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January 12, 2009

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In the vacuum left behind as a result of direct, anti-democratic interference to preserve narrow, self-referenced interests - and the effort to prop up undemocratic, oppresive allies to secure same - something more pernicious and threatening emerged.

How very true.

History echoes, and those plagued by deafness (willful and otherwise), stand poised, again, with hands cupped to mouth.

Ah, now you've lost me. What exactly are you equating here? Baathists and Jihadists? The House of Saud and the State of Israel? Don't those analogies seem slightly forced to you?

If you want to look for echoes of history, I'd suggest a different perspective. Over the past century, we've seen the same cyclical patterns enacted time and again. An old, tired, corrupt regime earns the well-justified resentment of its people. New groups of reformers band together to challenge it, fueled by a compelling ideology. But because the system is ill-equipped to handle peaceful transitions, the result is substantial friction, and more often than not, widespread political violence. Eventually, they summon sufficient force to topple the ancien regime, and usher in a new era. But in short order, they come to be seen as old, tired and corrupt themselves, and a new opposition arises.

America has a strategic interest in stability; the Arab world seems singularly prone to cyclical regime change. It's a thorny problem. I have to say that our opposition to brutally tyrannical regimes in the region has not typically yielded great outcomes, either. (Witness Iraq.) The long-term solution is to free the world from dependency on Middle Eastern oil, so that the region can work through its own disfunction.

In the short term, though, I honestly don't believe there to be any good options. Supporting the House of Saud was a mistake. But backing coups (because that's what the Nationalists were after) hasn't generally worked out any better. It's incredibly easy to critique our hapless, inept, and often immoral record in the region, but not terribly easy to suggest realistic alternatives.

If you continue to crush the decent opposition, you ensure the rise of the indecent opposition.

doesn't the "bomb first" strategy also create enormous incentives for iran (or anyone, frankly) to get a nuclear weapon? i'm not saying they're justified in some normative sense, but i'm instead trying to objectively describe the incentives the mass bombing creates

"doesn't the 'bomb first' strategy"

It may just be me, but I'm not remotely clear what or who you're referring to by that: can you clarify what you're talking about? Who is bombing who first?

America has a strategic interest in stability; the Arab world seems singularly prone to cyclical regime change. It's a thorny problem. I have to say that our opposition to brutally tyrannical regimes in the region has not typically yielded great outcomes, either. (Witness Iraq.) The long-term solution is to free the world from dependency on Middle Eastern oil, so that the region can work through its own disfunction.

In the short term, though, I honestly don't believe there to be any good options. Supporting the House of Saud was a mistake. But backing coups (because that's what the Nationalists were after) hasn't generally worked out any better. It's incredibly easy to critique our hapless, inept, and often immoral record in the region, but not terribly easy to suggest realistic alternatives.

Wait, I think you have the history backwards. The US did back the coups, and in pursuit of toppling nationalists. See, ie, Egypt and Iran. In fact, we went after democratically elected leaders and/or openly sought to destabilize regimes then in power.

If stability is the goal, those are some incongruous tactics.

It may just be me, but I'm not remotely clear what or who you're referring to by that: can you clarify what you're talking about? Who is bombing who first?

If I may: I took publius as saying that the tendency on our part (and Israel's) to use force liberally creates incentives for states like Iran to seek out nuclear weapons with some sense of urgency. Whereas a more secure Iran might lower the acquisition of nukes on its list of priorities.

Adding: One realistic alternative would have been to not destabilize and then topple Mossadegh. And then install the Shah.

Eric:

Sure, we backed some coups. We were wrong to do so. And as you point out, the results were disastrous. But let's take a closer look at Mossadegh in Iran, for the sake of the argument.

Yes, he won a democratic election. And then he engaged in a long struggle with the constitutional monarchy. Very quickly, his radical secularism alienated many clerics and lost him much of his popular support. In 1953, after unilaterally revising the constitution, he conducted a plebiscite to legitimize his rule but insisted the vote be by open ballot - he won 99.93% of the vote. He then suspended Parliament indefinitely, and governed by decree, using emergency powers. Mosaddegh, in other words, delivered neither stability nor democracy.

My point is not that any of this justified a coup. Of course it didn't. Nor is it clear that supporting Mosaddegh would necessarily have been worse than supporting his ouster and reinstating the Shah. But it wouldn't have been a vote for democracy, either. We were faced with two bad choices - a corrupt and dissolute monarch, and an autocratic radical. The monarch didn't work out too well. But the radical? Given the size of the mobs of traditionalists who took to the streets in opposition to Mosaddegh during the coup, it's not improbable that he would have provoked an Islamic revolution even faster.

