Dealing with Iran:Self-Interest vs Self-Sacrifice


[This is a revised version of an earlier post. It was published at Huffington Post–<a href="" onclick="_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'outbound-article', '', 'http://huff celebrex’]);” > ]

Forget about the intricate details of our nuclear agreement with Iran–the number of centrifuges permitted, the degree of uranium enrichment allowed, the amount of advance notification required before inspectors can visit a nuclear facility. There is really only one question that matters: If Iran poses a physical threat to America–if we have reason to fear that its weapons will be used aggressively against us–why are we relying for our safety on an agreement with the aggressor?

England has nuclear weapons. So does France. So does Israel. Yet we have no need to sign treaties in which these nations promise not to take actions that threaten us. Why? Because the danger stems not from the weapons as such, but from the nature of the countries that possess them. When the weapons are held by an essentially free country, they are no threat to us. Such a country does not dictatorially subjugate people, neither its own citizens nor those of other nations. England, France and Israel recognize–however inconsistently–the value of liberty, and therefore have no fundamental conflict with America.

Iran, by contrast, is a danger to us. It is a theocracy which tyrannizes its own people and which seeks militarily to extend its power beyond its borders. It regards us as the "Great Satan," the main obstacle to its goal of spreading Islamic totalitarianism. If its government is willing to initiate force against us, will it be deterred by its promise not to?

From the day it seized our embassy in Tehran–an act of war–and held Americans captive for a year, Iran has demonstrated its desire to use force against us. If Iran were a nation that showed no willingness to attack us, we could simply ignore it. But because it wishes to impose its Islamic rule wherever it can, Iran has made us into its foremost enemy. It is the world's most active state-sponsor of terrorism, it has armed the forces killing American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, its leaders regularly orchestrate "Death-to-America" demonstrations and it is the patron of the terrorist group (Hezbollah) that is second only to al Qaeda in the number of Americans it has slaughtered,

All we want–all we should want–is to protect our freedom against foreign threats. That goal is the essence of our national interest. Iran's goal, however, is to destroy our freedom. The distinction between the two countries, then, is the distinction between aggression and self-defense, between the behavior of armed criminals and that of armed police officers.

If the threat to us arises from the nature of Iran's government and the purpose to which its weapons will be put, will that nature and that purpose somehow change? If so, no treaty is required; if not, no treaty will protect us–as Neville Chamberlain, and the free world, learned in the 1930s.

According to President Obama, in confronting the Iranian threat, diplomacy is always preferable to military action. But this same contention can be made for anything the Iranians might do in the future. What if they flout the agreement? What if they insist that ten years is too long for them to wait to construct nuclear bombs? What if they refuse to allow inspections? What if they brand the inspectors as spies and take them hostage? On President Obama's premise, the response to whatever they do will be: more diplomacy. Indeed, the more threatening Iran becomes, the more imperative is the ostensible need to eschew force and to seek a diplomatic "solution."

In reality, the only way to protect against a threat of force is by a willingness to use greater force. Yet force is the one thing Washington has now forsworn. Our politicians hail diplomacy as the only practical solution to this conflict. But what does our diplomacy actually consist of? Since we are obviously not able to rationally persuade the Iranians that aggression is morally wrong, our vaunted diplomacy amounts to one tactic: the payment of protection money. We offer them material rewards in return for their promise to lessen the threat they pose to us. But nothing is more impractical in the long run than paying protection money–an impracticality amplified by the bizarre fact that it is the stronger nation which is trying to buy off the weaker.

What explains this ineffectual strategy for dealing with America's enemies? Our acceptance of a code of ethics, taught to us all from childhood, which regards self-interest as morally wrong. It is a code–the code of altruism–which demands that the strong sacrifice for the weak.

Despite lip-service about protecting our national interests, both Democrats and Republicans have been unwilling to make self-interest the unequivocal standard of our foreign policy. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, quickly developed into altruistic, "nation-building" missions. And when we did take on an enemy that presented a genuine threat to us, whether al Qaeda under President Bush or ISIS under President Obama, we were unwilling to do what was necessary to totally eliminate that threat. In keeping with the doctrine of altruism, our policymakers were concerned about world opinion, about not appearing to be "unilateralist," about making sure to only "lead from behind," about deferring to the needs of others. After all, an unyielding commitment to self-defense is inherently "selfish." So we took military action when our interests–i.e., the protection of our freedom–were not at stake, and we refrained from acting decisively when they were at stake.

