A free market approach to foreign policy
August 7, 2007
For more than 3 years now, the same arguments have been traded and recycled in US policy talking/making circles regarding Iran's nuclear program and what must be done to stop it. Most "analyzes" go something like this: Iran can't have nuclear weapons because it would upset the balance of power in the Middle East (thus revoking Israel's cart blanche uses of force against whomever, wherever), would trigger an arms race (in which arms dealers would make a killing), and would destabilize the entire region (since it is so stable right now in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, etc...). The conversation has boiled down to 3 options--do nothing, attack Iran, or sanction now and try to negotiate. Two of which are pointless in my opinion (guess which ones!), leaving only one viable option on the table.
It is amazing to me how tortured and circular these discussions have become on the American side. I know in politics, what you say is more often meaningless, or means something else, or is some other semiotic gamesmanship, but I am surprised that no one has come out yet and said anything intelligent. You would expect given the number of candidates vying for the White House and the law of averages, someone would say something somewhat smart and interesting...Obviously, doing nothing is not an option for the Bush Administration, or whoever hopes to succeed it. Doing nothing never paid the bills or maintained the empire. Doing nothing makes you look bad. But "doing something", as in a "little something in Iraq and Afghanistan" makes you look pretty bad too, and lowers you approval ratings down to about the age of a legal drinker (in Canada).
So right now, everyone is about doing something about Iran, it is just not clear what because no one wants to tip their hand when the Presidency is in the pot, unless you are a complete idiot named John McCain who sings ‘Bomb Iran’ to lame ass Beach Boys songs. Regardless, it is prudent to demonstrate some testicular fortitude when discussing the subject. Everyone from Cheney to Condi to Hilary to Obama to John Edwards shares the same mantra on Iran (and I quote Hilary here): We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons. And in dealing with this threat, as I've also said for a long time, no option can be taken off the table.
Fair enough. I have always understood that line is for the cameras (except for when Cheney says it), and sadly, in politics vagueness is a strength. But no one is really saying anything intelligent on this topic right now. Beyond the politicians, even the policy wonks aren't really saying anything new or exciting. Books have been coming out at an impressive clip, all entitled "Nuclear Iran" or "Persian Puzzles" or "Confronting Iran's Nuclear Sphinx" or some other Orientalist crap. There is money to be made in analyzing Iran, and I don't even want to go near all the bougsie Iranian women's memoirs about pomegranates and love/hating their fathers. But these "political" books at best rehash the past 200 years or so of Iranian history (Persia humiliated in Great Game, Persia undergoes Constitutional Revolution, Persia becomes Iran, Pahlavis clumsily "modernize" Iran with unintended consequences, Mossadegh, growing discontent, Revolution, Hostages, Khomeini, War with Iraq, Great Satan, Reformists, Ahmadinejad hates Israel, nukes!...). Then a chapter or so predicting what may happen in the future between Iran and the US.
Articles and books that have come out, such as ones by Ansari, Pollack, Takeyh, and others that aren't coming to mind right now all float the possibility of some sort of "grand bargain", meaning a sweeping deal in which Iran would give up nuclear enrichment for some incentives, ranging from normalization of ties with the US to spare parts for ailing aircraft. During the Clinton Administration, there was talk of a "grand bargain" with Iran and there have been recent proposals floated by the Euro 3 on behalf of the US which are designed to dangle carrots in front of the regime in order give up enrichment. The so-called carrots in these offers are usually quite "modest", and when Iran denies these offers, it fuels the suspicion that its nuclear program is in fact not civilian in nature and must be nuclear. Additionally, for some inexplicable reason, these same critics ignore the cardinal rule of international relations, that of self-interest, when looking at Iran, and question why a country awash in hydrocarbons, would want to have nuclear power. After all, Iran does have the world's 2nd (or 3rd, depending on whose estimates you roll with) largest proven reserves of oil and 2nd largest reserves of natural gas.
But this is a profound leap in logic at best, and a deliberate disinformation campaign otherwise. If oil is selling for $70/barrel, and I have billions upon billions of barrels of oil, of course I want to power my own economy with an alternate fuel source and sell as much oil as I can to fat Americans who drive everywhere in monstrous cars that guzzle gas--that's called capitalism. Additionally, the Iranian regime makes convincing arguments in its favor regarding its right to nuclear power and technology which resonate with its otherwise disaffected populace. Most importantly, they have been able to link the issue of nuclear technology to that of sovereignty, and harness it to the ghosts of Iran's past, when the British controlled and largely reaped Iran's oil wealth, leading to the 1953 coup. Any policy that ignores Iranian history here is doomed to fail, but the US has a long a checkered history of such amnesiac foreign policy, best spelled O-S-A-M-A. More on that in a bit, as the latest chapter is just unfolding here in the Middle East.
If the US is truly interested in resolving the issue diplomatically, it has to be willing to pony up some big time money and party favors to accompany the sanctions talk. Remember, the operative word here being "if." Freedom is free, neither is peace and stability. Right now, Iran is enjoying considerable neighborhood influence, robust earnings from its oil earnings, and the fact that the US is completely over-committed militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan with little stomach (or cash) for another conflict. Translation: if you are America, you don't have a lot of leverage in any negotiations for the time being—explaining why Rice keeps rejecting Baker-Hamilton proposal calls to meet with Iran.
I think the Americans know they are at a disadvantage, which may explain why they are delaying having talks with Iran. Bush is effectively a lame duck, and he isn't much of a talker anyway-he’s a decider. It is cheaper for the US to engage in a game of political brinkmanship with Iran rather than to have to cut its losses and negotiate now at a much higher price. After all, we live in the country where CEOs and athletes make as much money as the market will bear. The US is currently taking rapprochement off the market, because it is too costly—naughty, naughty! Milton Friedman said bad shit goes down politically and socially when governments interfere with the market. Iran is in a position to demand a lot more than it would have been if the US hadn’t gotten bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. So basically, the US helped put Iran in the driver’s seat. But here is where things get interesting and the American talent for policy incoherence becomes laughable. One of the hallmarks of the Bush Administrations has been a repeated, openly stated commitment to democracy promotion in the Middle East. Indeed, Condi has shown a particular flair for explaining the Bush Administration’s policy wishes in the Middle East: "...60 years of turning our backs on democracy in the Middle East and favoring "stability" in the Middle East had given us neither stability nor democracy".
Yet last week Rice and Robert Gates visited the Middle East last week, hawking defense deals worth over $70 billion dollars to “friendly states”, with $30 billion of that aid earmarked for Israel to maintain a qualitatively superior military edge over its neighbors. I fail in seeing how the continued militarization and escalation of tensions in this already well-armed region will stabilize or democratize the Middle East, but then if I wait long enough, the winds will blow in a different direction and US policy in the regime will change again. Condi explains the arms deal as “a renewed commitment to the region to help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.” Oh. She must mean it like a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kinda-thing, not the “we-can-avoid-dealing-with-the problem-constructively-and-make-money-in-the-process” way. It's funny because when the US tried that out not so long ago in Afghanistan, it ended up empowering Osama Bin Laden and setting the stage for a prolonged civil conflict in Afghanistan that resulted in the Taliban coming to power. The same strategy was also used vis-à-vis Iraq and resulted in the now infamous photo of Donald Rumsfeld making a special visit to meet Saddam. The US armed Iraq in its bloody eight year conflict with Iran, only to fight Saddam three years later. Free market foreign policy may make a quick buck here and there, but something tells me in the near future that some US soldiers in the Middle East will be face to face with some very familiar-looking and expensive weapons. Comment