The current terror in Iran is a stark reminder of a very old, but invariably forgotten lesson: that “pragmatism” and “realism,” in foreign policy dealing with vicious autocrats, are frequently compatible with homicidal surges from those autocrats – and conversely, never deter them from those episodes.
Pragmatism in foreign policy has, in fact, never deterred a totalitarian from oppressing – even murdering – his own people, nor has it ever deterred one from invading a neighbor.
Pragmatism has been the default mode of foreign policy in the great civilizations, throughout most of human history. Democracies are as prone to it as autocracies. One need only read Thucydides to get a sense for the number of centuries through which pragmatism – as contrasted with idealism – has, in the West, been the mode of foreign policy resorted to the overwhelming majority of the time. Nor do historical surveys of Asia or Africa yield any more instances of foreign policy idealism. (They yield fewer.) It is certainly not evidence of either insight or magisterial prudence to practice pragmatism in foreign policy. In the best of cases, it may involve strategic maneuver against a larger predator, or a delaying tactic by a state on defense; but in most, it is simply a manifestation of a deeply conventional, reflexive human mindset.
Pragmatism is not bad in or of itself. It breaks down in context. All cases of genocide and brutal domestic political repression have occurred concurrently with pragmatic policies by foreign powers. Waiting to see how things turn out, and not interfering in the affairs of sovereign nations, are typical hallmarks of pragmatism. Prizing accommodation, and “open doors” to opportunities for negotiation (often more putative than demonstrable), are as well.
So, it turns out, is standing by while another regime slaughters its own people.
It is important to note that this feature of pragmatism does not mean the pragmatist who avoids meddling is at fault for atrocities committed by foreign governments. That is not the case, nor is it the argument here. The perpetrators themselves are the guilty parties; it is not their misdeeds a foreign pragmatist is accountable for. His own are inevitably enough.
But where the ticks go in one’s moral ledger is a different question from what the outcome of pragmatism is likely to be, when the issue at hand is a dictator suppressing signs of life from his people. And the answer to the latter question has, historically, been unvarying. Pragmatism, as President Obama is exercising it in June 2009, has never once deterred or prevented a dictatorial regime from brutally suppressing its people.
Now, it is always a legitimate question what can, in fact, be done by one government when it sees what another one is doing. That proposition itself presupposes both recognition and acknowledgment; but assuming we have them, there may still be important practical obstacles to taking action. This was the case much more 100 years ago, or even 50, when the tools of force were much blunter, and far less effective, and wielding force was a substantially different matter in terms of the number of personnel required, the quality of precision, and logistic efficiency. Intervening in the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire would have required a type of campaign, in 1915, that a similar intervention would not require today. Our means and methods are different now, achieving more effect for a smaller footprint in virtually every aspect of the use of force.
This element of force – current tools and methods – always makes a substantial difference. If the US had had, in Vietnam, the same tools we had in Desert Storm, it would have been almost impossible for Johnson and McNamara to execute their “Rolling Thunder” campaign: because airstrikes would have been too accurate and destroyed too much at even their lowest level. “Gradualism,” as conceptualized by McNamara, would have been an unexecutable joke.
And yet the tools we had in Desert Storm were outdated 12 years later, in Iraqi Freedom. If we had had the tools of Iraqi Freedom in 1991, there would have been no 41-day “air campaign” before the invasion with armor and infantry – and without the record of withstanding our air assault for nearly 6 weeks to bolster his confidence, Saddam might well have folded and fled within days before an invading army, just as he did in March 2003.
It is worth remembering too that if we had had, in the 1960s, no better tools of force than we had had in World War II, that constraint might well have deterred us from expanding our involvement in Vietnam. Vietnam looks quaint and inefficient today, but even at its outset, it was conducted on a model of warfare substantially altered from the bomber assault waves, and mass infantry and tank battles, of World War II and Korea.
So there is always a legitimate question about what we can do; and that question leads to others, regarding what the cost will be, and whether the cost is worth it to us. These are legitimate questions, not to be gundecked or brushed aside.
By the time they become major issues, however, we have often passed a point at which we could have affected the course of events by taking earlier, smaller, and less costly actions. As Churchill and the Kagans have outlined in painful detail, the Western allies had passed that point by the time they got to Munich in 1938 – which again was a point they were beyond, when August 1939 rolled around. The predatory career of the Third Reich might well have been blunted as early as Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 – through enforcement of the terms of the Armistice, which Germany was violating; and most probably by means of confrontation only, and without combat. The Kagans’ analysis that this course could have undermined Hitler with the German people, by dealing him major policy setbacks, is strengthened by the development of a similar dynamic with respect to the Warsaw Pact during the Reagan years.
We do not have many instances of preemptive, activist postures to judge from, because virtually all of history’s foreign policy reactions to both predation and domestic massacre have been “pragmatic.” We have therefore, on the other hand, numerous examples of pragmatism to learn from. We can say about it, from historical evidence, that it routinely does three things, when confronted with events like those unfolding in Iran today:
1. It puts its practitioners, through procrastination and delay, out of position to affect the course of events early, with smaller actions and fewer resources.
2. It therefore ensures that any potential intervention becomes a matter involving a much larger scale of force, and a significantly different level of political calculus.
3. It allows massacres, genocides, and invasions that might have been interdicted to occur.
This was all foreseeable 10 days ago. I have offered suggestions here, here, and here for measures we could have been taking up to this point, to weaken and deter the Iranian regime, and give the people a better chance. It has never been the case that there was nothing we could do. That is not the case now, on the afternoon of 24 June in California, and the early hours of 25 June in Iran. What is now the case is that no resolution that can possibly be reached, even in the unlikely event of US intervention at some level, will be reached without the gruesome deaths of hundreds – and more probably thousands – of Iranians.
The choice of pragmatism is the choice to accept this. I guess that’s why we call it pragmatism.