Kaplan: Obama Should Adopt Reagan’s Approach That Conservatives Hated

I actually agree with the approach to Iran that Robert Kaplan advocates in this article, it’s just a real shame that, in order to get to it, one has to wander through a farrago of bad history, question-begging and bald assertion of the benefits of regime change:

It would have a positive, pivotal influence on both the political and the security situation in Iraq — pushing Syria towards authentic moderation, and helping undermine Hezbollah and ease the path toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. More broadly, it would unleash democratic tendencies throughout the Middle East, from North Africa to the Indus, forcing regimes and populations to focus more on their internal problems, thereby undermining radicalism.

An Iran that is both democratic and Shiite would tip the balance against the Sunni Wahabi extremism emanating from Saudi Arabia. And, in a globally networked world, where news of such regime change could not easily be suppressed, leaders in similarly autocratic countries like Venezuela and China would have cause for concern.

If this litany of promises of many colorful ponies to come sounds familiar, it should, as all of this (minus the Venezuela angle, which is new) is exactly what was supposed to result from regime change in Iraq. Indeed, here’s Kaplan himself in November 2002 explaining how “dismantling the Iraqi regime would concentrate the minds of Iran’s leaders as little else could.” And so it did! Just not in the way he or any of the war’s advocates predicted.


As I’ve written before, I think an Iranian Green movement victory would be good thing. There are still, however, a lot of important questions to be asked. How much better would it be than the current Iranian government? I’m not sure. How would such a government consolidate its power after achieving “victory”? I’m not sure. How much more amenable would such a government be toward the international community’s demands on Iran’s nuclear program? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that it’s deeply irresponsible to confidently predict the benefits of Iranian regime change, especially when one’s previous confident predictions about the benefits of regime change in neighboring Iraq have been drowned in a sea of blood.

Having said that, I think that what Kaplan calls a “Reaganite approach” is correct:

[B]e open to far-reaching talks, as President Ronald Reagan was with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, but do nothing to legitimize the Iranian system. And, throughout any discussions, adopt the rhetoric of democracy. Make it clear that Washington is on the same side of history as the demonstrators, but also make it clear that the door is open to negotiations with those in power. And to avoid the risk of undermining the demonstrators by overt American support of them (thus catering to regime’s basest conspiracy theories), Obama should talk about democracy only in general, albeit pointed, terms, without directly referring to Iran. That is, he should get the language of universal values out over Iranian air waves as much as possible: encouraging the demonstrators without specifically backing them.

This is an approach that more Iranian dissidents have been calling for, and, according to recent reporting, is also the approach that the Obama administration has been moving toward.

It’s interesting, though, that Kaplan terms this a “Reaganite” approach. It’s important to remember that when Reagan adopted a strategy of engagement with the Soviets, he was excoriated as a “traitor to anti-Communism” by conservative hardliners. A 1988 New York Times article on conservative opposition to Reagan’s Soviet “appeasement” quoted Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, charging Reagan with “fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” The fact that most conservatives now prefer to remember Reagan’s negotiations with the Soviets as a brilliant display of diplomatic jiu-jitsu probably won’t stop them from condemning every Obama administration meeting with the Iranians as another Munich.