That's what comes of interfering in the domestic politics of other nations. Any action at all is likely to produce unintended consequences. And, particularly in a region utterly devoid of democratic regimes that respect international norms and abide by the rule of law, there are almost never any good options. As a general rule, I think we've erred by interfering, whether to bolster an existing regime or to overthrow it. When we interfere, we're bound to lose either way - we gain either popular hostility or the antipathy of the leadership, and often both. Better to let events take their course. Sometimes we'll wind up better off; sometimes worse; but at least we won't be responsible.

El Cid:

Which, pray tell, was the decent opposition?

Publius:

I'm not sure, but I think you're suggesting that Israeli actions intended to create deterrence may have the perverse effect of incentivizing Iran to gain its own deterrent capability, and thereby ultimately undermine Israeli security. Is that about right?

It's a fair point (although a little random in the context of this thread). But Iran was pursuing this weapon before Israel attacked Hamas. Before it bombed Hezbollah. In fact, the pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran likely has more to do with its long-term hostility with its Sunni neighbors, its fears of the Great Satan, and its aspirations toward restoring Persian regional hegemony. The rhetoric is aimed at Israel, because that legitimates the pursuit in the eyes of many in the region and elsewhere, and bolsters popular support for the sacrifices entailed at home. And the world focuses on that dimension, because irrespective of Iranian motives, the weapon will indeed threaten Israeli security, and Israel is the regional actor most likely to attempt to forestall the acquisition through the use of force. But if Israel really were wiped off the map tomorrow, Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability would continue unabated. In fact, it would probably accelerate - without Israel to absorb Sunni antipathy and to bolster Iran's regional standing, I suspect it would feel even more threatened than it already does.

"If I may: I took publius as saying that the tendency on our part (and Israel's) to use force liberally creates incentives for states like Iran to seek out nuclear weapons with some sense of urgency. Whereas a more secure Iran might lower the acquisition of nukes on its list of priorities."

Ok, well, I agree with that, although I'm still not clear who was bombing who first. But anyway.

"And then install the Shah."

Re-install.

observer -- i think we basically agree (and eric was right in the characterization), but we're coming at it differently.

i agree that iran has been pursuing these things before the recent wars. but i think that iran views its nuclear quest as a fundamentally *defensive* endeavor. they note (correctly) that we tend not to attack countries with nuclear weapons. the recent NYT story about a possible attack on Iran by Israel only throws more fuel on the fire.

so yes, there will always be iranians pushing. but the actions we do gives the hard liners more (or less) political support. recent events would seem to greatly strengthen the hand of hard liners

In fairness, it should be noted that it's likely that the leadership of Iran, the Supreme Leader and surrounding folks, are apt to want nuclear weapons no matter what we do. It's not always about stuff we can do to influence other people, one way or another. Americans tend to often exaggerate how much we can actually do to influence countries that just don't want to do what we want, no matter how much we want it.

Publius:

Who knew we'd see eye to eye on the Middle East?

The only thing I'd add is that I'm not at all sure that we're what concerns Iran's leaders most. It fought a long and bloody war with Iraq, financed by the Gulf States. That looms very, very large in the Iranian consciousness. If we really wanted to allay Iran's fears, we'd stop arming its Sunni neighbors to the teeth.

Mosaddegh, in other words, delivered neither stability nor democracy.

Observer,

You really should peruse some of the recently declassified documents on the CIA's activities vis a vis Mossadegh.

To sum it up: we were actively destabilizing his regime for many months, stretching into years. We sowed dissent, financial hardship and created other anti-regime elements/influences.

He was dedicated to democracy up until the point that we began to tear it down around him, and he took countermeasures. Funny part: he thought that by doing this (and by making the case that Iran was becoming vulnerable to Soviet incursion), he would force us to ease up on the pressure and back his rule. We, of course, chose another route.

As for him bringing stability: We were actively and intently destabilizing Iran, so no, he wasn't able to overcome our efforts! Hard to blame him for that though.

Anyway, although Gary could offer other recommendations, I highly recommend Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes for a fair, non-ideological treatment of the facts based on those declassified documents if you have any interest.

Observer -- agreed for sure on that last point

Observer: The way to tell the decent opposition is that it's usually the one not inviting favor from U.S. intervention. Our moronic foreign policy establishment is certainly unqualified to know who should lead other nations, but, by gosh, it's always had a good sensibility to back some real bastards and then come up with some pretty vain rationalizations about how it just had to be done, complete with trite complaints about how, well, you know, the world is complex, and we have a lot of interests, and we don't really know the people we're opposing deserve power anyway, and gosh we've just got to make the best of the world we've got.

