Tufts Professor Daniel Drezner with the realists’ view of Iran and Iraq.
HH: Now, in the middle, making sort of the Iraq sandwich today, is Daniel Drezner. He’s a professor of international relations at Tufts University, a prolific blogger, and author of the forthcoming book called All Politics Is Global. Dan Drezner, welcome to the program. Nice to make your acquaintance.
DD: Thank you, Hugh. Thanks for having me on.
HH: You know, you’re so smart, I once classified you as a law professor, as opposed to a politics professor.
DD: That’s correct. Yes, I know you brought that…I should have realized that was a compliment, coming from a law professor.
HH: That is quite…that is probably the highest compliment going. I saw your Washington Post piece, Daniel Drezner, and I thought this is very useful to the audience as sort of a genealogy of grand theory. Can you explain to people the stumbling around that we’re going through right now in a search for George Kennan’s successor?
DD: Sure. Well, I mean, you know, ever since 9/11, Americans and policy makers at large want to have some sort of overarching framing device. They want to understand how can we view the world, how can we set things up so that American can best advance its own interests. And during the Cold War, the obvious grand strategy was containment, which George Kennan came up with first in 1946, in the long telegram, and then in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1947. But the problem we have now is that it’s not clear what our grand strategy is in terms of dealing with a whole variety of threats that the U.S. faces in the rest of the world. The obvious one is terrorism in the Middle East, as well as Iraq, but there are other people who believe there are other threats out there, such as the rise of China, or the growth of global pandemics, potentially, what have you. And as a result, it seemed appropriate to sort of write a piece serving what are the candidate grand strategies out there? What are people saying that we should do? And it’s not clear that there’s any consensus yet, and before, you might have argued there was at least a temporary consensus built around neoconservatism. But I think what’s happened in Iraq has eroded that consensus badly. And so people are sort of flailing about, looking for a potential successor.
HH: Now that’s where I immediately went to, is because of course while containment also suffered its erosion, it was eventually replaced by roll back, Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase, we win, they lose. And even before that, when Nixon, in Foreign Affairs in 1967, says you know, we’re going to have to do this differently and go after China. There was a constant evolution of the grand strategy. I guess it came down to we can’t get into a hot war with the Soviet Union. That was Mr. X. at its basic, wasn’t it?
DD: Right. I mean, the essence of containment was two things. The first was we have to deter the Soviets if they try to advance beyond, you know, their sort of general sphere of influence. So yes, they had Eastern Europe, yes they have China, at least at the time, and North Korea. But anyplace where we consider it a vital interest, we’ve got to oppose them with hard power. The other thing that Kennan proposed was pointing out that there could be, potentially, fissures within the communist bloc.
DD: He was obsessed with Tito, with Yugoslavia, pointing out that Tito would potentially not have the same strategy as the Soviet Union, and therefore, in terms of expansion, we should promote divisions within the communist bloc. And you’re right, containment varied. What George Kennan said was containment differed somewhat from what Paul Nitze said was containment in 1950, which differed, as I said in the article, from what Kissinger viewed it, to what Reagan viewed it. And you know, it’s easier in…after the Cold War ended, to just sort of look back and argue oh, we had…there was this clear, coherent strategy that we implemented and it worked wonderfully, when in fact, for those of us who remember those times, it didn’t always look that smooth.
HH: Is it possible, Dan Drezner, that the prospect of realism which is really sort of containment’s best friend right now, is as dangerous to our decision making as today, as balance of power interlocking agreements were to the new situation of 1914?
DD: Well, the real danger in 1914 wasn’t so much belief in the balance of power, it was the belief put forward by someone like Norman Angell, who claimed the world was so interdependent, we’d never go to war. And that is what he argued in a famous book called The Great Illusion, in 1913, famously predicting everyone is so interdependent now, we’ll never go to war again. And of course, a year later, he was proven wrong.
HH: And all he had to do was click the alliances into place, and make reciprocal agreements, so that no one would dare start the dominos. But that was all based on balance of power, that the world had changed.
