The Leverett Debate

by Patrick Appel

Larison misunderstands me here:

Advocates of engagement have recognized the crimes of the Iranian regime, but some of us still believe engagement is the most realistic and correct course despite these crimes. If advocates of engagement do not devote a large amount of space to denouncing regime crimes, which everyone finds atrocious and wrong, perhaps it is because we realize that our outrage will do nothing for the regime’s victims. Perhaps it is because we have seen how stoking moral outrage against another government has been used many times in the past to justify destructive policies that will intensify the suffering and difficulties of the people.

How many thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis would still be alive and how many millions of Iraqis would never have been displaced had we been more concerned with getting our policy towards Iraq right and less concerned with denouncing Hussein’s atrocities (and using them as fodder for war propaganda)? Appel may not agree with this approach, but he should bear it in mind before he concludes that advocates of engagement such as the Leveretts have not recognized and acknowledged regime crimes.

Kevin Sullivan also boxes in my complaint about the Leveretts' ham-handed writing. As I wrote before, one must address the emotional core of opposing foreign policy viewpoints. Larison is a more than able debater, which is why I'm somewhat surprised that he has not recognized the weak points of the Leveretts' writing. My critique is not against their policies, which I am more than willing to entertain, it is against the manner in which they have framed their analysis. The merits of arguments may be all important but let's not pretend that tone and framing have no bearing.

Read the Leveretts June 15th article: Ahmadinejad won. Get over it. The article makes no mention of the protests that had occurred. Read the Dish coverage the week of the op-ed and the week before. Given the chaos after the election, shouldn't someone arguing that Ahmadinejad won explain why hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets?

Many pro-green movement writers have been overconfident, but that does not give the Leveretts a free pass to commit the same sin. When writing against a consensus one needs to be more careful, not less. I've re-read the WPO report Larison uses to buoy the Leveretts' claims about Ahmadinejad winning the election. The report does not explain how strongholds of other politicians went overwhelmingly for Ahmadinejad, it recognizes that Iranians might be afraid to admit they voted for Mousavi after the government crackdown, and it admits that some fraud may have occurred. In short, the WPO report is more nuanced than the Leveretts analysis. That Ahmadinejad "artfully quoted Azeri and Turkish poetry " to impress ethnic voting blocks, as the Leveretts wrote in June 15th article, is not sufficient reason to dismiss irregularities of this magnitude. Larison asks:

What is this “strongest evidence” that the Leveretts have ignored?

The strongest argument against engagement with Iran is not that any individual political actor in Iran is irrational, but that the country's leadership is divided against itself and that the warring political fractions are incapable of committing to any sort of international agreement. The green movement added to this disunity. From Larison's response to my last post:

[It] doesn’t make much sense why regime crimes would actually have much bearing on the available policy options. Washington has made strategically valuable bargains with authoritarian states several times in the past, and our government has done this with regimes that were vastly more repressive, violent and cruel. The opening to China has served both U.S. and Chinese interests reasonably well, and the Chinese people have benefited some from this as well, and none of this would have happened had our government been swayed by the objection that the Chinese government at that time had been killing hundreds of thousands of its own people for years. Out of necessity or interest, we have forged alliances with some genuinely awful Arab and Central Asian regimes as well. Where then does the horrified reaction to negotiating with Iran come from?

This is all the more frustrating because making a comprehensive settlement with Iran is the best and the most realistic option there is. Trying to build up Iran’s opposition or wait for its eventual success is a waste of effort and time that we cannot really afford.

He's right that the national interest has demanded that we deal with much more murderous regimes. My sensitivity to human rights abuses in Iran was heightened by spending the month after the election steeped in Iranian news, tweets, images, and videos. A reader's description of the feeling at the time:

Twitter revolution in a nutshell: Anne Frank's diary. Live. Multiplied by millions.

Perhaps this warped by perspective. When you see an Iranian citizen die for want of a freer society there is a natural impulse to fit that event into the larger order. Watching it over, and over, and over again compels one to find a larger purpose. To explain the human suffering as purchasing some unseen greater good.

If the people of Iran had overthrown their government, all of those deaths, tortures, and arrests would have been given meaning. If the green movement eventually leads to a reformed and freer Iran then those sacrifices will likewise have been worth it. This was the emotional core of the Iran debate at the time of the Leveretts' writing. Is it much of a surprise that their analysis, which gave no quarter to the protesters, was so widely panned? Is it so much to ask that a foreign policy analyst writing in this context in some way address the local and international consequences of such protests?