What we need instead is a foreign policy based on an ethics of self-interest–a foreign policy that holds as its sole purpose the safeguarding of Americans against international threats. Its proponents would not seek the approval of other countries before deciding when to use force. Under such a policy, Washington would not attempt to defend us in fits and starts, futilely trying to straddle the two roads of self-interest and self-sacrifice, attacking one terror-sponsor today while mollifying another the next day. Nor would it espouse self-interest as an amoral expediency–as advocated by the unprincipled pragmatists and their school of "realpolitik." Rather, the architects of a rational foreign policy would uphold self-interest as a consistent, moral principle–a principle in keeping with America's founding values of individualism and liberty.♦♦

Altruism and the Cave-in to Iran

Forget about the intricate details of our nuclear agreement with Iran—the number of centrifuges permitted, the degree of uranium enrichment allowed, the amount of advance notification required before inspectors can visit a nuclear facility. There is really only one question that matters: If an Iranian nuclear capacity poses an objective threat to America—if we have reason to fear that such weapons will be used aggressively against uswhy are we relying for our safety on an agreement with the aggressor?

England has nuclear weapons. So does France. So does Israel. Yet we don’t have a need to sign treaties in which these nations promise not to take actions that threaten us. Their weapons are not a danger to us because they are essentially free countries and they do not live by conquest. They do not dictatorially subjugate people, neither their own citizens nor those of other countries. They recognize—however inconsistently—the value of liberty. They do not regard America as a fundamental enemy. A nuclear Iran, by contrast, is a danger to us. It is a theocracy which subjugates its own people and which seeks militarily to extend its power beyond its borders. If its government is willing to initiate force against us, how will it be deterred by its promise not to? A “contract” with Iran makes as much sense as a “contract” between the police and a criminal gang.

To put it differently, the only party with which an agreement to refrain from using force can have any meaning is a party with which such an agreement is unnecessary.

Why, then, is this disastrous treaty with Iran being pushed? Largely because of the ethics of altruism. Here is an excerpt from my book The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest (written in 2004):

What explains a foreign policy under which the strongest nation on earth regularly allows itself to be thwarted by petty despots? America wages a putative War on Terror, while Iran—the world’s most active state-sponsor of terrorism, the patron of the terrorist group that is second only to al Qaeda in the number of Americans it has slaughtered, the theocracy that stormed our embassy and held fifty-two Americans captive for over a year as its ayatollahs’ minions pranced in the streets and chanted “Death to America”—escapes any military reprisal from us. . . .

Why are we reluctant to stand up to other nations, when we enjoy undisputed military superiority? There is certainly no physical impediment that keeps us from protecting America’s interests. There is, however, an intellectual one: the widely accepted idea that the pursuit of self-interest is morally tainted.

The premise shaping our foreign policy is that we must sacrifice ourselves for the sake of weaker nations because self-interest can't be the standard of our actions. . . .

This is why our government does not respond self-assertively and unapologetically to all foreign threats. We don’t want to focus only on our own security. We want to accommodate the concerns of the international community. We don’t want to use force “unilaterally” against nations that pose dangers to us—we have to consider their needs too. So we can’t tell the North Koreans that if they don’t destroy their nuclear-weapons facilities, we will; we must sympathize with their point of view. We can’t demand that Syria stop running terrorist training camps; we must respect its political needs. We can’t punish China for downing our aircraft; we must resolve all conflicts through compromise. After all, the North Koreans or the Syrians or the Chinese may have their own complaints against America.

The precept of self-sacrifice pertains not only to material goods, but to intellectual assets as well. Just as you are urged to hand over your money for the sake of others, so you are urged to surrender your convictions in the cause of altruism. Who are you to insist self‑righteously on the truth of your viewpoint?—this precept demands. What about your opponent’s viewpoint? Isn’t one man's terrorist another man’s freedom‑fighter? You can’t condemn any countries as part of an “axis of evil”; they probably think the same of you. Never believe that you know the truth—that is too self‑confident. Never decide on your own to resort to force against other nations—that is too self‑assured. Be flexible, negotiate, give in, give up.

The result of these admonitions is a U.S. foreign policy whose hallmark is self-doubt. . . .

Invading a sovereign state [would be] selfish “unilateralism” on our part. . . . Who are we to kill others just because we think they threaten us? Shouldn’t we have some empathy for people living in desperate straits? How can we ignore the world’s disapproval? Shouldn’t we try more diplomacy, so that both sides can air their grievances? And if that means increasing the risk to us—our policymakers cautioned—well, we can’t be so parochially consumed with our own problems.

