Monday, April 16, 2007

"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 J├╝rgen 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.

Commentary

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,
I will.
And honestly, I don't know which is worse.

7 Comments:

Blogger Reocon said...

Alas Wretchard, you are operating out of your league and know not what you castigate. I've been following the alliance between the liberal hawks and the neocons ever since the Bosnian conflict. Secor is a liberal hawk who supported the Clintonian intervention there. She is an advocate of US power when she deems it necessary.

You are curiously obtuse to her central point. If the democratic dissidents of Iran do not want US assistance, or deem it pernicious, should we still force it upon them? Is that really what you're saying? How do you propose to advance democracy across the globe and yet ignore world opinion? You seem deeply confused here.

4/16/2007 08:51:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Well, it's not as if everybody in Iran agrees with Ms. Secor. Here's the president of the national council of resistance in Iran arguing against the engagement of the mullahs. Here's another, from the NY Sun describing oppositions who seek "support from Western democracies, including America, the country he fought against in 1979 when he was a member of the Revolutionary Guard.

"We need America to defend the democratic rights of the Iranian people. We want this right to vote in a referendum, we don't want the current constitution, we want to change it," he said. "We need practical help to defend Iranian people. If the Americans can use international policy and sanctions, not against the Iranian people, but against the officials of the regime, this would be good. The people of Iran would like to see the bank accounts frozen for the regime officials. If they publish the bank accounts, the Iranian people will be very happy."


The Iranian opposition is a mixed bag with dangerous and sincere characters. Some of the opposition is Leftist, some is actually Islamic. A moment's consideration would show that if America "did nothing" as Ms. Secor suggests, while Iran's internal security and the various secret services in the area, including Pakistan's "did something", America would actually be "doing something" -- that something being dealing itself out the game.

4/16/2007 09:20:00 PM  
Blogger Reocon said...

Come now Wretchard. Arguing against engagement with the Mullahs is not the same as accepting CIA money to fund your resistance to the Iranian state and having to explain it to your fellow patriots, as in the first link. Somehow you also fail to note that this op-ed by Maryan Rajavi states her support for the truly insane People's Mujahedeen! Rajavi ask that the US remove the "terrorts tage" from a cult-like terrorist organization. Did you read this article?! Do you have any idea who the People's Mujahedeen is?

As to your link to the neocon organ the NYSun, with it admitted (and admittedly depressed) neocon editor Eli Lake, you somehow fail to note that Mohsen Sazegra is making the call you cite from London in 2004:

"We think this is a good step that all the opposition groups are united in one direction, the direction of the referendum," Mohsen Sazegra said in a telephone interview from London. "As far as I know, this is a unique event. All groups from monarchists to republicans, from left to right are now behind us and they support the referendum movement."

Ah yes, another London exile claiming to speak for all the dissident groups from abroad! Did you learn nothing from Ahmed Chalabi? Ridiculous. The People's Mujahedeen? Appalling.

Try again; what other dissident group in Iran do you think would be willing to accept CIA money and be effective with the Iranian people?

Lastly, I don't have, as you do, a subscription to the liberal hawk "The New Republic". Maybe you can tell me: is Secor advocating doing nothing, or is she proposing that CIA funding for dissident groups in Iran is counter-productive?

4/17/2007 06:18:00 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

It's a good thing there were no Laura Secor's around whispering in the ears of those blasted frogs who aided the American revolutionaries.

4/17/2007 06:49:00 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

Ms. Secor and her miserable colleagues at the NYT, are so crippled by BDS that they are incapable of doing anything for any reason other than their hatred of George Bush. If he advocated the policy she argued for, she would change her mind. There is no reason to make logical arguments about her policy recommendations, she cannot be argued out of positions she was not argued into.

4/17/2007 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...

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.

BS - it has nothing to do with American involvement. The reason for persecution of these people by the Iranian state is due to their actions in requesting human rights or freedom of speech or female equality or democracy. These are proscribed actions, crimes in Iran that require no further impetus to be prosecuted for.

4/17/2007 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger Evanston2 said...

Reocon, your remarks are lucid and interesting but please spare us the "neocon" labels and try to stick with analysis of policy options.

Further, Wretchard laid out the issue that he wanted to deal with in the opening sentence of his comment -- he was not necessarily dealing with Secor's central thesis.

Wretchard's focus was on the question of whether American aid is counterproductive (due to "tainting" the supported groups) or if it's productive. He finished by noting that the American aid is historically a "mixed blessing" due to strings attached by both the Ledeens and Secors of this world. It's an important question, not simply concerning Iran but also the future of American aid in a world full of dictatorships and ringed by Islam's bloody borders.

Personally, I believe that dictatorships and Islamists will always paint the opposition as supported by America (the Great Satan) whether it's true or not. That is, the "tainting" will inevitably be pushed in tyrannical/Islamist, propaganda...so I'd back any democracy movements willing to take the aid, period. If a government is violently hostile toward the U.S., acceptance of the status quo (evil deeds unpunished) only spurs more attacks on our interests and our people.

4/18/2007 11:51:00 AM  

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