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Reality and Fantasy

In the back-and-forth between Fareed Zakaria and Leon Wieseltier over John McCain and Iran last month, what slipped by unnoticed was the best example of how “fantasy substitutes for foreign policy” in McCain’s speech. McCain said:

For this reason, I believe that it will only be a change in the Iranian regime itself—a peaceful change, chosen by and led by the people of Iran—that can finally produce the changes we seek in Iran’s policies.

As Kevin Sullivan notes, McCain’s interest in both military action against Iran and regime change in Iran are well-established and go back many years. It is hardly a secret that Iran hawks became Green movement enthusiasts primarily because they exaggerated the power and significance of the movement and assumed that it could topple the Iranian government and replace it with a more compliant, obedient one. As a matter of analysis, this was wrong. It always invested the Green movement with too much importance, and it quite deliberately misrepresented what Americans and Westerners could expect in terms of policy changes from a Green government. This is what McCain did again in his speech, and McCain’s position is actually very close to the one taken by Richard Haass earlier this year. Like Haass, McCain has made clear that he wishes to change the Iranian regime by opposition proxy. What divides realists from fantasists and ideologues in this case has been the ability to assess more or less correctly the strength of the Iranian opposition and the weakness of the Iranian government. Haass joined with the fantasists at a moment when it was becoming increasingly clear that the opposition was making no headway and was gradually weakening.

Wieseltier completely missed Zakaria’s most important point while writing his ridiculous response, and this was that whether or not one would like to have regime change in Iran at the hands of the Iranian opposition it isn’t going to happen. Making something that is far-fetched and highly unlikely into the centerpiece of Iran policy is not credible, and it is certainly not realism of any kind, but that is what McCain, Wieseltier and Haass have done. In the end, Wieseltier’s response amounted to a lot of pouting that Zakaria did not confuse his sympathy for the Green movement with his estimates for their chance of success. It seems clear that the main problem Zakaria had with McCain’s speech and with his general worldview was that McCain was proposing a piece of wishful thinking as if it were a meaningful solution to disputes between the U.S. and Iran. It is just another case of fetishizing democracy and claiming that democratization has pro-Americanizing effects that there is no evidence that it has. No less worrisome, McCain compounded his first error by repeating the lunacy he uttered during the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia (“we are all Georgians now”) and applying it to the Iranian opposition:

We need to make their goals our goals, their interests our interests, their work our work.

What McCain never considers is that the goals, interests and work of the Iranian opposition may not have anything to do with the goals, interests and work of the U.S., especially not when those are defined by such dangerous hawks as John McCain. After all, we have good reason to believe that the opposition’s goals are not as far-reaching and radical as some Westerners would like. If the Green movement is actually an Iranian civil rights movement, and we have every reason to believe that this is what it is, then its concern is to make changes to the existing system rather than toppling it outright. If it is the character of the regime that causes Iran hawks to fear and loathe it, the Green movement is not even a plausible means to change the fundamental character of the regime because this is not what interests the opposition. Even if we all agreed that ousting the current Iranian government was the only option left available to secure American interests, much of the Green movement would want no part of our effort, because they do not wish to be seen as the tools of foreigners, and they would probably resent and maybe even resist our efforts. More than anything, it is sheer ignorance of or indifference to the Green movement’s objectives and an equally great ignorance of Iranian society that inform these regime change fantasies. My guess is that it was mainly McCain’s “startling ignorance” that made Zakaria relieved that McCain was not elected President, and on that point I heartily agree.

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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