Doctors like to talk about expected outcomes – we start you on this medication, you lose fifty pounds, stop smoking, and exercise four hours a day, and if you live from this point forward on wilted spinach, raw garlic and green tea, you may not die just yet. But there’s no guarantee. Surgery may yet be necessary.
You nod, because you get it. There are no guarantees in life. You do your best, and understand that doing your best is only tangentially related to things turning out the way you’d like, and as far as you can tell most often not related at all. The doctor may be trying to give you hope, but not unreasonable hope, or just heading off any future lawsuit from your heirs based on implied promises. It doesn’t matter. You know that doing what you should, as often as you can, is, in the end, quixotic nonsense. You always knew that, when you were being honest with yourself. But you do it, whatever it is, because… well, you just do it. There’s no honorable alternative. And suddenly you need a smoke. It’s the rebel in you.
Of course this dynamic describes our foreign policy too – really, honest. Think of the Middle East and the quest that the neoconservatives of the Project for the New American Century led us on – to overthrow one nasty dictator and create a Jeffersonian secular democracy in the middle of that mess of a region, one with an unregulated free-market economy and that would be pro-American and pro-Israel and all that good stuff. It was the right thing to do. Our intentions were noble. We were willing to sacrifice our economy and the lives of our young, to do the right thing – spread democracy and the economic underpinning that made it possible. No one should live under the thumb of a murderous jerk, and everyone should have their say in how things are run – within reason of course. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
But of course the relationship between what you do to actual outcomes is always a crapshoot – cause and effect is never what you think. In spite of what the White House said, and all the pundits from Kristol in the Weekly Standard to Krauthammer in the Washington Post and on Fox News, to Freidman in the New York Times, what they said about this thing causing that other thing to happen was just guessing. Or it was informed advice (and cheerleading) – in a world where cause and effect seem an ongoing cosmic joke on us all. At least the doctor was honest – there are no guarantees.
And save for a few policy wonks with knowledge of the region, and Obama, Howard Dean, Al Gore and the rest of the left-of-left liberals who everyone dismissed at the time, no one seemed to realize that as we decided which Shiites should run the new Iraq, the Shiite government of neighboring Iran would be the big winner in the region. Yep, we made that one-third of the Axis of Evil more powerful. At no cost they got a Shiite ally next door, one financed by the taxpayers of the United States. And they went merrily on their way, going nuclear – and our enemy. Our CIA managed the 1953 coup that dumped their democratically elected government, too socialist for our taste, and gave them the Shah, and after their revolution in 1979, that established their theocracy – and all that business with holding our hostages so long and embarrassing Jimmy Carter no end – they got the last laugh. We committed nearly all our resources to ridding the region of folks they didn’t particularly like, and left ourselves with nothing to throw at them but stern words – we didn’t have any sticks and stones we could spare.
But then, they too got in trouble, as they botched an election and by Thursday, June 18, you got this – “Hundreds of thousands of black-clad protesters massed quietly in central Tehran on Thursday for another day of protest over last week’s disputed presidential election, even as the Iranian government made its first move toward some form of dialogue to defuse the outrage.”
And the Wall Street Journal reported the usual:
A state television channel in Iran said the government summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran, to complain about American interference. The two countries broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. An English-language state-run channel quoted the government as calling Western interference “intolerable.”
Yeah, well – whatever. We have been staying out of it – our official position is we don’t know who won the election, and we’ll wait and see. Of course this has outraged the Republicans – the perpetually proudly angry John McCain, and many others, saying Obama has to speak out, and side with the new guy, and say he won. And we should offer support – send in a few divisions if necessary, or some such thing. We should stand up for democracy, and not only say we’re on their side, but take action. You know, like we did in Hungary in 1956 – except we didn’t do anything. No matter. We cannot stand aside – as McCain said, we’re all Georgians now. It’s the same sort of thing.
But then there’s Henry Kissinger, the smartest person John McCain says he knows, saying this:
Well, you know, I was a McCain supporter and – but I think the president has handled this well. Anything that the United States says that puts us totally behind one of the contenders, behind Mousavi, would be a handicap for that person. And I think it’s the proper position to take that the people of Iran have to make that decision.
Of course, we have to state our fundamental convictions of freedom of speech, free elections, and I don’t see how President Obama could say less than he has, and even that is considered intolerable meddling. He has, after all, carefully stayed away from saying things that seem to support one side or the other. And I think it was the right thing to do because public support for the opposition would only be used by the – by Ahmadinejad – if I can ever learn his name properly – against Mousavi.
Damn – Henry is saying you do have to think about consequences, cause and effect, at least just a little. And you remember this from Dick Cheney – “My take on it was Colin had already left the party – I didn’t know he was still a Republican.” He was saying Rush Limbaugh was the right guy to decide who is a real Republican, and Colin Powell wasn’t one of them anymore. Rush goes after Henry now, and Dick smiles.
But it gets really complicated. There’s Mousavi’s external spokesman, Mohsen Makhmalbaf – “Ahmadinejad is the Bush of Iran. And Mousavi is the Obama of Iran.” Ouch.