This attitude is what explains the bizarre phenomenon of a military power being paralyzed by a patently weaker opponent, whose arsenal consists essentially of the disarming idea that the strong must sacrifice to the weak.

But there is an alternative to this self-inflicted impotence: a foreign policy based on self-interest. This is a foreign policy that views the protection of Americans against international threats as its all-encompassing goal. The advocates of such a policy would reject any duty to sacrifice the wealth and the lives of Americans to the needs of other nations. And they would not seek the approval of other countries before deciding to use force to guard America’s interests. Under such a foreign policy, Washington would not attempt to defend America in fits and starts, futilely trying to straddle the two roads of self-interest and self-sacrifice, attacking one terror-sponsor today while mollifying others the next day. Nor would it attempt to uphold self-interest as an amoral expediency—as advocated by the impractical pragmatists and their school of realpolitik. Rather, the designers of a rational foreign policy would understand that self-interest can be successfully defended only if it is embraced as a consistent, moral principle—a principle in keeping with America’s founding values.♦♦ 

ISIS and “Non-Interventionism”

I’ve written on Libertarians’ use of “non-interventionism” as a deceptive term to disguise their tacit kinship with anarchists. An article last month by a senior fellow at the Cato Institute provides a good illustration.

In “Will America Ever Learn From Its Middle East Mistakes,” Ted Galen Carpenter argues against taking any military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He writes: “The principal reason to avoid rushing into another Middle East war is the dismal record of our previous interventions. Each time the United States has meddled in that turbulent region, it seems to have made the situation a bit worse (and sometimes a lot worse) than it was before.”

He proceeds to list a number of such “meddlings,” starting from the early 1980s in Lebanon, to the two wars against Iraq, to Libya, to Syria—all of which, he says, demonstrate the futility of American military action. Those who now advocate fighting ISIS, he contends, must first “defend the record of the previous applications of that strategy. Otherwise, we face the prospect of expending even more blood and treasure while further destabilizing the region and creating more enemies.”

Now, it is true that those actions were largely failures. But the obvious question is: Why? What was the wrong principle we were following? What in the nature of the policy we adopted caused it to fail?

A proper foreign policy is based on securing America’s self-interest—which means: protecting against threats to the freedom of American citizens, nothing more and nothing less. If no such threat from abroad exists, our government should take no action. But if a demonstrable threat does exist, the government must take whatever measures are necessary to eliminate it—not to “contain” it, not to “degrade” it, but to eliminate it.

This is precisely what has not been guiding our Middle East policy. Some of our actions, such as in Libya, were entirely devoid of self-interest and were instead “humanitarian” endeavors, designed to introduce freedom by the permission of cultures that were steeped in tribalism and statism. Others, such as in Afghanistan, did have a definite element of self-interest, but were infected by altruistic motivations and quickly devolved into the same self-sacrificial, “nation-building” efforts on our part. Not a single undertaking represented a foreign policy based strictly on American self-interest.

Here, as illustration, is part of an op-ed I wrote, in the fall of 2003, several months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

We are inviting failure in Iraq, and in our overall war on terrorism, by conducting a campaign that is hopelessly apologetic and appeasing.

The Iraqis have long produced despotism. But instead of being morally confident in our right to establish a government that is no longer a threat to anyone—Iraqi or American—we are deferentially asking the Iraqis for permission to proceed. Afraid to offend them, we are reluctant to defend our interests and to uphold our values.

For example, we did not appoint the members of Iraq’s Governing Council based on their commitment to freedom; instead, we sought ethnic and religious “diversity” in order to placate the tribal and political factions that dominate Iraq. The 25 members include: the secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party; the founder of the Kurdish Socialist Party; a member of Iraq’s Hezbollah; and a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution–a group, funded by and partly founded by Iran, advocating an Islamic theocracy. . . .

On the military front . . . we started by apologizing for our presence, when our invading soldiers were ordered to jeopardize their lives rather than risk harming civilians or damaging mosques.       . . . Our soldiers face continuing attacks, but political considerations prevent us from disarming the populace. . . . We are at war, but our military planners apparently believe that a methodical, house-to-house search for guns—let alone a disarming of private “militias” in Fallujah and elsewhere–would be too “intrusive.” Iraqis–again, brandishing automatic weapons—stage public demonstrations designed to incite violence against us. Yet none are arrested, presumably because we don’t want to be regarded as overly assertive.

This same, self-effacing policy is being practiced in Afghanistan, where the problem of “offended local sensibilities” —as a recent N.Y. Times article describes it—has led our policymakers to transform our soldiers into goodwill ambassadors, “whose focus is less on capturing terrorists than on winning public support.”

