We seem to be moving toward a period of struggle between three foreign policy camps: dovish Democrats, hawkish Republicans, and a middle group of “realists” from both parties who will hold the initiative for a time. The realists will attempt to strike a hard-nosed “grand bargain” with Iran. Such a bargain would seek to stabilize Iraq, freeze Iran’s nuclear program, and halt Iran’s support for international terror. In exchange, Iran will be offered security guarantees, a huge investment bonanza, a fair amount of regional influence, and general integration into the world community. This effort to strike a grand bargain will have a tendency to fail in either a hawkish or dovish direction, and both of these factions will try to pull the failed bargain their way.
A grand bargain can’t work without toughness. That means serious economic sanctions imposed by the world’s major powers, working in concert, and an implicit threat that the failure of economic sanctions would put the world back on course toward a military strike. A grand bargain also requires the United States to retain a functioning military presence in Iraq for some time. That’s because Iran has no reason to come to terms if it believes the U.S. is about to exit a collapsed Iraq.
The trouble for the realists is that the doves of the world are going to undermine the tough sanctions and troop placement policies required to make any possible grand bargain work. Right now, the doves and the realists seem to be on the same page. “Let’s talk to Iran and Syria,” they all say. But what the two factions mean is entirely different. The realists want to pressure Iran and Syria into a major deal. The doves merely want to negotiate the details of a general retreat from the region.
You can see the gulf between the realist camp and the dovish camp by comparing this Op-Ed by Henry Kissinger with this piece from The New York Times Sunday Week in Review, “Envisioning U.S. Talks With Iran and Syria.” Kissinger rightly points to Iran’s nuclear program as the core issue. Allowing Iran to get nukes would kick off a race to nuclear proliferation throughout the entire Middle East, with what Kissinger calls “catastrophic” consequences. Kissinger wants a grand bargain, because only such a major deal could contain the sort of incentives (and punishments) that might motivate the Iranians to give up their nukes.
The Times piece, however, gives up on a grand bargain from the start. There is no thought of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, the Times actually suggests trading away pressure on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for Iranian help stabilizing Afghanistan. That would be a mad “bargain,” accepting what Kissinger rightly sees as a chain-reaction proliferation catastrophe, in exchange for a ticket to a comfortable U.S. retreat. Kissinger correctly dismisses the notion that Iran has any interest in helping America stabilize the region, except as a short-term ruse for expelling us before taking control of the world’s oil jugular. Only toughness can make Iran come across. Yet the Times piece advocates virtually every mistaken strategy of weakness that Kissinger warns against. Dovish pressure for a bad bargain with Iran, and a precipitous retreat from Iraq, is going to make Kissinger’s bargain almost impossible to pull off.
On the other hand, to the extent that the realists succeed in marshaling the world behind a tough sanctions policy, they lay the groundwork for the return of the hawks. Iran’s defiance of sanctions and/or refusal to deal with good faith offers from the West could put us back on a path to a military strike. Once the world community says that Iran’s nuclear program is a serious enough problem to demand major sanctions, it is implicitly conceding that the failure of sanctions justifies war. The hawks will be ever ready to draw out these implications, and to point up the folly of further appeasement.
So the troubles of the hawks in Iraq have brought the realists to the fore, and have also empowered the doves. Even if the doves undermine the realists, we may ultimately see a return to hawkishness. All three factions will struggle into the future, unless or until something very good, or very bad, emerges to confirm the ascendency of one of the three postures.