As in Soviet days, the threat is both internal and external. Iran a mini-version of the old Soviet Union, has its own allies and satellites – Syria, Lebanon and Gaza – and its own Comintern, with agents operating throughout the region to extend Islamist influence and undermine pro-Western secular states.
Krauthammer is very deliberately re-fighting the last (cold) war, which should make us realize that the Cold War analogy is probably not the best one, but what is interesting here is that Krauthammer doesn’t (can’t?) acknowledge the contradiction between his proposed Freedom Doctrine and his goal of containing Iranian influence. The first principle of the Freedom Doctrine is also the most reckless:
The United States supports democracy throughout the Middle East. It will use its influence to help democrats everywhere throw off dictatorial rule.
If the U.S. actually were in a “long, twilight struggle” with Iran and its allies, Krauthammer’s first principle would guarantee that the U.S. would end up with virtually no allies anywhere in the region in fairly short order. This is not because those governments would be taken over by forces sympathetic to Iran or by “totalitarian” forces following democratization, but because even properly functioning democracies in these countries would have no interest in serving as America’s front-line states in a regional contest with Iran. I can’t say that I blame them. Our Iran policy is irrational, and it is based in a wildly exaggerated fear of what Iran is capable of doing. Western Europe was at risk of being dominated or conquered by the Soviet Union, and other anti-Soviet allies were at risk of being overthrown or invaded by Soviet-backed forces, so their self-interest dictated allying themselves in defensive pacts with the U.S. Little of this applies to the countries Krauthammer is talking about here.
The larger obstacle to Krauthammer’s Freedom Doctrine is that Arab publics apparently have little interest in serving as U.S. allies in a struggle with Iran. Egypt seems to be a good example of this. According to the WINEP poll that we have been discussing recently, 19% of the Cairo and Alexandria respondents favored aligning Egypt with the U.S. as part of the old system of “moderate” Arab states, and almost as many (18%) wanted Egypt to align itself with the “resistance front” against Israel. Another 16% favor more distance from the U.S. and an independent foreign policy similar to Turkey’s, and 15% want reconciliation and alignment with Syria and Iran. If that’s right, most of the respondents don’t want Egypt to take part in an anti-Iranian coalition, and a sizeable number would rather have Egypt on the other “side.” Given the reputation that the alliance with the U.S. has there, that is perfectly understandable, but it is also why it makes no sense for Krauthammer to argue simultaneously for democratization and an anti-Iranian containment policy.
If the U.S. ditched its anti-Iranian policy first, and abandoned hegemonist policies in the region, I could see the consistency and perhaps even the desirability of promoting democratization later on. Americans should want to stop hegemonist and confrontational policies, but pursuing democratization and hegemonism together is foolish. As long as opposing Iranian influence is the priority, Washington will keep finding itself paralyzed when confronted by popular uprisings, and each time that Washington “succeeded” in helping remove another autocrat Iranian influence would grow (or resistance to it would weaken). Krauthammer’s Freedom Doctrine would probably lead to the U.S. trying and failing on both counts.
The Cold War analogy falls apart on closer scrutiny. Consider the example of Turkey, which should be the equivalent of Britain or France in Krauthammer’s “long, twilight struggle.” Turkey has been naturally trying to increase its trade with Iran, improve relations, and deflect Western hostility away from Iran’s nuclear program. The bigger problem for the U.S. is that the Turkish approach makes sense for Turkish interests, and our Iran policy doesn’t for ours, but that’s an argument for another day. Krauthammer and his allies regard a more fully democratic Turkey as a problem, because Turkey has ceased to serve as a reliable supporter of U.S. policies. Many of our regional policies are directly harmful to Turkish interests, and the Turkish public now has more effective control over its government’s actions than it once did.
The AKP government has an interest in pursuing better relations with its neighbors, including Iran and its allies. That suggests that democratic states in the region are likely to take a less confrontational line with Iran than their authoritarian and monarchical predecessors. Provided that the U.S. started adapting its policies towards Iran and the entire region well in advance of all this, I don’t regard that as a problem. It could be a very healthy and desirable development. What would be a significant problem is if the U.S. continued to pursue an anti-Iranian policy at the same time that it cut off its regional allies at the knees by pushing democratization.
Dr. Hadar has written a good column that explains the difference between Obama’s handling of Egypt and Carter’s handling of Iran. He also makes a comparison between what happened in 1989 and what is happening now by comparing the responses of Gorbachev and Obama:
If anything, Obama is now trying to come up with the least costly strategy to help manage American decline in the Middle East, not unlike the man who presided over the collapse of Soviet power in Eastern Europe in 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev had hoped that Moscow’s willingness to allow the downfall of its friendly dictators in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and Berlin, would help preserve Soviet influence in the region.
And like Gorbachev, Obama and the rest of the political establishment in Washington believe that backing the protest movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, and partnering the United States with the dramatic change in the Middle East – that is, being on the right side of history – will make it possible for the Americans to drive that transformation to the benefit of long-term U.S. interests.
Needless to say, Gorbachev’s acquiescence in the end of communism in eastern Europe did not preserve Soviet influence in the region, but led to a decisive repudiation of that influence and the domination of its former satellites by U.S. and western European influence. Obviously, this is the exact opposite of what Krauthammer expects will happen if the U.S. actively supports democratization in allied countries. Even if backing the protests puts the U.S. government on the “right side of history,” so to speak, there will be no reward for that. If the U.S. pursued Krauthammer’s Freedom Doctrine, U.S. influence in the region would be sharply reduced and would remain so for decades. Unlike Krauthammer, I wouldn’t regard this as an unmitigated disaster, but I’m not the one spouting ideological nonsense about democracy promotion.