But no one knows what’s going to happen, and in an unusual column in Time, now cited everywhere, Tony Karon argues that there’s no one if-then way to think about what happens next. Maybe the pundits have learned – you offer an array of possible outcomes. In fact, he offers four mutually exclusive expected outcomes in The End Game in Iran: Four Ways the Crisis May Resolve – you can expect only one of them.
The set-up is this:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei appear to have been taken aback by the surge in support for the pragmatic conservative candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The decision to hastily announce what many say was an improbable landslide victory for Ahmadinejad touched off an unprecedented wave of protests that have rocked Khamenei, who has since backtracked by ordering an investigation into claims of voter fraud. Despite violent attacks on demonstrators and arrests of political figures, security forces have in the main refrained from unleashing their repressive might on the demonstrators who are openly defying the law. The partial recount of the vote has bought Khamenei time, but the crisis of legitimacy facing those in power grows by the day.
And given that, you can expect Iranian Revolution 2.0 – although he considers that improbable:
For one thing, the protest movement is being led by a faction of the Islamic Republic’s political establishment, whose members stand to lose a great deal if the regime is brought down and, thus, have to calibrate their dissent. More important, an unarmed popular movement can topple an authoritarian regime only if the security forces switch sides or stay neutral. But Iran’s key security forces – the Élite Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Basij militia – are bastions of support for Ahmadinejad. And they have hardly used a fraction of their repressive power. Also, while the opposition draws far larger crowds, there are still millions of Iranians strongly backing Ahmadinejad.
So even if the government is unable to destroy the opposition, it’s unlikely that the opposition will be in a position to destroy the government.
How about a Tehran Tiananmen – you know, a bloody crackdown, a massive use of military force that would terrify the opposition into submission? He says don’t count on it, as “a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown would be a potentially fatal wound to the regime’s own sources of legitimacy – its limited but lively democracy and the backing of Shiite clergy.” It’s possible, but these guys don’t want to come off as the new Shah – slapping around those who disagree with them. As Karon puts it – “A harsh crackdown, even if followed by reforms, would solve an immediate crisis, but at the cost of inflicting a possibly fatal long-term wound on the regime.”
But it is possible, unless we get Khamenei’s “Divine” Retreat:
Khamenei blundered when he yoked his own position as Supreme Leader – which is typically above the factional fray of the regime’s politics – so closely to Ahmadinejad. He issued a barely disguised public endorsement of the candidate, and then rushed to proclaim Ahmadinejad’s “divine victory” and order all Iranians to accept it.
So he just dumps the guy – he can say it’s Allah’s Will. Case closed. It could happen.
And finally Karon suggests that there’s the Zimbabwe Option:
The option that would likely hold the most appeal to Khamenei now would be to broker an agreement similar to the one that has kept Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, in power despite essentially losing an election – by bludgeoning the opposition into settling for an important yet subordinate role in his government. …
By so doing, Khamenei would hope that the pragmatic conservatives – embodied by Mousavi – can be weaned away from the reformists (led by former President Mohammed Khatami) by giving them a stake in a national unity government and promises to moderate Ahmadinejad’s style of governance.
That would only work “if Mousavi believed that he was losing the battle and risked disaster by keeping his supporters out on the street.” That doesn’t seem to be the case.
So Karon, unlike all the other dead certain pundits, essentially says… go fish. Like any doctor speaking about expected outcomes, he says there are no guarantees. McCain and the rest, trying to find some way to bring Obama down a peg or two, somehow, say otherwise. Consider the last eight years of what we’ve been up to over there, or reflect on your own personal experience with cause and effect. You know better.
Douglas Muir, on the other hand, running down all the possibilities, in detail, says he knows better:
And finally, the government is both willing and able to use massive force: China, Burma, Armenia. In these cases, the government wins. There is, in recent history, not a single clear counterexample. If the government keeps its nerve, and the men with guns stay loyal, and the regime is willing to escalate without limit – the government wins.
Relevance to Iran: Looks pretty high right now. While there are some reports of unease among the security forces, it appears the police and the military are holding steady.
Until and unless this changes, Ahmadinejad looks quite secure – green paint and massive street protests notwithstanding.
Well, we’ll see.
And as for the grand neoconservative quest, there are still defenders of that, like Daniel Finkelstein:
I am a neocon. Given all that has happened over the past ten years, I am sure my PR consultant would advise me to drop this label. But I don’t employ a PR consultant. So, stubbornly, I cling on to the designation. It declares my belief in two things – that in every country in the world, wherever it may be and whatever its traditions, the people yearn for liberty, for free expression and for democracy; and that the spread of liberty and democracy (not necessarily through the barrel of a gun) is the only real way to bring peace to the world. I believe that what we are seeing on the streets of Iran now is a vindication of these neoconservative ideas.
Hilzoy (Hilary Bok) considers this nonsense:
I do not believe that everyone yearns for liberty, free expression, and democracy. I think that it took a lot of time for people to work out what, exactly, a free government would be like, and that before that happened, people could not possibly be said to have yearned for one. (Did people yearn for democracy in 12th century France?)
