Remember when neoconservatism mattered? John Bolton’s NY Times op-ed this morning reminded me of that time:
Critics of the Iraq war claimed that overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 strengthened Iran’s position. Had we left Mr. Hussein in power, the theory goes, Iran would be less of a global threat. This argument is fundamentally wrong.
Long before the American ouster of Mr. Hussein, Iran was supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. It was seeking hegemony in Syria and Lebanon, and was well along in its clandestine program to acquire nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. After Mr. Hussein’s conviction and execution, Iran increased efforts to advance its radical brand of Shiite Islam in Iraq. But the success of the election should substantially retard those efforts.
Yes, it’s true, even when Saddam was in power, Iran used various methods to increase its strategic depth in the region. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, however, Iran was able to significantly increase that depth inside Iraq as well. Even if one discounts the relationships that Iran enjoys with Shia groups across the Iraqi political spectrum, considering how much of Iran’s pre-2003 national security agenda was oriented toward preventing a replay of the Saddam-initiated Iran-Iraq war, the trauma of which is still very much a part of Iranian political and cultural life, and understanding that the removal of Saddam freed up these resources for other uses, the argument that the U.S. war in Iraq has not bolstered Iran’s strategic position in the region is simply not a serious one.
Mr. Hussein defended his repressive regime — and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction — in the name of protecting Arab nations from Iran. Western critics of Mr. Hussein’s removal are basically parroting the arguments of a tyrant.
That’s adorable. Of course, Saddam’s being a tyrant says nothing about whether his assessment of Iranian ambition — and his regime’s ability to check that ambition — was or wasn’t accurate. Indeed, the fact that, in the wake of the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration abandoned its “freedom agenda” and doubled down behind authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt in order to contain an increasingly aggressive Iran indicates that it was.
In developing effective policies toward the Middle East, it’s obviously hugely important that we understand the realities of that region. An empowered and emboldened Iran is one of those realities. While I can appreciate Bolton’s wanting to revisit the stale and crumbly talking points of that bygone era when his brand of fact-less neocon bluster was actually taken seriously as foreign policy, I’m less clear on why the New York Times should want to continue to enable him to litter our political discourse with it.