Dealing in Contradictions

One of the alarming tendencies in American discourse about foreign policy is the prevalence of "if A, then B" style thinking.

One of the alarming tendencies in American discourse about foreign policy is the prevalence of "if A, then B" style thinking. Like Marxists clinging to dialectical materialism, we tend to act in a way that if our first assumption is correct, all our subsequent ones must be also.

Here are some of the reigning ones:

1)     Iraqis were glad to be liberated from Saddam Hussein's tyranny.  Therefore, they support U.S. plans for their country.

Last year, Ray Takeyh and I observed, " Iraqis were happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein but show little inclination to be directed by the United States in any aspect of domestic or foreign policy." Opinion polls taken in Iraq confirm this--most Iraqis are indeed grateful that the United States removed Saddam Hussein, but this gratitude has not transformed itself into a desire to accept American control of Iraq's destiny.

2)     The governments in Iran and Cuba are repressive. Therefore, they lack popular legitimacy (and do not have to be engaged).

In this era of enthusiasm for democracy, it is easy to overlook that a government that represses its citizens may still have key sources of legitimacy, especially to the extent it can tap into nationalist sentiment. Iranians may grumble about the Guardian Council's decision to ban reformist candidates and its track record of eviscerating reforms; Cubans continue to leave the island in search of a better life elsewhere. This does not mean, however, that U.S. forces bent on "regime change" would be greeted with flowers and candy by the locals. It also means that "stick only" policies--such as sanctions--are based in a flawed assumption that these regimes are "near collapse" and only require "just a little more pressure" to fold.

Selective engagement policies, on the other hand, recognize that the regimes in Havana and Tehran have some staying power without conveying a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." It recognizes that there are some immediate interests that cannot be met while waiting for a regime to "eventually" fall.

3)     Countries that are democratic do not seek weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, democratization is a counter-proliferation policy.

As Adrian Karatnycky, the president of Freedom House, argues in his piece on "democratic hegemony" that will appear in the forthcoming summer 2004 issue of the magazine, tyrannies have sought weapons of mass destruction as a way to thwart or forestall pressure to liberalize and to conform to international rules of good behavior.

So if a regime is no longer tyrannical, it will no longer seek weapons of mass destruction, right?

This assumes that its motivation for developing WMD had to do with its form of internal governance. India and Israel--democracies both--developed a nuclear deterrent because they believed that the security of their states was in jeopardy without it and that other states would not rush to their defense (Israel facing the Arab world, India facing China and Pakistan).

Iran's nuclear program began under the Shah. And it is interesting that the press has been quoting young Iranians--those who are most dissatisfied with the rule of the mullahs--who proclaim that they will not stand by and allow their country to be forcibly disarmed.

My guess is that even a full-fledged liberal democracy in Iran would keep intact the country's nuclear infrastructure, even if pledging not to actually assemble weapons (as India did between 1974 and 1998) as a hedge, given the neighborhood. And my guess is that a peacefully reunified Korea might keep the infrastructure constructed by the north, for the same reason.

Assumptions are necessary to help guide thinking about policy decisions.  But assumptions need to be revised in the light of actual events.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.