Daniel W. Drezner

How to lose a foreign-policy debate that you could win

As someone who is pretty friggin’ wary about the use of American force in Syria, and as someone who does not shy away from snark in the blogosphere, I found Steve Walt’s top ten warning signs of liberal imperialism to be more alienating than endearing.  Part of it is the "liberal imperialism" label — as ...

As someone who is pretty friggin’ wary about the use of American force in Syria, and as someone who does not shy away from snark in the blogosphere, I found Steve Walt’s top ten warning signs of liberal imperialism to be more alienating than endearing. 

Part of it is the "liberal imperialism" label — as I noted when Mearsheimer first coined the term, it obfuscates far more than it reveals. Part of it is the absurdity of claiming that those advocating for intervention in Syria turn a blind eye to U.S. government abuses of civil liberties. Part of it is the post-Arab Spring pooh-poohing of non-Western desires for democracy. And part of it is the abject failure to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there are conceptual flaws contained within the realist worldview. Walt’s failure to acknowledge fallibility makes the entire post an exercise in elite condescension

There’s a lot of that going around these days — see, for example, Roger Cohen’s New York Review of Books evisceration of Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett’s new book Going to Tehran. If you read the entire review, it’s clear that Cohen sympathizes with large chunks of the Leveretts’ argument — that current U.S. policy toward Iran is blinkered, a ratcheting up of the conflict will accomplish little, so maybe some kind of rapprochement should be attempted. Despite Cohen’s sympathies to their logic, however, we get these passages in his review:

The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity.…

The overarching problem is that the Leveretts’ urge to defend the Islamic Republic’s every act destroys their credibility. It makes them implausible critics of US policy at a time when new thinking on Iran is urgently needed and a third US war in the Middle East looms. Going to Tehran could have been a useful book but it is buried in heavy doses of one-sided drivel.…

The Leveretts write:

For most Egyptians and other Middle Easterners, the “main division in the world” is not between democracies and dictatorships but between countries whose strategic autonomy is subordinated to the United States and countries who exercise genuine independence in policymaking.

On the contrary, everything I have seen and heard in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia over the past two years suggests it is precisely the quest for freedom from despotism that has driven brave people to revolution—the freedom at last to write and say what they like, act to change their lives, and join the modern world. This does not mean they want societies that are secular clones, or lackeys, of the West. But they are saying they do not want to live any longer in cowed societies riven by fear under the sway of an unaccountable authority. Khamenei’s Iran, and his position itself, is on the wrong side of this political tide.…

The Leveretts might have made a strong case for such creative diplomacy. A pity, then, that they see dark conspiracy in every US failing—and no failings on the other side. They blame America’s “imperial turn” and even suggest that President Obama’s “attempt to salvage Washington’s failed drive for regional hegemony could wind up doing more damage to American strategic prospects than George W. Bush’s debacles did.” They blame “liberal imperialists” (John Mearsheimer’s phrase), who, in the Leveretts’s telling, seem to include everyone from Secretary of State John Kerry to Leslie Gelb and Tom Friedman. They blame the neocons, of course, and they blame the Israel lobby, embodied by institutions like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where, as a note acknowledges, Hillary Mann Leverett once worked (and, as is not mentioned, wrote a paper in 1998 denouncing “Iranian links to international terrorism”).

They also blame the Iranian diaspora. And, in customary egregious style, they write that all four of these groups “use human rights issues as a tool to support American dominance over the Islamic Republic.” In the land of the Kahrizak Detention Center, scene of the worst abuses in 2009, and Evin Prison, human rights are a grave issue involving brutal mistreatment, not a “tool.”

Iran has been widely portrayed in the United States as an incarnation of evil. The Leveretts might have offered a counterbalancing account. Instead they have fallen prey to their own dangerous mythology of a benign Iranian order loved by its citizens. Their book is a disservice to truth and a betrayal of all the brave Iranians who, for more than a century now, have been seeking a political order that provides a genuine reconciliation of freedom, representative government, and faith.

This is the kind of review that makes it very easy to dismiss the entire book — regardless of the merit of the policy argument. 

What is it that causes Walt or the Leveretts (or Paul Krugman, if we’re going to go there) to cloak arguments in self-defeating exaggerations and overheated rhetoric? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have a hypothesis: This one of the lasting legacies of Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom altered the landscape in United States foreign policy about the use of force — but those in the foreign-policy community who argued against the war (and failed to dent either public or elite attitudes) have not caught up with that fact. It’s as if, over the past decade, prominent realists have adopted the worst rhetorical tropes of their ideological adversaries.

People who already decry the use of American force in Syria or elsewhere will enjoy Walt’s essay and the Leveretts’ book — they’re playing to their ideological base. As exercises in persuasion, however, they don’t just fail — they actively harm their cause.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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