Council On Foreign Relations’ Peter Beinart makes his case for engagement and appeasement with Iran.
HH: Let’s go from Victor Davis Hanson on the West Coast to Peter Beinart on the East Coast. Our old friend is now ensconced at the Council On Foreign Relations. Peter, Happy New Year to you.
PB: To you as well.
HH: You must be very pleased. Everything is new again, and the world is ordered.
PB: The world is pretty cold, actually, here in Washington, I have to say. But yeah, you know, I think you’ve got someone with politics who are like mine, you have to be generally pretty happy. And look, I think no matter what your politics, you’ve got to think everyone’s got to think that it’s pretty amazing that America elected an African-American.
HH: On that last point, we agree. I’ve written about that. But I want to turn to the article you wrote for Time Magazine called The Solvency Doctrine, and specifically the power deficit that you write President Obama inherits from President Bush that finds us overextended and under-allied. And you come up with some suggestions. So the first question is, what’s more important – getting our drawdown going and reducing our commitments, or adding to our ally total, Peter Beinart?
HH: Anywhere. You tell me.
PB: Gosh, well I mean, look, in Iraq, there’s no prospect of us getting, I think, international troop support in Iraq. I think a challenge in Iraq is with, the numbers are clearly going down, and the great question is can we reduce the numbers of troops in Iraq without Iraq going back to the chaos of 2006?
HH: And you wrote in this piece, “The most obvious commitment Obama wants to liquidate, of course, is the war in Iraq. But how can the U.S. draw down its troop levels without letting Iraq spiral out of control? The answer at least in part is to end another conflict, America’s proxy war with Iran. Since Iran is the other big foreign power with influence in Baghdad, the U.S. needs its help to prevent Iraq from sliding back into anarchy as we withdraw. A better relationship with Iran might make it easier to achieve calm if not peace between Israel and its two non-state foes, Hezbollah and Hamas, since Tehran arms and bankrolls both terrorist groups.” Now Peter Beinart, do you see any reason to believe that Iran is interested in that kind of de-escalation?
PB: Well, I don’t think Iran wants a failed state in Iraq, because you know, that’s chaos on their border. They don’t want an American client state in Iraq, either. But remember, the people who are running Iraq, who are our allies, are basically also their allies. I mean, Dawa and Skiri, these Shia Islamist parties, were basically created in Iraq. So in truth, in a way, there are a lot of common interests of the United States and Iran in Iraq. And I think if Iran does not feel like the U.S. is pursuing a regime change there, then I think it becomes much easier for it to work with us to basically have a stable, Shia Islamist government in Iraq, which is basically, I think, the best case scenario we’re going to get.
HH: Now Peter Beinart, that sounds very rational, but again, I go back to what their pattern of behavior has been, especially in the last month during the Gaza conflict. They put a bounty on the head of Hosni Mubarak, they turned out tens of thousands of people in Tehran chanting the old Death to America stuff. They are as aggressive as they have ever been, and perhaps even more desperate because of the plummeting price of oil. You know, it’s lovely to wish for a better relationship with Iran, but that sounds a lot like appeasement in the 30s when people wished Hitler hadn’t been Hitler, but he turned out to be Hitler.
PB: Oh, you know, I mean, trotting out this appeasement of Hitler thing, I mean, this is just really…I mean, you know, there are many, many historical analogies one can draw on without always going back to that. You know, Nazi Germany, for starters, was at the time, it looked like the greatest, most powerful industrial military nation in the world. Iran is not that. Has the Iranian regime been a bad guy? Absolutely terrible guys. Awful, awful guys. But there have been, there are, we don’t have, I think, good military options there, I think, as I think even as the Bush administration has acknowledged. And I think that in the long term, our best opportunity for changing the regime is going to be to kind of, is going to be greater engagement with Iran. And Iran has at times acted pretty pragmatically. I mean, they didn’t, they could have told Hezbollah, you know, open another front against Israel during the Hamas war, and they didn’t. To say that they can be pragmatic is not to say that they’re good guys. They’re not good guys.
