Dear Mr. Kagan,
First, let me just express sympathy for your situation. These last years have been extraordinarily unkind to your grand theories about the transformative potential of American explosives. President Bush’s “global war on terror,” the invasion of Iraq, his so-called “freedom agenda,” turned out to be a real carnival of bad ideas, for which you were a key intellectual barker. It’s hard out here for a neocon.
But I have to say, Mr. Kagan, your op-ed this morning is really beneath you. You can’t actually believe that President Obama is “siding with the Iranian regime” against the Iranian people, or that Obama’s outreach to Iran depends upon keeping hardliners in power, can you? You’re far too intelligent to buy the brutishly simplistic “realism” that you attempt to hang upon President Obama’s approach. These sorts of claims are better left to your friend and occasional co-author Bill Kristol, who uses his series of valuable journalistic perches (with which he inexplicably continues to be gifted) to launch an endless stream of comically transparent bad faith arguments. You’re better than that. You’re the smart neocon.
Aren’t you? While it’s nice that you recognize that “it’s not that Obama preferred a victory by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” — though that was the stated preference of a number of your fellow neoconservatives — your claim that President Obama’s “strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of” Ahmadinejad is the kind of thing I thought we had left back in 2003, when opponents of the Iraq invasion (that is, the people who turned out to be right) were tarred as being “objectively pro-Saddam.” It doesn’t smell any better six years later.
You state that President Obama’s “goal must be to deflate the opposition, not to encourage it. And that, by and large, is what he has been doing.” How then to explain his State Department reaching out to Twitter and asking them to delay their scheduled maintenance, in order to allow the continued use of this technology that has proven so important to enabling communication within and out of Iran? That one gesture neatly encapsulates, I think, the difference between Bush and Obama on “democracy promotion.” Bush believed in America bringing the gift of freedom to the people of the world. Obama believes in practical steps to put the tools of freedom in the hands of the people themselves, and then creating the space for people to use those tools.
Just to be clear, most of us who “railed against the Bush administration’s ‘freedom agenda’” did so not out of any hostility toward freedom or democracy, but out of the belief, now completely vindicated, that strong, stirring words in favor of democracy mattered little if the policies behind them were counterproductive to the actual cause of democracy, as Bush’s policies were. By backing pro-democracy rhetoric with American war and occupation, President Bush and his conservative supporters cast the cause of freedom and democracy into disrepute, from which it must now be rescued and reclaimed by more responsible hands.