In the Arena

Kagans on the Warpath. Ugh! Ugh!

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The Wandering Kagan Minstrel Singers are in full voice this week, plumping for all the usual stuff–regime change in Iran, a surge in Afghanistan. Happily, they have less stroke than they used to–the neocons are not only gone from office, but also pretty much gone from the vast centrist foreign policy consensus. Still, they endure: Fred Kagan allegedly is an adviser to Stanley McChrystal–advising caution, no doubt.  But the primary offender this week is Robert Kagan, who is pushing for regime change in Iran on the op-ed turf of the Washington Post.

This is a particularly ridiculous and odious notion–not that the Iranian regime isn’t disgraceful and badly in need of a thorough, internal cleansing. It is ridiculous because the vast majority of Iranian dissidents have no intention of overturning the Islamic Republic, but want to reform it. They are joined now by a significant slice of the theocracy, which is appalled by recent events and have no desire to live in a military dictatorship quietly dominated by the Revolutionary Guards. They have made it clear that they are opposed to foreign economic sanctions, to foreign interference of any sort. Mir Hossein Mousavi came out against sanctions a few days ago, on the ground that they would hurt ordinary people more than they would hurt the regime.

What makes the call for regime change particularly tone-deaf and odious is history. Iranians–all Iranians–are extremely aware of past US meddling in their country’s internal affairs. There was the CIA involvement in the 1953 coup against Mossedegh. There was also the not-so-covert US support for Saddam Hussein, including the provision of chemical precursors for the poison gas Saddam used in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Iranian opposition knows that any association with the Great Satan will fatally taint their movement; they know that Barack Obama’s low-key strategy has made life particularly tough on those, like Ahmadinejad, who feast on American bellicosity and overreach.

Finally, there is the question of standing. The idea that the U.S. has any right to push regime change anywhere, much less in a country that has taken no direct bellicose action against us, seems a neo-colonialist vestige. Two of the three similar situations that Kagan cites–the Philippines and Nicaragua–are banana republic examples from a different era; the third, Poland, was not achieved by U.S. actions, but by a global movement (of which we were a part) led by the Catholic Church. It should be understood: we are no longer in the coup business, Thank God. The era of self-delusional US imperialism, camouflaged by high-minded freedom slogans, should be safely put in the past as well. We should, of course, promote democracy wherever we can. The era of us imposing it must end.

As for Fred and Kimberly Kagan, they continue their myopic argument for more troops in Afghanistan, which is not nearly as egregious as Bob Kagan’s feckless imperialism, and may even prove correct in some modified form, but is quite premature just now.

Why premature? Why does President Obama have to revisit Afghanistan strategy yet again? Well, we’ve had this disastrous election there. We don’t know yet how it will turn out. We expect Hamid Karzai will retain power, but we don’t know how he’ll use it. This is the crucial question on the ground in Afghanistan. If Karzai’s current, corrupt ways continue, we don’t have much chance of helping the Afghans gain some peace and security no matter which military strategy we pursue (and counter-insurgency depends on a reliable local partner). If Karzai chooses to pursue a real reform plan, plus reconciliation with the Taliban, we might have a slim chance of success (but not of “winning,” an anachronistic concept quite foreign to these sorts of wars). It seems clear, according to my military sources (some of whom are also Kagan military sources), that we have botched Afghanistan from the start, in every possible way. I believe that the Obama-Gates-Clinton-Petraeus-Holbrooke-McChrystal-Eikenberry team is the first to actually look this problem in the eye and propose a plausible solution. I’d like to see them have a chance to make it work, though I doubt they’ll have much success, even if Karzai does become less of a crook.

There is also another more basic point, well above McChrystal’s pay grade: Is the war in Afghanistan still integral to America’s national security interests? It was implicit in a very important Washington Post today: our intelligence capability has improved dramatically with regard to Al Qaeda. We are crippling its ability to act through the creative use of drones, special ops and human intelligence. So, given that, do we really need to devote another 40,000 troops to Afghanistan? These are the sorts of questions that need to be considered now, with all deliberate speed, but without a Kagan bull-rush. It would be irresponsible to not consider these changes circumstances, as irresponsible as the way George W. Bush went to war in Iraq.

The Bush Administration deserves full credit, though, for the renewed emphasis on and bolstering of our human intelligence capabilities–actual spies, that is–after the 9/11 attacks. It is not only working against Al Qaeda, but it seems clear–from background briefings and some chats with sources–that it wasn’t merely satellite photos, but actual human assets within the Iranian government that enabled us to expose the Qom nuclear facility. I’ll have more on that, and on Time’s rather bizarre interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in this week’s print edition, available online tomorrow.