Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Tom Ricks was wrong on Iran’s containment

As we witnessed recently with the questioning of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair by the Chilcot inquiry, the debate over the war in Iraq is one that raises many issues and can be expected to continue for some time to come. But one issue, raised by my fellow FP blogger, Tom Ricks in a recent ...

By , a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

As we witnessed recently with the questioning of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair by the Chilcot inquiry, the debate over the war in Iraq is one that raises many issues and can be expected to continue for some time to come. But one issue, raised by my fellow FP blogger, Tom Ricks in a recent post, deserves some critical attention here: his contention that removing Saddam Hussein from power strengthened Iran by removing an Iraqi "bulwark" against Persian expansionism. 

Ricks' assertion is one that is oft-repeated but fundamentally mistaken. It is over-charitable to Saddam, who -- having invaded Kuwait, threatened Saudi Arabia, and harshly repressed Iraqis -- was no protector of his neighbors. And it is unfair to the current government of Iraq, which is not a client of Tehran's or passive in the face of Iranian bellicosity.

More importantly, however, the notion that our approach to regional security should be based on supporting a regime like Saddam's as a foil to Tehran should be rejected. We can pursue other more effective and more palatable means of countering Iran's threats, and indeed are pursuing them, as recent reporting in the Washington Post and elsewhere bears witness. In this regard, the Obama administration should hold firm on two important objectives. First, success in Iraq: one of the most potent blows to the Iranian regime, currently struggling against its own loss of legitimacy domestically, would be the emergence of a pluralistic and prosperous democracy in Shia-majority Iraq. Second, an unwavering policy of prevention toward Iran: that is, stressing that we remain determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, rather than resigned to their doing so and focused instead on future "containment."

As we witnessed recently with the questioning of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair by the Chilcot inquiry, the debate over the war in Iraq is one that raises many issues and can be expected to continue for some time to come. But one issue, raised by my fellow FP blogger, Tom Ricks in a recent post, deserves some critical attention here: his contention that removing Saddam Hussein from power strengthened Iran by removing an Iraqi "bulwark" against Persian expansionism. 

Ricks’ assertion is one that is oft-repeated but fundamentally mistaken. It is over-charitable to Saddam, who — having invaded Kuwait, threatened Saudi Arabia, and harshly repressed Iraqis — was no protector of his neighbors. And it is unfair to the current government of Iraq, which is not a client of Tehran’s or passive in the face of Iranian bellicosity.

More importantly, however, the notion that our approach to regional security should be based on supporting a regime like Saddam’s as a foil to Tehran should be rejected. We can pursue other more effective and more palatable means of countering Iran’s threats, and indeed are pursuing them, as recent reporting in the Washington Post and elsewhere bears witness. In this regard, the Obama administration should hold firm on two important objectives. First, success in Iraq: one of the most potent blows to the Iranian regime, currently struggling against its own loss of legitimacy domestically, would be the emergence of a pluralistic and prosperous democracy in Shia-majority Iraq. Second, an unwavering policy of prevention toward Iran: that is, stressing that we remain determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, rather than resigned to their doing so and focused instead on future "containment."

In one respect, however, Ricks is correct — the Iranian regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and support for terrorism pose a threat to the entire region, and countries of the region would be wise to work cooperatively to counter this threat. One of the trickiest issues in the way of a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace is security; to date, the perceived zero-sum tradeoff between Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty has proven unmanageable. The convergence in recent decades of threat perceptions in the region offers the opportunity for mutually beneficial approaches to the security issue which should not be neglected. Looking forward, it is such regional cooperation that will form the real "bulwark" against emerging threats, whether from Iran, terrorist networks, or elsewhere.

Michael Singh is a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC

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