On Pragmatism

Posted by lex, on June 17, 2009

One of President Obama’s most compelling themes while running for office was the notion of ending Washington’s “politics as usual” processes, which most people took for ugly partisanship propped up by rigid ideological orthodoxies. He promised to govern as a pragmatic, eschewing ideology in favor of analysis. A generous reading of such an analytical approach is that it is experimental, favoring what appears to work in complex, adaptive systems. A less generous view would be that it enables policies of just making it up as you go. The chief advantage to ideology is that in a crisis it gives the ideologue at least a default position: Free markets are generally superior to government driven systems, freedom generally is superior to its alternative.

This is not to say that the president is not in favor of freedom generally, but in the case of the post-election unrest brewing in Iran, he seems unwilling to be in favor of it in particular. Robert Kagan notes this conundrum:

It’s not that Obama preferred a victory by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He probably would have been happy to do business with Mir Hossein Mousavi, even if there was little reason to believe Mousavi would have pursued a different approach to the nuclear issue. But once Mousavi lost, however fairly or unfairly, Obama objectively had no use for him or his followers. If Obama appears to lend support to the Iranian opposition in any way, he will appear hostile to the regime, which is precisely what he hoped to avoid.

Obama’s policy now requires getting past the election controversies quickly so that he can soon begin negotiations with the reelected Ahmadinejad government. This will be difficult as long as opposition protests continue and the government appears to be either unsettled or too brutal to do business with. What Obama needs is a rapid return to peace and quiet in Iran, not continued ferment. His goal must be to deflate the opposition, not to encourage it. And that, by and large, is what he has been doing.

If you find all this disturbing, you should. The worst thing is that this approach will probably not prevent the Iranians from getting a nuclear weapon. But this is what “realism” is all about. It is what sent Brent Scowcroft to raise a champagne toast to China’s leaders in the wake of Tiananmen Square. It is what convinced Gerald Ford not to meet with Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the height of detente.

Note, this is not about the superiority of a Mousavi government, nor is it necessarily about supporting those who would violently overthrow the state – it is about allowing the people of Iran to choose their own fate, to have their voices heard, their votes counted. The president is reluctant to choose sides in a way that might perversely weaken the opposition movement in Iran and strengthen the government’s will to crack down on “foreign supported elements.” This is understandable, but overdelicate: The Iranian regime needs no foreign enemy to justify its brutalities; in the absence of such justification it will simply manufacture one. And as Michael Totten points out, the government that the president wants to get back to the negotiation table with is in any case no longer what it was a week ago. It might be time for a “pragmatic” reassessment.

George W. Bush’s freedom agenda was decried not merely because it was impractical, but also because it was imperfect: To guard our flanks in the Arab Middle East, we made uneasy alliance with those who are enemies to freedom, whether in paternalistic Egypt or in autocratic Saudi. This gap between oratory and policy engendered deep cynicism about our true ends in Iraq and elsewhere, and demoralized democratic forces agitating for change (and hope!). Still, at the end of the day, 25 million minds were freed in the land between two rivers, and the Cedar Revolution removed – at least for now – the Syrian boot from the neck of poor, desperate Lebanon.

In this our age of rediscovered pragmatism, I wonder whether those made cynical by our imperfect preference of democracy over tyranny will prefer instead our placid indifference between the two? I’m quite certain I understand what message is being read by their tormentors.

This is not to say that we can or ought to throw our full diplomatic, far less military weight behind the opposition forces agitating for greater freedom in Iran. But we ought to be able to distinguish, at least in theory, between those who want their votes to be counted, and those who want to subvert liberty by dint of state monopolized violence. We should utterly decline, in Winston Churchill’s formulation, “to be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire.”

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Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Iran

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