On the other hand, we have worked that out now, more or less; and the idea of democracy is available to anyone who is in contact with the broader world. It’s a natural idea to turn to when one’s own government seems unsatisfactory, and once a people start asking why they should have no say in their government, I think it’s hard for them to un-ask it, or to accept without hesitation a country in which their voices are completely excluded. So I suppose I am, for practical purposes, on board with this part of the neoconservative program.
And she has no problem with the notion that the spread of liberty and democracy is the only real way to bring peace to the world – “I think it would certainly help a lot.” As least it couldn’t hurt. But she doesn’t think she’s a neoconservative:
I don’t have a definition of neoconservatism ready to hand. But to my mind, my differences with actual neoconservatives over the past decade or so have never concerned such questions as: Is freedom good or bad? Is an abhorrence of dictatorships a uniquely Western idea which we should not imagine that other people share? And the idea that they do is a symptom of one of the things that has consistently bothered by about neoconservatism: namely, a tendency to make arguments that either are made in bad faith or show a deep lack of interest in the details of any view but their own.
And as for neoconservatives attempting to create democracies by military force, she is not impressed:
I do not believe that it is impossible to do this: we did it in Germany and Japan after World War II. But in that case, we had a really good reason both to occupy Germany and Japan: namely, the fact that they had attacked us, and they had lost. Similarly, we had a decent reason for trying to recast their political institutions: those institutions were partially responsible for the fact that they had just started a world war.
Creating a democracy requires the active participation of a lot of people in the country in which you are trying to create it, and you are unlikely to get this participation if those people regard your presence not just as undesirable, but as illegitimate. People tend not to regard our occupation of a country as illegitimate when they attack us, and they lose. But they do tend to regard it as illegitimate when we invade simply because we think they should have a different form of government, even if they themselves do not much like the government they have. For this reason, I think that even if we had the right to invade a country for the express purpose of creating a democracy, that invasion would be virtually certain to fail.
Indeed, it’s a matter of not grasping the range of expected outcomes:
I think that neoconservatives tend to have a wholly unrealistic view of how the United States and its allies are perceived in the developing world.
Rightly or wrongly, a lot of people in the developing world do not see America as a benevolent power generously offering the gift of liberty to people around the world, but as a country whose interventions in their countries are often self-interested and sometimes disastrous. To an Iranian in particular, I would imagine that the idea that America or the UK are primarily interested in spreading freedom around the globe would seem downright delusional.
But the neocons “seem to me to have bought into their own propaganda about our country and its history.” So they always advocate intervention in the affairs of other countries and ignore our past actions:
Iran is a clear example of this: we forfeited the right to expect Iranians to assume that our intentions were benign when we decided to overthrow their government and support their dictator. And any intervention whose success depends on Iranians’ taking that view of us is one that we have, by our own actions, placed beyond our reach.
This is not about bashing the US. It is about having a realistic assessment of other people’s views of us.
Think of the doctor metaphor – the doctor looks at the symptoms, gauging what the problem really is. And when the doctor works out possible outcomes, he or she is working from objective facts – the symptoms displayed, the results of the blood tests and all that, the patient’s condition and medical history. You don’t make up things out of hope and hot air.
And as for treatments, the neoconservative love of the idea that we can accomplish our objectives by military means seems quite mad to her:
The kind of cheerleading for war that neocons engaged in before the invasion of Iraq was, to my mind, both utterly irresponsible and profoundly unrealistic about what can be accomplished by military force. Our army is very good at what it does. But we should not expect it to do what no army can do: change people’s minds, create systems of government that depend not on force but on things like commitment to the rule of law, and so forth.
I did not oppose the invasion of Iraq because I thought that Iraqis did not want to be free. I opposed it because I thought that because we should never unleash war on anyone without a very, very good reason to do so, and that in this case, we did not have one. I thought the invasion of Iraq was both unnecessary and profoundly unlikely to achieve its stated objectives; and thus that it did not so much as begin to justify the immense costs it would impose on Iraq and on us.
Of course Finkelstein is no fool and has his regrets:
The mistake the neocons made is that we were not conservative enough, not patient enough. Such impatience with dictatorships is understandable, indeed laudable. But the frustrating truth is that there are limits to what can be achieved by outsiders. Instead we have to wait as national movements, one by one, stand up for their rights. And sometimes, tragically, we even have to stand aside as those movements are crushed by their oppressors.
But Hilzoy is having none of that:
Well, yes; that would be one way to put it. Another would be to say: neoconservatives were not just insufficiently patient; they were reckless beyond belief, willing to bring down unspeakable costs on other people without bothering to weigh the possibility that their simplistic and unrealistic views of the world might be wrong.
It seems they told us of the expected outcomes – that if we did this, then that, then this other thing, we’d have that Jeffersonian secular democracy in the middle of that mess of a region, one with an unregulated free-market economy and that would be pro-American and pro-Israel and all that good stuff. They just didn’t tell us there were no guarantees, like any sensible doctor would do. And we should have known that anyway. There never are.