Ethics & Public Policy Center

False Choice

Published in National Review Online on November 27, 2006

What do realists want? In a post titled “Three Foreign Policies,” I argued that the apparent agreement among those calling for talks with Iran and Syria disguises profound differences. Democratic doves want talks to secure American withdrawal from Iraq. Tough-minded realists like Henry Kissinger look to talks (fueled by economic sanctions and an implicit threat of force) to produce a bargain that blocks Iran’s nuclear program. Yet Kissinger isn’t the only kind of “realist.” There are plenty of realists who believe that, just as we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and China during the Cold War, we can tolerate a nuclear Iran now. So the apparent agreement among those calling for talks with Iran and Syria disguises a wide spectrum of underlying differences.In “Surrender as ‘Realism,'” Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol argue that the realists pushing for negotiations with Iran want to turn a blind eye to Iran’s nuclear program. After all, Secretary Rice has already agreed to talks, on condition that Iran suspend its nuclear program. So an unconditional call for talks, Kagan and Kristol argue, proves that realists are willing to live with a nuclear Iran. I certainly think this is true for some realists. But I also believe that tougher minded realists like Kissinger see talks (in conjunction with economic sanctions and an implicit threat of force) as a way to disarm Iran.So the distinction between “realists” and “neocons” breaks down. The more important difference, I would argue, is between those who think we can live with a nuclear Iran and those who are determined to prevent the nuclear arming of this master terrorist state (and the proliferation nightmare that will follow from that). Kissinger wants to use a combination of carrots, sticks and negotiations to disarm Iran. The neocons want regime change. Yet, reading between the lines of Kissinger’s writings, he clearly understands that negotiations and sanctions may themselves become routes to a military option if Iran fails to come across. In any case, Kissinger and the neocons alike see Iranian nukes as a catastrophe, and preventing proliferation as a critical aim of American policy.

I think it’s dangerous to pose American foreign policy as a choice between neocons and realists. That’s because the neocons are right about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, but wrong, I believe, about the advisability of rapid democratization. My fear is that the failure of rapid democratization will seem to validate the realists entirely, when in fact it is only realist skepticism about rapid democratization that has been borne out, not realist faith in our ability to contain and deter a newly nuclearized Middle East.

The prospect of nuclear terror and/or of newly nuclearized Middle Eastern powers gaining de facto control of the world’s oil jugular: these are the greatest threats to America. They ought to be at the center of both the rhetoric and the reality of American foreign policy, as now they are not. Democratization can work only over the long term and only after substantial underlying cultural change. By posing American foreign policy as a choice between neocons and realists on democratization, we risk evading and confusing the real issue. The realists are divided on whether we can live with a nuclear Iran, and there are also plenty of hawks like me who are focused on the dangers of a nuclear Iran, yet also skeptical of ambitious plans for rapid democratization. The old labels are breaking down and the issue of a nuclear Iran will (I hope) become our central question. But for now, the central issue is still hidden behind the superficial consensus among those calling for talks, and the false choice between supposed neocon and realist camps.

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