HH: Now wait a minute. Do you think that the restraint that Hezbollah, if we call it that, demonstrated during the last conflict in Gaza was because they were being told by Iran not to be bad boys? Or because they were afraid of getting smashed by the IDF if they were bad boys?
PB: Well, it could be both. I don’t know. But I think that the truth is, that if you look at the history of Iranian foreign policy going back to 1979, Iranian foreign policy has not been like al Qaeda’s foreign policy. It has not been suicidal. It has been very, very pragmatic. I mean, the Iranians helped us overthrow the Taliban in 2001, for instance. There have been times when in fact the U.S. and Iran have cooperated.
HH: Again, I want to go back to the 30s. I know it drives liberals crazy, because it was…
PB: No, no, it doesn’t drive liberals crazy, it’s just so historically sloppy. I mean, to basically use that as a kind of…it’s the equivalent of basically liberals trotting out Vietnam to describe every war. I mean, the analogies are just so poor.
HH: No, they’re not, actually. I think that’s ridiculous, and in fact, folks like Victor Davis Hanson and other military historians disagree with you, Peter. They’re uncomfortable for the left, but the fact is you have an aggressive power, though perhaps not one as well-armed and as well-positioned as Hitler’s Germany in ’36-’37…
PB: It’s not a global power. Iran is not a global power.
HH: The definition of a global power has changed dramatically when you have proxies with weapons of mass destruction. And I just go back to the central purpose here, which is should we be pretending that hostile powers are willing to negotiate with us when they’re not? And I’m just looking for evidence, any evidence that they’re…
PB: We don’t…we do know that Iran was willing to negotiate with us after 9/11. In fact, they were very helpful, we probably would not have gotten the Karzai government stood up without their help. And there’s also evidence that they wanted a much more full-throated change in the U.S. relationship. I don’t know whether a kind of full-throated diplomatic engagement with Iran will produce something. It might not. It might be a failure. But I do think we know is that the Bush administration was too internally conflicted to try, and that I think it is worth trying, because I think the alternative is really terrible.
HH: Peter, again, I’m going back, this is just an objective question. What evidence do you have that they were looking for a better relationship with us in 2002, 2003, 2004?
PB: Well, we know that they were very supportive in the Afghan effort, right? I mean, that they basically, that the U.S. was working pretty closely with them in basically its effort to overthrow the Taliban, which the Iranians hated, and also that the Iranians were really important in basically supporting the Karzai government in the Bonn Conference that they held after the overthrow, that they were working very closely with us. A lot of other people have written basically about, I mean, there’s a debate about this, but there’s no question that there was some Iranian diplomatic overture even more broadly than Afghanistan after 9/11.
HH: And offering Saad bin Laden…
PB: The Iranians did not celebrate 9/11.
HH: Of course they didn’t, but offering, of course they didn’t publicly. Offering Saad bin Laden a place to go and hang his hat under “house arrest” – was that a hostile act to the United States?
PB: Well, I mean, many people who were in the administration at that time have argued that in fact the Iranians basically tried to hand us over some of those al Qaeda people as part of a totally new kind of relationship with the U.S.
HH: And who made that argument? I’m unaware of that.
PB: Well, Flynt Leverett, for instance, who had basically the Iran-Syria portfolio at the NSC.
HH: Okay, I’m unaware. Has he published that? I haven’t seen it.
PB: Oh, yeah, for the New America Foundation. I mean, again, some people have disputed this, but this has been written about a lot.
HH: Okay, now up to date, right now, we’ve got about a minute left, has there been anything in the last year that would lead you to believe that Tehran is waiting for President Obama’s envoys to approach them so that peace can break out and they will abandon their nuclear program?
PB: No, I think that, I don’t know if the Iranians will go for that or not. It may be that Iran has made a decision it’s hell bent, that they’re basically going to develop a nuclear weapon no matter what. But I certainly think that we need to make every possible opportunity to find that out before we’re faced with either having to swallow an Iranian nuclear weapon, or basically to take military action that even the Bush administration decided would be a really bad idea.
HH: Peter Beinart, great to have you back from the Council On Foreign Relations, look forward to more conversations in the era of Obama.
End of interview.