Realism, Neoconservatism, Liberalism, And Iran

The problems with Richard Haass’ latest op-ed start with the first sentence, in which he writes “Two schools of thought have traditionally competed to determine how America should approach the world.”

Realists believe we should care most about what states do beyond their borders — that influencing their foreign policy ought to be Washington’s priority. Neoconservatives often contend the opposite: they argue that what matters most is the nature of other countries, what happens inside their borders. The neocons believe this both for moral reasons and because democracies (at least mature ones) treat their neighbors better than do authoritarian regimes.

Given that neoconservatism didn’t exist before the 1960s, it’s odd to claim that it has “traditionally competed to determine” anything, let alone the direction of American foreign policy. (The prefix “neo-” is important here: It means “new”!) Neoconservatives themselves didn’t even really start being identified with foreign policy until the early 1970s, when people like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, having abandoned liberalism for what they saw as its insufficiently militaristic nationalism, began to mount a challenge within the conservative movement to what they saw as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s insufficiently militaristic anti-Communism. It’s more accurate to say that realism and neoconservatism have, for the last forty or so years, competed for control of the Republican foreign policy apparatus (and at this point neoconservatives are in a more commanding position, which may have something to do with Haass’ chosen pitch.)

The definition Haass gives for neoconservatism actually more accurately describes liberal internationalism, which holds that the internal behavior of states determines, to a significant extent, their foreign policies, that democracies get along better with other democracies, and therefore it should be a goal of U.S. foreign policy to have more democracies in the world, and less oppressive, authoritarian states. What neoconservatism brought to the foreign policy conversation that was new was the idea that the maintenance of a robust American nationalism was an objective moral good (a function of their belief in the importance of culture), that a highly moralistic and militaristic approach to foreign policy was required to maintain that nationalism, and that those who questioned or criticized such an approach were, by weakening the American will, objectively on the side of America’s enemies. We saw all of this played out pretty explicitly with the war in Iraq.


It’s not unreasonable to expect the president of the Council on Foreign Relations to be familiar with all of this. But, having posited this false foreign policy choice between realism and neoconservatism, he spends the rest of the article telling us how he’s moved from one to the other. Haass now thinks it’s important for the administration to give more support to Iran’s opposition movement. Interestingly, as was reported almost two weeks ago, the administration thinks this too!

Haass cautions that “Iran’s opposition should be supported by Western governments, not led,” and that “outsiders should refrain from articulating specific political objectives other than support for democracy and an end to violence and unlawful detention.” This tracks with what we’ve heard from Iranian democracy activists, and it’s clear that Obama has been listening too. As the Iranian opposition’s calls for more Western solidarity have increased, so has the president’s rhetoric.

If this equals “neoconservatism,” no one told the neoconservatives, who, as from the very first, have continued to badger the president to take the hardest possible line, defiantly inconsiderate of what Iranians themselves were actually saying, and of the possible consequences for the protesters and their cause.

In contrast to the brutish grandstanding of the neocons, President Obama has shown that he understands that an invigorated Iranian opposition is currently in competition with the regime for the loyalty of the great mass of Iranians, many of whom are clearly deeply disenchanted with their government but not yet ready to embrace the jarring discontinuity of regime change. (The Declaration of Independence had something to say about this.) Given the history of U.S. interference in Iran, and the very recent record of neocon-inspired hostility, Obama’s explicitly enlisting the United States in the Iranian opposition would, at this point, not help the opposition make its case. This may change, and if it does, so should the policy.

At the same time, Obama has effectively put his administration on the side of freedom by waiving provisions of certain sanctions to put important internet tools into the hands of Iranians themselves. It’s true that such an approach lacks “the satisfying purity of indignation,” but, on the other hand, it does have the benefit of actually helping the Iranian people.


Whether Haass’ simplistic rendering of the situation should be taken anything more than his attempt to ingratiate himself with a particular political faction, I’m not sure, but it does a real injustice both to the president and to the Iranian reformers who he’s been meticulously trying, in various ways, to create space for.