But it’s not the Leveretts’ ultra-realist policy views that are so discomfiting. It is the sense that they cross a line into making apologies for the loathsome Ahmadinejad. ~Michael Crowley

Via Kevin Sullivan

Ah, yes, it is “the sense” that they do this in the absence of proof that they have done it. I have the sense that Crowley has attempted to spice up a rather bland article with unfounded charges against the Leveretts. He calls them Ahmadinejad’s “intellectual defenders,” but what they have actually written is analysis stating that it is very likely that Ahmadinejad won re-election and would have won it whether or not fraud took place. Otherwise, they are not defending him, his methods, or his policies in the least as far as I have seen, which makes it hard to call them his defenders at all. It sounds catchy, and it serves to reinforce negative attitudes about them, but it is pretty blatantly false. Crowley has a chance with this article to prove his claim, and he doesn’t do it.

There is good reason to believe that the Leveretts’ analysis of the election was correct all along. Analysis to the contrary has been strongly influenced by a lot of unfounded assumptions about what “must have” happened, which has colored and distorted much of the subsequent analysis about internal Iranian politics that the Leveretts’ critics have done. The Leveretts’ analysis did not fit in with a lot of the conventional happy talk about people power and democratic revolution, and because they refused to engage in a lot of baseless optimistic chatter they were deemed apologists for despotism and have been called just about everything short of enemy agents. The campaign attacking them has been simply disgraceful.

It is actually useful to understand that Ahmadinejad built his power base among poorer Iranians as a populist skilled in winning over crowds. Acknowledging that he has some skills as a politician would seem to be a basic recognition of reality. It might also be a helpful balance to the standard portrayal that shows him variously as a suicidal maniac or as a clown. Whether or not the Leveretts think Ahmadinejad is “charming” (a word I have never seen them use about him), it is not hard to recognize that a populist politician can be charming, enjoy a broad base of support, and also be ruthless and brutal against those who oppose him. In many authoritarian and authoritarian populist states, these things are usually linked together. We are somehow able to understand that Vladimir Putin is both broadly popular in Russia and capable of ordering acts of tremendous brutality. One doesn’t acknowledge any of these things to praise him, but to understand something about him and the politics of his country. The same would apply to Ahmadinejad.

The question of whether Ahmadinejad is a “despicable” person, which Crowley asks at the end of his article, is really a rather stupid question. I doubt there are very many people in the West who would not say that he is. I think he is, but so what? Do I get a prize? If I say that he is, does that permit me to make the same arguments I have been making for years without being suspected of working “objectively” for Tehran? Quite obviously, most Americans are going to find Ahmadinejad’s methods and his politics despicable, but what does that tell you about what our Iran policy should be?

What is the point of Crowley’s question? To establish that we are all capable of meaningless moralizing about a foreign leader? If the Leveretts refused to be pulled in by this, so much the better for them. This is more of the same tired personalization of foreign policy. If we obsess over a foreign leader as an embodiment of villainy, it will keep us from having to think rationally about real policy options, and it will absolutely prevent the consideration of any sort of sustained diplomatic engagement. The only purpose for this obsession with Ahmadinejad that I can see is to make it easier to advocate confrontational and aggressive policies against Iran. It is a way of substituting emotion and passion for critical thinking about the potential for improved U.S.-Iranian relations. It is mostly a way of striking the right pose for lack of anything else to contribute to the debate. Iran hawks may have nothing but terrible ideas, but at least they have sufficient hate for Ahmadinejad!

Kevin Sullivan also has a very good response to the Crowley article. I recommend reading that as well.

Update: Tim Fernholz makes much the same point:

Certainly, the Iranian president is despicable, but the restless urge to demonize people like Ahmadinejad has never paid dividends for the United States’ foreign policy; contests of who can hate more do not international achievement make.