Is it surprising that the Taliban appears to be successfully regrouping?

In logic and in justice, there is only one means of “winning public support,” in Afghanistan or Iraq: eradicating every trace of the former enslavers. If that is not sufficient, then the support is not worth gaining. Our only concern should be toward those who value freedom enough to recognize the inestimable benefit our troops have given them. As to all the others–they need not like us, only fear us. . . .

Upon ousting the governments of Germany and Japan in World War II, we did not proceed on tiptoe. We did not express regret at having to stop traffic, search homes and shoot fleeing suspects. We were morally certain—certain that their system was wrong and ours right, certain that their system threatened us and needed to be eliminated. As a result, the enemy was eventually demoralized, allowing freedom to take root. The identical approach should be adopted now.

In postwar Japan it was Gen. Douglas MacArthur who unilaterally drafted a new constitution—over the objections of many Japanese—and paved the way for a radical shift from tyranny to liberty. Emulating MacArthur, by imposing upon Iraq a U.S.-written constitution that champions the principle of individual rights, including the separation of mosque and state, would be an ideal means of asserting our interests—along with the interests of those Iraqis who genuinely value freedom.

The conclusion to be drawn is that our military measures in the Middle East failed because they were based on a wrong philosophy. And that we need a radically different one in order to succeed. If our policymakers were on the premise of self-interest, our military would not be unleashed until an objective danger to America exists—and then it would be unleashed decisively. We have failed because when force was in fact justified, too little, not too much, was used. Our soldiers died, in retrospect, for nothing. They died so that the Taliban could eventually retake Afghanistan and so that Iraq could eventually become a satellite of Iran. They served as sacrificial fodder for the creed of altruism.

But to the “non-interventionists,” the problem is simply our “meddling.” The problem is “intervention”—and the solution therefore is “non-intervention.” This is equivalent to declaring that because intervening in the health care system has been harmful, the government should also stop “intervening” in robberies and murders. While such a declaration would be too blatant an embrace of anarchism, the call for a “non-interventionist” foreign policy has a semi-respectable veneer. But beneath that veneer is the lunacy of regarding two very opposite actions—the use of force against innocent, non-threatening parties and the use of force in retaliation against those who have initiated it—as identical. This is why the very term “interventionism” is a duplicitous “anti-concept,” deliberately designed to blur the distinction between those two types of action.

As to ISIS, it is certainly a threat to Americans. It has openly declared its enmity toward us. It is willing and able to physically harm us. It has beheaded two U.S. citizens, and announced its intention to destroy us on its way to establishing an Islamic caliphate. But this means nothing to the “non-interventionists.” Despite their seeming interest in intellectual issues, they are actually dismissive of the role of ideas in the life of an individual and an organization.

They refuse to see that there is an ideology of Islamic totalitarianism that poses an armed threat to the Western world. To them, the threat comes only from America’s desire to “meddle.” Our “interventions” in the Middle East, according to Carpenter, “intensified Muslim animosity towards the United States.” He sees the jihadists as people who have no motive and no desire to harm us. Indeed, he says, “U.S. intelligence agencies contend there is no evidence the organization [ISIS] has formulated plans to attack the American homeland.” (These are, presumably, the same myopic agencies—now suddenly to be trusted—that saw no evidence of possible attacks by al Qaeda on, say, September 10, 2001.)

Ron Paul, a former Libertarian Party presidential candidate, condemned America’s overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. That government—which shielded and provided a haven for al Qaeda—is not our enemy, according to Paul. The only reason they are fighting us, he says, is because we invaded their country—just as we would fight any invader of our country: “The Taliban just says, ‘We don’t want foreigners.’ We need to understand that, or we can’t resolve this problem in the Middle East.”

So Islamic totalitarianism is not the root of the problem; American “interventionism” is. Only “hawkish types,” according to Carpenter, believe that ISIS poses a threat to us. And if we just leave ISIS alone—he claims—it will leave us alone.

This is the lethal mindlessness of “non-interventionism.”

What then should be done with respect to ISIS? It should be militarily destroyed. (More importantly, the regime in Iran—the source of Islamic totalitarianism—should be forcibly ousted.) Unfortunately, that is a hopeless goal under the current administration. President Obama, driven by a need to appear decisive before the November elections, has launched a perfunctory bombing campaign against ISIS. If that is our only alternative, we’d be far better off doing nothing. At present, therefore, we can only hope that some future administration will grasp the urgent need to take appropriate action in defense of America.♦♦