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Antipathy and Policy

Yes, it’s childish [bold mine-DL], but being veterans of Washington, you understand that the fastest way your (already unpopular) line of analysis can be discredited is if it is shown that you harbor real sympathies for the current crop of Iranian rulers [bold mine-DL], and not just an unsentimental view of engagement or a hyper-skeptical view of the Green Movement. ~Greg Scoblete

I’m not sure why professionals should have to indulge this childish game, but Scoblete does make a fair point. No one should be more familiar with the tropes and tricks of journalists and pundits working in the service of the Washington foreign policy consensus than the critics of that consensus, and so the critics have to be especially mindful of how even perfectly legitimate and accurate observations will be misrepresented and twisted into endorsements of authoritarian governments. I suppose it is too much to expect that policy debate could focus primarily on the merits and flaws of different policy options. Unfortunately, striking the right pose and expressing an officially acceptable attitude are at least as important as espousing a policy position that makes sense and would actually advance U.S. interests.

When it comes to Iran, it is clear that expressing the right amount of antipathy for the regime is far more important than anything else one has to say. This is why foolish people who want to impose gasoline sanctions on Iran, which would greatly aid the regime against its internal opponents, can be taken seriously as “anti-regime” figures while opponents of such sanctions are suspected of being in league with Tehran. It is madness, but that is the way things are. Even though the “anti-regime” solution of sanctions will likely make the regime even more hard-line and even harder to dislodge from power, sanctions advocates display the right feelings, and apparently this makes most people ignore the fatal flaws in the policy they support. If one does not go through the motions of ritual condemnation, empty posturing and the endorsement of counterproductive-but-“tough” action, one is not considered a “serious” participant in the debate.

Nonetheless, I think it is important not to make many major concessions to conventional views about another state, especially when these views inform confrontational and aggressive policies. Before the invasion of Iraq, most opponents of the invasion felt compelled to hedge their statements with endless qualifications, they had to accept the reality of a non-existent WMD threat simply to participate in the conversation, and they often had to go out of their way to state their loathing and disgust for Saddam Hussein. As I have said many times before, this had the effect of undermining antiwar arguments from the very beginning. Having conceded that Hussein was a monster whose downfall they would happily welcome, and having accepted the key claim of the pro-war side that Iraq possessed WMDs and posed a grave threat to us all, many opponents of the war lost the debate before they had even stated their correct case that the war would be a strategic disaster and a terrible mistake. They allowed themselves to be psyched out by the cheap moralizing and shoddy reasoning of war supporters. These war opponents were desperately trying to avoid the smears that were already being used, but all they achieved was to deprive their arguments of whatever moral and rhetorical force they might have had.

Crowley’s article is so infuriating because at no time does he show that the Leveretts have anything like “real sympathies” for Ahmadinejad or anyone else in the Iranian government. He implies sinister things based on fairly innocent observations by the Leveretts (e.g., Ahmadinejad is an effective retail campaigner) that no reasonable person could regard as damning in the least. Despite this slipshod treatment of their views, it is the Leveretts’ unwillingness to play Crowley’s game that captures the most attention. We will never have a perfect world, but we can certainly have foreign policy debate that is much better than the one we have right now.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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