Via Andrew, Andrew Exum seems to think that actual policymaking is governed by some sort of rationality:

I think Hizballah is a lot more intimidated by Barack Hussein Obama than it ever was by the cartoon villain George W. Bush. It would be like if Iran voted in a moderate president and we still had to deal with the issue that the Iranian population still wants nuclear power and feels they have a right to it. It’s all well and good when some cartoonish clown like Ahmadinejad or Bush is in charge. When a conciliatory moderate is in charge but your interests still aren’t alligned [sic], that’s when you see the real differences — and you can’t blame all your disagreements on the other side.

That first sentence is odd, since as far as I have been able to tell Obama does not differ from Bush in the slightest in his views on Lebanon or Iran. His “conciliatory” generic rhetoric notwithstanding, Obama’s past support for the bombardment of Lebanon and his other views on Lebanon’s domestic politics and Iran are all conventional and in line with the former administration’s position over the last several years. I fail to see how Hizbullah would view Obama as a “conciliatory moderate,” when he is from their perspective no different from the man he has replaced as far as Lebanon and Iran are concerned. One of the most important misinterpretations of Obama is the tendency to assume that foreign actors view Obama as a majority of Americans views him. Perhaps the only worse misinterpretation is to assume that the world sees him as his critics on the mainstream American right see him, i.e., weak and naive, etc. That said, I doubt it would make any difference if Hizbullah believed that Obama really was a “conciliatory moderate,” just as it seems to have made no difference for most American policymakers when Iran had a less obnoxious head of government.

Iran already had a relatively moderate President in Khatami (who will not be running for election this year, as it turns out) and had resumed its pursuit of nuclear power during his tenure, but Khatami and Ahmadinejad are almost entirely irrelevant because, as I’m sure Exum knows, the Iranian President does not control the nuclear program. So the comparison between our President and theirs is inexact. However, the larger problem with this observation is that there is an assumption that rationality and self-awareness will take over in a state’s policymaking when a foreign government has a less provocative or obnoxious public face, as if political leaders anywhere take real responsibility for their role in worsening relations with other states or even with other parties in their own country.

In the Iranian case, what will happen in the event of an Ahmadinejad defeat this summer is that all of the domestic political forces that have been screaming about the mad Ahmadinejad will suddenly rediscover the irrelevance of the Iranian President regarding such national security matters. If Ahmadinejad should lose to the candidate Khatami will likely endorse, Mirhossein Mousavi, the election of a more moderate candidate will be declared meaningless in much the same way that hard-line elements in other countries will insist that the election of Obama changes nothing significant in U.S. policy.

As it happens, though, these cynical responses to changes in the public face of governments/groups are usually correct in gauging how much policy will change. Where they are typically wrong is in their use of this reality to argue for an even more uncompromising, counterproductive and stupid approach to the other state/group. Obama’s election changes more in U.S. policy than Mousavi’s would on the Iranian side, but it does not change much because for the most part Obama has never intended to change very much. Even if he were interested in implementing radical changes, he is constrained by prevailing national security ideology and entrenched interests that would limit what he could do, and as I have said repeatedly he is an adherent of national security ideology and does not like to challenge entrenched interests.

Understanding the permanence of another state’s (or group’s) interests does not normally prompt recognition of how one’s own government contributed to ongoing stand-offs or disputes with other states, but seems instead to deepen distrust of the other government/group. It creates the chance for one’s own hard-liners to say, “See, their moderates are just as bad as their fanatics–it makes no difference who is nominally in charge. Therefore, the only thing they will understand is force!” Instead of making clear that there are fundamental structural interests and domestic political constraints that compel each head of government (or head of a political movement, group, etc.) to pursue continuity in certain policies, evidence of continuity in a foreign government’s/political movement’s policies seems more often to convince people that their own hard-liners were right all along. Rather than trying to seek a modus vivendi that accommodates core interests on both sides, policy debate tends towards the absolutist, maximalist and, in certainly in our case, moralistic approaches.

Seeing continuity in policy tends to convince people that other states’ policies are not based in legitimate interests, but are part of a malevolent plot to harm their country. This is, of course, irrational, but it happens so often that it cannot be written off as a fluke or the product of unusual circumstances. This is one reason why, despite being routinely wrong about most important things, hard-line elements keep coming back and winning internal policy debates and elections again and again. Instead of causing a reconsideration of why one’s own conditions and demands are unacceptable to the other side, and entertaining the possibility of moving away from maximalist claims, the reverse happens: the other side is deemed simply irrational or captive to ideology, hard-line arguments that “we have no negotiating partner” gain traction and bizarrely one’s own side becomes even more resistant to acknowledging the legitimacy of the other side’s interests the more broadly the foreign public shares the government’s view of the matter.

The very enduring quality of divergent interests, rather than prompting new thinking about whether one’s own policies are remotely realistic and one’s own goals remotely achievable, seems to have the perverse effect of shutting down openings for diplomatic engagement and critical thinking about one’s own foreign policy. This is why the “only Nixon” rules in foreign policy persist, despite the fact that it means that the people most inclined to engage in constructive diplomacy are those least able politically to do so.