DD: To some extent. I mean, I don’t know if realism is really…the problem is that its not clear whether or not the rest of the country’s going to embrace all of what real politic offers. And furthermore, it’s not clear the realists themselves agree on much. They generally want to get out of Iraq, and they want to see a sort of general retrenchment of U.S. power, but realists, you know, at least at the really sort of high academic level, often divide into what are called off-shore balancers, the ones who want to get U.S. forces pretty much out of everywhere, and only intervene if they believe there’s a real crisis, and then those who are called selective engagers, who are a little more ambitious in terms of U.S. power projection.
HH: And I love those classifications, but Professor Drezner, and I had this debate Wednesday night last with a former deputy to Gates, who’s an old friend, a college roommate, in fact. And I just asked him, do you believe Ahmadinejad, in possession of a nuke, would use it against Israel? Do you, Professor Drezner?
DD: No, because I don’t think Ahmadinejad could actually launch the nuke. And this is a key thing. It’s not that he wouldn’t want to. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure there’s a tendency, within the West in particular, to blow up Ahmadinejad as being more powerful than he actually is. The guy that you care about in Iran is Ali Khamenei, who’s the grand cleric.
HH: Actually, I care about Yazdi, because Khamenei might be on his way out, right?
DD: Right, right. I mean, it’s a question of who replaces him. But I mean, the fact that Ahmadinejad got killed in the municipal elections that were just held suggests to me that in fact, you know, hopefully, his power is on the wane. And the fact that there were protestors at the Holocaust conference that he held, and the fact that those protests were shown on state television, is really what’s particularly telling.
HH: Now Benjamin Netanyahu said today in Tel Aviv, told 60 foreign ministers that they aim for a one thousand year Islamic reich. If you’re wrong, aren’t you gambling with the existence of Israel by suggesting containment might be, or that some of the grand policy…not you, but some of these theorists are out there pushing realism at the expense of Israel’s viability, and an existential threat across striking distance?
DD: No, I think it’s a risk. There’s no question about that, and realists have to be appropriate about this. They have to say look, we are acknowledging that there might be the risk that someone like Ahmadinejad might get control of nuclear weapons, and might act in an irrational manner, because let’s face it. If Iran launches nuclear weapons against Israel, nuclear weapons are going to get launched against Iran.
HH: Oh, you bet.
DD: I don’t know who’s going to do it. So this again, is the logic of mutually assured destruction. Surely, the Iranians would not therefore do it, because they recognize what the consequences are…
HH: Unless they’re millennialists who believe it brings the occulted imam back.
DD: No, that’s correct. If you’ve got someone who really does not care about the corporeal world, as it were, then yes, it’s an interesting possibility, and it’s something that realists have to acknowledge as a potential pitfall to their strategy.
HH: Are they? That’s really what I come back to. My great frustration with my friends in the realist camp is that they just don’t seem to me to ever want to engage seriously with the idea that they are playing dice with Israel.
DD: I think again, usually, the realists that I would talk to will usually give one of two answers. The first one is, the one I said before, is that it’s not clear that even if Ahmadinejad is crazy, that he actually has the power to do this. Politics in Iran is such that it’s not clear that this is the guy who’s actually got his finger on the button. And so therefore, to some extent, he’s less relevant than all this sort of blatherings about the Holocaust, and about wiping Israel off the map, suggest he is. I mean, certainly, it’s disconcerting that he’s the president and saying all this stuff. But if he doesn’t have his finger on the button, then it doesn’t matter.
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HH: Professor, I had on earlier today Arthur Herman, grand historian, but also the Commentary lead article from last month, arguing for a military option vis-a-vis Iran. To hell with containment sort of thing. And you tend to, I think, overlook or minimize that robust offensive grand theory. Why?
DD: I think there are two reasons. The first is, I don’t think it’s going to sell to the country. I mean, one of the things I talked about in the article, in the Washington Post piece, was whether or not any of these grand strategies would resonate with the American people. I mean, there is a domestic political constraint on a lot of these things. And I mean, let’s face it. You know, you’ve seen the opinion polls. There is not a lot of enthusiasm within the country right now for the current course in Iraq. It’s not clear to me that there’s going to be a lot of support for a demonstration of force against Iran, despite all of Iran’s unbelievably bad behavior. That’s the first problem. The second problem is, and I haven’t read the Herman piece, so you can probably disagree with me if I get this wrong, the question isn’t so much the use of force, it’s what happens after that. Is Herman proposing we just bomb Iran? Or is it proposing actual trying to take territory?
