In romantic tones echoing the 2003 Iraq campaign, protests in Iran have inspired maudlin swooning by interventionists. “It’s the West’s job in these coming weeks to support our real allies, the Iranian people demanding freedom,” said Bill Kristol the other day. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton proclaimed “our goal should be regime change in Iran.” And, from U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), “We should speak loudly in support of the Iranian people and punish their oppressors to the fullest extent possible.” Trump has so far offered supportive tweets, but little else, for the Iranian protesters.
Protests in Libya, Egypt, and Syria had much to do with our interventions during the so-called Arab Spring, which included arming rebels, dropping bombs, and picking sides. That support now appears to have been rooted in a certain amount of shame by the Obama administration for the United States having previously been “on the wrong side of history.” He viewed the United States’ traditional support for friendly dictators, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and before him the Shah of Iran, as a cause of festering unrest and ultimately terrorism in the Middle East.
To help reach his long-term objective of a nuclear deal, in 2009 Obama did very little to support the Green Revolution protests in Iran, and they were soon tamped down by the regime. He tried to get it right during the Arab Spring, but the results were mostly bad, whether for locals or the United States.
In contrast to this vision of history, Trump offered the more prosaic concept of “America First” during the campaign. It does not seek necessarily to move the arc of history, nor to have conflict with countries with whom we can get along and prosper together in spite of barbaric local customs that are not really any of our business and about which we can do little to change in most cases.
Today, protesters in Iran are reportedly angry about economic conditions, but their protests are much smaller in scope than the massive protests of 2009. In some cases, the aggrieved may even represent religious hardliners, though the dramatic footage of women removing their hijabs shows that these protests are at least partially secular. But, good or bad, the protests are undeniably small, will likely be crushed, and, even if they manage to be successful, the protesters’ success would not necessarily redound to the benefit the United States.
The Trouble With Intervention
President Trump should avoid the siren song of intervention. He ran for office on a sensible and popular foreign policy of America First. Middle East intervention is, more often than not, the very opposite of America First. Indeed, the Middle East has spawned almost no American successes, much bloodshed, and a continuing threat of terrorism from the losing sides of our campaigns.
While wishing the people of Iran well and hoping they reject the oppressive theocratic regime that endangers their neighbors is appropriate, an America First and common sense orientation to world affairs should lead us to the sensible worry that what follows the current Iranian tyranny may be worse. After all, in 1979, the Shah was deemed by many Iranians as well as many in the West to be an oppressive dictator, and he was taken down after months of protests, which included protesters taking hostages at the American embassy. The Shah was ultimately replaced by the current Islamic Republic and the loathsome rule of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Similarly, in Libya, the Gaddafi regime was replaced by anarchy after rebels succeeded with the help of NATO bombers. In Egypt, the thoroughly Islamist Morsi regime deposed Mubarak after months of protest with America’s acquiescence, until Morsi, in turn, was removed by the beneficent intervention of the Egyptian military.
Our attempts to stand with protesters in Syria led to a brutal civil war and the rise of ISIS in the chaos that followed. To the extent we have any interest in the Middle East, it does not consist of replacing bad regimes with worse ones, peace with war, or known secular strongmen with unknown messianic Islamist replacements, however popular they may be with the ill-informed Middle Eastern masses.
The interventionists’ alignment against Iran, like the anti-Assad fervor of a few years ago, appears to be driven by a preference for the Sunni side of the Middle East’s perennial Sunni-Shia conflicts. Assad in Syria was aligned with the Shia side and obtained help from Iran. The Houthi rebels being crushed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen are Shia, and we are providing plenty of help to the Saudis in a war that has gotten little media attention. Israel has singled out Shia Iran for its most extreme ire, while ignoring the extremism and extreme human rights depravations of Saudi Arabia, with whom it has a tacit alliance.
A Whiff of Hubris
Israel has its reasons. But why does America care about this Sunni-Shia fight? Both sides have some fairly predictable and manageable elements. Both sects also spawn extreme religious movements, whose goals, from the standpoint of the West, are totally unacceptable to the extent they expand terrorism and the totalitarian Sharia Law system beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world. But neither is naturally more or less stable, more or less acceptable, more or less democratic, or more or less friendly to us. In other words, Shia Hezbollah is bad, no doubt, but so is Sunni al Qaeda.
Every few years, there is a ritual–Ukraine’s Orange Revolution being the prototype–where the stirrings of a mass movement in some Third World dump reminds nostalgic neoconservatives of the moral clarity of the Cold War. Then, popular movements such as Poland’s Solidarity were brutally suppressed by communist regimes. The moral example of these defiant people reminded us of the indefatigable human spirit and revealed the moral clarity of the conflict between the West and the Soviet Union. Today we’re supposed to be seeing that in Iran.
But what’s missing from the neoconservative script are all the failures, hucksters, and illiberalism of the movements they have sometimes supported, particularly in the Middle East.
There is a whiff of hubris in the idea that we even know what’s going on in Iran or that we can move events in a positive direction. In contrast to Libya and Egypt, Iran is at least nominally democratic. While there are strict religious laws and limits on political participation by secular parties, its government is certainly more representative of its people than many of its neighbors, not least the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. By way of analogy, in our own country, numerous “Black Lives Matter” protests took place in cities in recent years after incidents of force by police, but the country still elected Donald Trump. Protests can be deceiving.
From Congratulations to Complaints
Recall that Iraq was an early iteration of this interventionist ethos. We were first attempting to install Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress. Their appeal was limited, however, and Iraqi democracy ultimately resulted in a democratic regime more friendly to Iran than to us. Iraq’s embrace of democracy was supposed to create a “reverse domino effect” in the Middle East where democracy spreads to its neighbors. Mostly, this has not happened or, to the extent that it has, such “democracy” has led to the election of popular, extreme, and anti-American Islamists, most dramatically in long-term ally Egypt. As Burke cautioned, “The effect of liberty to individuals is that they may do what they please; we ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risk congratulations which may be soon turned into complaints.”
I have no love for Iran and its leaders. But I have no particular antipathy or concern for Iran either, not least because it is halfway around the world. Who governs it should chiefly be a decision of the Iranian people. We can do little to influence that and, to the extent we try to, we will undermine their legitimacy, as the opposition will be (correctly perhaps) perceived as tools of the United States and the CIA.
More long-term, whatever we do with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the entire Middle East should be an expression of the America First strategic concept. And the first axiom of that concept is a bias to stay out of things that we do not understand, cannot positively influence, or from which we can derive no direct benefit as a result of our intervention. The Middle East is a swamp from which little good emerges. The less we involve ourselves in it, the better.