When Doves Cry: Containment and Rollback for Iran

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 17, 2006

I've been trying to reconcile the two threads of America's approach to Iran: the clear push for an enriched uranium cartel and the somewhat competing push for total non-cooperation with any efforts to find a diplomatic solution. A recent essay published on the American Enterprise Institute's website helped to clarify the issue.

(Aside: this AEI article is not to be confused with the RTH article of the same name.)

The author, AEI "fellow" Thomas Donnelly, runs through a predictable echo chamber of quotes from other right-wing pundits to establish Iran's "defiance" (against what? Since Iran is not actually violating any laws and has gone far beyond its legal obligations under the NPT, just what is Iran defying, other than unreasonable US demands?).

Then the article lands on a quote from Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, who endorses an "international regime to control the [nuclear] fuel cycle."

The author summarizes Scowcroft's brand of realpolitik by writing, "Scowcroft has long believed that the nature of a regime is only secondary to its behaviour and that, by a carefully modulated regulation of carrots and sticks - or a nice cake - apparently implacably hostile regimes can be dealt with rationally."

This is the fundamental, never-ending divide between "doves" and "hawks" over who controls American foreign policy. (In the next few paragraphs, I'm going to conflate hawks with neoconservatives, even though they are not identical. The hawkish movement in American politics is dominated by neoconservatives, so I think it's a justified overgeneralization for the purpose of this essay.)

Doves, like Scowcroft, believe in deterrence, generally favour containment over invasion, and make foreign policy decisions based on likely outcomes. Doves tend to prefer covert operations to destabilize local politics in America's favour rather than overt military offensives; and they prefer the endorsement of international structures like the United Nations to drape a covering of legitimacy over America's activities. Therefore, Dovish diplomacy turns, as Donnelly observes, on carrots and sticks.

Doves do not endorse or oppose foreign policy activities on the basis of ethics; instead, they support initiatives that serve the national interest and seem to have a good chance of succeeding, and oppose initiatives that do not seem to have a good chance of succeeding.

Scowcroft opposed the Iraq invasion because, as he argued in 2002, "I think we could have an explosion in the Middle East. It could turn the whole region into a cauldron and destroy the War on Terror," not because he thought it was morally wrong.

Hawks, by contrast, are absolutist and interventionist. They believe, as neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss argued, that the nature of an adversary is the most important consideration when deciding how to deal with it, and that it makes more sense simply to roll back regimes that cannot be trusted to act with America's interests in mind than to attempt to contain them.

Further, Hawkish politics turns on Plato's "Noble Lie", the idea that there are some things the public doesn't need to know. As founding neoconservative Irving Kristol explained, "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people. There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."

Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt, two prominent neoconservatives, write of Strauss's attraction to hidden meanings in texts that "deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception."

Hawks do not believe in the carrot-and-stick approach to diplomacy. Instead, they prefer to manoeuvre their adversaries into an impossible corner and then spring their traps. This happened with Iraq; the hawks behind America's Iraq campaign prevented any possible outcome other than war, announcing that nothing less than regime change was acceptable.

Combine the assumption that foreign adversaries are fundamentally untrustworthy and that the public isn't sophisticated enough to understand policy with the doctrine that America's destiny is to transform the world along its values and interests, and you end up with a heady brew of messianic fervour unencumbered by oversight or accountability.

The neoconservative hawks of the US political establishment have had a free rein in the Bush Administration since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, with predictably disastrous results.

Now they're making a concerted push to do the same thing with Iran. They refuse to negotiate with Teheran and have forced the controversy from the International Atomic Energy Agency, where little of substance can emerge since Iran isn't actually violating any laws, to the UN Security Council, where a controversial American motion to threaten Iran with sanctions and even military attack is sure to explode whatever consensus exists among the Security Council members with veto powers. As a handy side-effect, this will and further de-legitimize diplomacy and reinforce the hawkish notion of unilateralism in the eyes of the American public.

At the same time, the other segment of the American political establishment is seeking to contain Iran by denying Iran the opportunity to enrich uranium and control its own nuclear industry, even as the more hawkish elements, represented well by US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, undermine this process.

The result is a confusing and often self-contradictory stance that adds up to an impossible suite of demands on Iran, but because US news reporting on the issue is so uniformly bad, Americans don't have much opportunity to notice it. Instead, headlines continue to blare that Iran is "defiant" when the fact is that Iran's mere existence defies American interests.

The one stance you won't hear in American politics is the outrageous idea that what Iran does is none of America's business as long as Iran isn't violating international law. Instead, among both hawks and doves, America's right to intervene and interfere in Iran's affairs is accepted as a given. The residual debate has more to do with tactics than with ethics.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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