HH: Oh, no, he’s bomb Iran, shut off the oil, take out their refineries, methodically reduce their air defenses, but no ground troops, except to occupy their off-shore oil facilities.
DD: I mean, the problem with that is that might be one of the few things that would actually bolster the Ahmadinejad regime. I mean, this is the thing, to get back to our conversation before about whether or not realists are risking the security of Israel by pursuing an off-shore balancing approach, the question has to become, the response is, do those who are proposing a more robust military response threaten a backlash among Iranians? That is, there’s not a lot of love right now for the Ahmadinejad regime within Iran. Would bombing the country actually lead to a rally around the flag effect, which would then cause a much more nationalist Iran to emerge in the end?
HH: And now, going back to 1938, the familiar and often irritating comparison, especially the appeasement word sends many people just around the edge. How is that response in the minds of the…you can’t do that, that’ll make them mad, different from Baldwin, Chamberlain, et al?
DD: Well, remember, I’m not saying you can’t do that, it’ll make him mad. I’m saying you wouldn’t necessarily want to do that, because you’re going to make all Iranians mad. The problem right now, I mean, the thing right now is that Ahmadinejad is somewhat constrained by the fact that he’s domestically, increasingly unpopular. And so therefore, to some extent, what you want him to do is just to continue to implode. If, on the other hand, you decide to bomb the country, you probably would stop…presumably, you’d delay, at least, Iran’s nuclear program by a couple of years, if you’re lucky, although my understanding is that they’ve got a lot of their program underground. And also, remember you’re asking us to rely now on intelligence that did get Iraq wrong. How do we know we’re going to get Iran right if we actually try to bomb places?
HH: But that line of argument would paralyze us permanently from any use of military force, correct? And we also have Mossad backing us up this time.
DD: Carried to an extreme, yeah.
HH: We’ve got Mossad on our side, so we can be a little bit more reliable about this…
DD: Well, I would ordinarily say that, but after Mossad’s performance in Lebanon, I’m not terribly confident about them, either, frankly.
HH: Touche, touché. Now, but going back to the appeasement analogy…
HH: Certainly, if we had stopped the reindustrialization of the Rhineland, if we’d gone to prevent the Anschluss with Austria…
HH: …if we had…the Germans would have been mad at us, too.
DD: Yes, absolutely.
HH: And so, I don’t know how this is not just a replay of ’38, and I really want to give someone who’s skilled at this the opportunity to tell me why it’s a flawed analogy.
DD: I think it’s a flawed analogy, because although the Iranians certainly aspire to sort of being a regional heavyweight, it’s not clear to me that A) the Iranians are so stupid as to try to launch a general war in the Middle East. And B) they’ve got their hands full with Iraq, too. If we were to actually…you know, the realist argument would be, and again, I’m…bear in mind, I’m speaking for the realists. I’m not claiming that I necessarily agree with them. But to take their position, presumably, their argument would be that if we pull out of Iraq, it hands the problem over to Iran. And it’s not like Iran is necessarily going to be able to suddenly put the country back together again, either. They’re going to be a little big preoccupied with that. But I agree with you that one of the risks of doing that is that it risks a wider war, in that you have all of the various players in the region, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia most certainly, basically engaging in a proxy war in Iraq. Part of the problem, though, is simply that I don’t think…the Iranians simply don’t have the army capable of…they’re not the vermacht. They’re not going to be able to roll over Saudi Arabia or Jordan, or any of these countries in six weeks. It’s not going to work like that.
HH: Hezbollah took out Israel, held them down…
DD: Hezbollah resisted Israel. Hezbollah didn’t achieve…Hezbollah can’t acquire and keep territory, though. That’s the difference. What’s becoming clearer now is that it’s simply become much tougher. If Iraq and Lebanon should teach the U.S. anything, it’s that it’s tougher to go on the offensive than it used to be. It’s much easier to stay on the defensive.
HH: Daniel Drezner, we’re out of time. Professor, great first conversation. I look forward to many more.
End of interview.