “regime change in Tehran is the best nonproliferation policy.”  What little we do know about the oppositions stance on Iran’s nuclear program suggests that the issue won’t necessarily be resolved by simply installing the greens in office.  Last April, opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi was quoted as saying “no one in Iran will accept suspension,” when asked about Iran’s right to enrich, and the program is very popular domestically.  So when Kagan treats regime change as the key to unlocking the impasse on Iran's nuclear program, he goes way beyond basing a conclusion on something unknowable. He willfully glosses over the facts to justify his already thin argument for regime-change. 


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