In the Arena

Is Libya All About Iran?

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Jeez, I certainly hope not. But David Sanger’s reporting today tells us that at least some in the White House saw it that way:

The mullahs in Tehran, noted Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, were watching Mr. Obama’s every move in the Arab world. They would interpret a failure to back up his declaration that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had “lost the legitimacy to lead” as a sign of weakness — and perhaps as a signal that Mr. Obama was equally unwilling to back up his vow never to allow Iran to gain the ability to build a nuclear weapon.

“It shouldn’t be overstated that this was the deciding factor, or even a principal factor” in the decision to intervene in Libya, Benjamin J. Rhodes, a senior aide who joined in the meeting, said last week. But, he added, the effect on Iran was always included in the discussion.

That is truly embarrassing. We got ourselves mixed up in Libya because the President foolishly said that Gaddafi had to go and if Gaddafi didn’t go, we’d look weak to the Iranians? OK, as Ben Rhodes, insists, it probably wasn’t the “deciding factor,” but if it was any sort of factor, it’s…pathetic. If, in fact, Iran is any sort of factor in our Middle East thinking (as it should be), we should be paying a hell of a lot more attention to Syria, where Iran’s ally Bashar Assad is shooting people in the street, than we have been. Certainly, we should be paying more attention to Syria than to Libya. (Additionally, I’d add that if we have embarked on this Libya mission because the President said Gaddafi had to go, it was an even worse mistake for Obama to say it than I’d been thinking.)

All of this smacks of that old American “credibility” argument that is disproved again and again. As in: if we leave Vietnam, we’ll lose credibility in our struggle against the Soviet Union (actually, we lost credibility in our struggle against the Soviets by launching the foolish Vietnam war; we regained some strength by getting out). We’ve heard this argument over and over–in Iraq and Afghanistan, most recently. Of all the reasons to stay in both those benighted places, “credibility” is the least credible. Stability, in Mesopotamia and South Asia, is a far more plausible reason for staying, if you want to stay.

The Iran argument is desperation. I suspect that it’s been offered today because the other reasons for this escapade aren’t carrying enough weight. The “humanitarian” casus belli was real enough, but a flimsy reed when it comes to our real national interests (especially at a time when we’re overstretched militarily and financially, and should be focusing our diminishing foreign policy resources on really important places like Egypt and Pakistan). The “everyone wanted us to do it”–namely, the Arab League and the United Nations–conceit isn’t exactly supple, either. The idea that we go to war when the world wants us to do so is feckless in the extreme. We take military action only as a last resort, as the President used to say, and only when it affects our national interests. I hope we succeed quickly in Libya, and that whatever succeeds Gaddafi is better for the Libyan people, but I fear that this exercise has made it more difficult to tackle the next real crisis.

Despite what the Israelis say–and you hear some really crazy stuff about Ayatullah Khamenei when you’re in Israel–the Obama policy toward Iran has been succeeding. The economic sanctions have hit hard. The stuxnet virus is only the tip of an iceberg of sabotage and espionage being visited, brilliantly, upon the Iranians by Israel and the US. And even if Iran got a nuclear weapon–a terrible thing, to be sure–it probably would be no more of a threat to our national interests than the current North Korean program. Ineed, it probably wouldn’t even be much of a threat to Israel: the Iranians have never acted in a truly crazy way–like, say, Gaddafi; or even in as mindlessly bellicose a manner as Saddam Hussein. They have a real country, wealth on the ground, a beloved heritage to protect; the pain inflicted by the Iran-Iraq war remains real and raw, and a lesson far more compelling than this phony anti-zionism drummed up by the government (in a country that used to be, and could again be, Israel’s closest ally in the region).

The Iranians can make trouble. Their support of Hizballah and, to a lesser extent, Hamas, is a threat that Israelis have every right to deter and, when necessary, attack. The Saudis are worried about about the Shi’ite majorities in Bahrain and, closer to home, their Eastern Province, where most of the Saudi oil is located; those are not irrational fears, either. (But the Saudis are even more afraid that if their young people gather in the streets, the Obama Administration will join them.) There are also fears throughout the Sunni states in the region that when the US leaves Iraq, Iraq will tilt toward Iran–then again, Iranians killed exponentially larger numbers of Iraqis from 1981-88 than the US did this decade. Iraq is as Arab as it Shi’ite; Iran is as Persian as it is Muslim. Persians detest Arabs and vice versa, and have done so for at least a thousand years before the coming of Mohammed.

Iran is a problem. But in the universe of problems facing the US, I’d put it well behind the instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan. I’d even put it behind the need to support and nurture the Egyptian revolution. And, in the end, the question of whether Iran is gaining strength from the Arab Spring is a dubious one–the Sunni states may be weaker, but Iran stands on the wrong side of the democracy divide. It kills and tortures and imprisons and rapes its dissenters. I suspect that those who have taken to the streets throughout the region have less than zero sympathy for the Iranian regime. (The young Egyptians I’ve been speaking with the past few days consider Iran a laughably archaic place.) The young Egyptians, and others taking to the streets, may not like us all that much–since we’ve supported their oppressors–but they sure do like our ideas, especially the protesters under the age of 40, who represent a vast demographic bulge in the region. And that, in the end, puts us in very strong position against Iran–unless, of course, we blow it by continuing to impose our will through unwarranted violence in the region.