Debating the Iran Debaters

Debating the Iran Debaters


Imagine a world in which experts and policy makers come together to engage in reasoned, honest debate, characterized by humility and bipartisanship, to wrestle with difficult realities and converge on the best possible solutions to America’s problems. Sound too good to be true? Francis J. Gavin and James B. Steinberg beg to differ.

Writing on Foreign Policy’s website, the self-described “former senior policymaker” and “historian of U.S. foreign policy”—although, notably, both are now firmly entrenched in the academy—put forth a utopian vision in which pundits and decision makers work together to sort through one of the nation’s most pressing concerns: what to do about the potential of a nuclear Iran.


The greatest contribution of Gavin and Steinberg’s article is not its vague, somewhat amorphous conception of a coherent, comprehensive dialogue in which interested parties “reflect upon and wrestle with the longer-term, unknown futures that U.S. actions might bring.” This dream, though lovely, is neither particularly novel nor particularly likely to come true.

The primary value is in the authors’ analysis of the shape the Iran debate, like so many others, has taken: hot-headed experts claiming certainty on the basis of shoddy historical comparisons and unreliable predictions vs. reticent decision makers content to “muddle through” and settle for a “second-best” option. One side ignores the complex milieu in which policy must be made; the other becomes so entrenched in it that decisive action seems impossible.

The gulf between statesmen and experts—pundits, think-tank leaders, academes of all stripes—has grown nigh on insurmountable in Washington. Gavin and Steinberg adeptly demonstrate the degree to which both sides have become bogged down in their narrow understandings and the frustration caused by their inability to find common ground. The distinction is important for anyone seeking to understand the Iran debate and the state of foreign policy more broadly. The authors fail to come up with a plausible solution to the problem, but they succeed in reminding readers to take the Iran rhetoric from both sides with a pinch—or a heap—of salt. For that, they receive a mixed bag rating.