U.S. Foreign Policy Is Not A Craps Game

Before getting to Robert Kagan’s call for President Obama to just go ahead already and roll the dice on Iranian regime change, a little background.

One of the most interesting articles written during the 2008 presidential campaign was Michael Scherer’s and Michael Weisskopf’s July 2008 analysis of Barack Obama and John McCain approach to gambling. “For both men,” Scherer and Weisskopf wrote, “games of chance have been not just a hobby but also a fundamental feature in their development as people and politicians”:

For Obama, weekly poker games with lobbyists and fellow state senators helped cement his position as a rising star in Illinois politics. For McCain, jaunts to the craps table helped burnish his image as a political hot dog who relished the thrill of a good fight, even if the risk of failure was high. […]

In the past decade, [McCain] has played on Mississippi riverboats, on Indian land, in Caribbean craps pits and along the length of the Las Vegas Strip. Back in 2005 he joined a group of journalists at a magazine-industry conference in Puerto Rico, offering betting strategy on request. “Enjoying craps opens up a window on a central thread constant in John’s life,” says John Weaver, McCain’s former chief strategist, who followed him to many a casino. “Taking a chance, playing against the odds.”

When you look at candidates’ waged the rest of their campaigns, I think this turns out to have been impressively predictive. McCain the crazy craps player repeatedly went for broke with questionable risky moves, declaring himself a Georgian in response to the August 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict, selecting the unknown (and, as we now know, un-vetted) Sarah Palin as his vice-president, suspending his campaign and rushing back to Washington in an attempt to signal that he “got” the economic crisis, and trying to delay the candidates’ first debate, to which Obama the methodical poker player responded with a successful raise.


In addition to his status as a war-hero, this audacious approach to politics, particularly foreign policy, also speaks to why neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan originally identified McCain in the late 1990’s as an ideal salesman for their “national greatness conservatism,” which John Judis described in his 2006 profile of McCain’s neocon conversion as “a philosophy that linked the development of American character to the exercise of power overseas” and an “emphasis on America’s responsibility to transform the world.”

What this approach essentially boils down to is enshrining the adage “history favors the bold” as a foreign policy imperative, while ignoring its somewhat lesser-known corollary, “history frowns upon the recklessly boneheaded.” (Which one are you? You’ll find out soon!)

All of these tendencies are on display in Robert Kagan’s op-ed today, in which he gushes “President Obama has a once-in-a-generation opportunity over the next few months to help make the world a dramatically safer place… by helping the Iranian people achieve a new form of government.”

Given the role that the Islamic theocracy in Tehran has played in leading and sponsoring anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-Western fanaticism for the past three decades, the toppling or even substantial reform of that regime would be second only to the collapse of the Soviet Union in its ideological and geopolitical ramifications. […]

Regime change in Tehran is the best nonproliferation policy. Even if the next Iranian government refused to give up the weapons program, its need for Western economic assistance and its desire for reintegration into the global economy and international order would at least cause it to slow today’s mad rush to completion and be much more open to diplomatic discussion. A new government might shelve the program for a while, or abandon it altogether. Other nations have done so. In any event, an Iran not run by radicals with millennial visions would be a much less frightening prospect, even with a nuclear weapon. […]

Now the odds of regime change are higher than the odds the present regime will ever agree to give up its nuclear program. With tougher sanctions, public support from Obama and other Western leaders, and programs to provide information and better communications to reformers, the possibility for change in Iran may never be better. […]

Were the Iranian regime to fall on Obama’s watch, however, and were he to play some visible role in helping, his place in history as a transformational world leader would be secure. Thirty years ago, the Iranian Revolution triumphed, aided by the incompetence of top Carter administration officials, some of whom, to this day, call for normalization with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s brutal successors. Obama has a chance to reverse their strategic and ideological debacle. But he cannot wait too long.

Kagan’s argument is that the payout could be huuuuuge if Obama just quits thinking about it and puts it all on Green. I don’t disagree. They could be, if everything went just so. On the other hand, the risks are also significant, both to the Iranian reformers who could find their appeals to their countrymen and women seriously undercut by an explicit U.S. government enlistment in their cause, but also in terms of the various unknowns inherent in a Green movement “victory.” What would that “victory” look like? How would the new government consolidate its power after that victory? How much more amenable would a changed regime be toward the international community’s demands on Iran’s nuclear program? I don’t have the answers to these questions, and neither does Robert Kagan.


And neither does President Obama. Through the tumult of last year in Iran, Obama has proceeded, and should continue to proceed, carefully, methodically, with the occasional well-timed raise, but always with a deep respect for the stakes involved for both Iranians and for America and its partners.

It really continues to amaze me that the strategic and ideological debacle of Iraq does not seem to have managed to inculcate any sense of humility, or even a decent respect for the possibility of unintended or unforeseeable consequences, into so many of those intellectuals like Kagan who helped lead this country into it. Shooting craps may be a fun way to spend a weekend in Vegas, but it’s no way to run American foreign policy.