"The Case for Doing Nothing"
Laura Secor, a staff editor of the op-ed page at The New York Times, argues in Keep Away (subscription only at the New Republic) that democratic forces in Iran are more likely to succeed if we abandon them to their fates.
The reform era, Amir explained to me, may not have accomplished all Iranians had hoped it would in terms of structural political change. But it had opened a space that had not existed before. Khatami had made it possible for some 37,000 nongovernmental organizations to take root, addressing a panoply of social issues and human rights concerns at a granular level. In time, Amir insisted, even when the political space for reform had closed, this civil society could quietly grow, becoming a powerful force for change.
But there was a problem. The government had become convinced that the United States planned to finance and train these activists to overthrow the Islamic Republic, much as it had done in Serbia and elsewhere. In leaked intelligence reports Amir had seen, the regime had meticulously documented its case: "They quote the American Enterprise Institute and Michael Ledeen, as well as the statements of President Bush about civil society," he told me. On the basis of such evidence, the regime was pursuing an aggressive campaign against nongovernmental organizations as well as individual activists and journalists it named as part of a "spider's web" woven by the CIA.
The correct approach, Secor argues, is to do nothing to taint the internal democratic opposition to the Ayatollahs with the American shadow. By keeping its distance, America would maximize the chances of the Iranian opposition to succeed within its democratic space.
Why do I register Amir's plea now, two and a half years after he made it, and at a time of nearly unparalleled tension between the United States and Iran? Because the temptation to ignore it could hardly be greater. Iran presents a tantalizing contradiction. The United States has no greater rival in the Middle East than its government, and no greater ally than its people. It seems nearly inconceivable that our government, with its vast wealth and democratic ideals, shouldn't be able to turn this situation to its advantage.
Moreover, Iran has something unique in the region: a democratic movement that is large, organized, intellectually sophisticated, and politically skilled. Inspired by liberal Shia thinkers but also by Western liberal philosophers, including Jürgen Habermas and Karl Popper, many Iranian liberals seek to enshrine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the foundation of their state. If this largely youthful movement prevails, the United States, the Iranian people, and Iran's neighbors all win.
So where do we Americans come in? Well, that's the thing. We don't. This is an epic struggle, invested with no small measure of heroism. But that struggle and the associated heroics are not ours. They belong to the Iranians. Getting involved with the Iranian opposition might make us feel good, but it will only hurt the people we seek to help.
Now if only the US had done the same in South Africa, Eastern Europe during the Soviet Era, Yugoslavia and in Darfur today it would have a really consistent foreign policy. The inescapable logical question raised by the article is when one should be passive in foreign policy cases and interventionary in others -- without resorting to Laura Secor's judgment. If national interest were the sole criterion, the US has a greater stake in Iran than in Darfur, so that can't be it. Secor's argument is apparently that foreign assistance destroys, rather than enhances the legitimacy of a movement within a country. In which case we ought to welcome Iranian intervention in Iraq on the grounds that the more EFPs and Qods fighters come over the border, the better it will be for Maliki's government. Yet somehow I doubt that is true either.
I think the real gist of Secor's argument is that America taints everything it touches. She sees the Iranian opposition as somehow pure and expresses a great admiration for it. Pity if we should be their friends, because then the Iranian opposition would be keeping bad company.
Maybe Secor is right, but not in the way that she intends. One of the problems with American involvement in any resistance movement against tyranny is that it inserts the politics of Washington into every calculation. American allies are quick to discover that US friendship will distort their every operational plan, complicate their every strategy, trivialize their every sacrifice. Maybe the real disadvantage to accepting American support is not that it comes with the opinions of Michael Ledeen attached, but that it inevitably brings in Laura Secor as well. Every resistance group facing the enemy knows what a mixed blessing the friendship of America brings and every democratic activist in Iran will profit from Sergeant Major Lejaune's address to the doomed soldiers of the French Foreign Legion bound for a forgotten Zinderneuf in Morocco in the movie March or Die:
Men of the Legion!
Forget France and do not try to escape.
If the desert doesn't get you,
the Arabs will. If the Arabs don't get you,
the Legion will.
If the Legion doesn't get you,
And honestly, I don't know which is worse.