It's like how so many people knew there were problems with Mossadegh, and yet really, only the ass-hat establishment and its wide world of toadies convinced themselves that overthrowing the actual government in favor of the Shah was the best choice for us grateful American citizens.

It's sort of like how the Israeli leadership has perpetually found whatever leadership of the Palestinians to be terribly wanting, and this for the U.S. and Israel represented a great excuse to delay and undermine negotiations; and the Israeli leadership didn't like the strengths of what secular Palestinian leadership existed, so one of their avenues to explore was to fund the origins of Hamas, which would cleverly divide the Palestinian leadership along religious lines.

I'm naive, and stupid and all, and unable to see the complexities of the world; yet that's the sort of proposal that I, a naif, would predict would lead to all sorts of disaster, and I'd be quite confused at why, other than sheer naked power, you would choose to keep undermining a rather clear path to a negotiated settlement of an awful, illegal occupation. But I'm just a moralizing simpleton.

Eric:

That's a spectacularly US-centric account. There's some substantial irony in the fact that its critics tend to find the CIA to be simultaneously omnipotent and incompetent. Did the CIA do its best to destabilize the regime? Yes, it did. But it wasn't working in a vacuum. Its efforts, at most, reinforced opposition and exacerbated tensions. It was an amplifying, not a causal, force in the decline of Mosaddegh regime over those months. So I cede all of the particulars regarding the Agency's dastardly deeds, but tend to think that Iranians themselves had some control over their own destiny.

Mosaddegh was no angel. I find your apology unconvincing. He was, in many ways, rather like Nasser - an autocratic, modernizing, fiercely nationalist ruler. The difference is that Nasser managed to hold on for long enough for us all to watch his reign play out. This gets back to my point about the cyclical nature of Middle Eastern politics. Every new reformer enters the stage freighted with high hopes and expectations. Soon, clinging to power, they start to rationalize and justify the measures they take. They are battling regressive forces and outside influences. The measures are temporary. A better future is at hand. And suddenly, its decades later and we're watching another coup. There have been a handful of genuinely impressive reformers; Mossadegh certainly did not number among them.

That he was a victim of American imperialism doesn't make him a saint.

"If we really wanted to allay Iran's fears, we'd stop arming its Sunni neighbors to the teeth."

There's little sign of Iran worrying overmuch about the leadership in Iraq, to put it mildly.

Yankee go home.

We have a right to step in to other people’s houses and rape and kill the inhabitants.

You know because the world is complicated and we are so wonderful.

If the inhabitants were really nice people, they would just let us do it, since…you know…we are freedom lovers and we are just so wonderful, and the world is so complicated. Being a wonderful freedom-lover in a complicated world just proves how deserving we are!

It’s obvious these foreigners are worthless or they wouldn’t be struggling against our freedom-loving wonderfulness.

It is our God-given and Liberty-given right to go into other communities and societies and fnck with them until they accept how wonderfully freedom-loving we are, since they obviously do not understand how complicated the world really is.

That's a spectacularly US-centric account. There's some substantial irony in the fact that its critics tend to find the CIA to be simultaneously omnipotent and incompetent. Did the CIA do its best to destabilize the regime? Yes, it did. But it wasn't working in a vacuum. Its efforts, at most, reinforced opposition and exacerbated tensions.

You know, there's a lot bad you can say about Al Qaeda. But at least they don't hang around blog comment sections complaining about the post-9/11 clampdown on civil liberties.

That he was a victim of American imperialism doesn't make him a saint.

Could you please point to anything that I wrote that claimed sainthood for Mossadegh? Angelhood? Implied it?

Did the CIA do its best to destabilize the regime? Yes, it did. But it wasn't working in a vacuum. Its efforts, at most, reinforced opposition and exacerbated tensions.

Of course! That's how it always works.
Just standard divide and conquer really. Same old game since the days when the pyramids were nothing but one cornerstone.

But that doesn't really change what I said, and it wasn't really as US-centric as you claim. Just observing the fact that it's a bit rich to blame someone for failing to maintain stability when we're doing our damndest (with the Brits of course - and at their behest mind you) to destabilize.

Adding: It's also a bit rich to complain about the undemocratic tactics of Mossadegh considering that we reinstalled the Shah, backed him to the hilt and became closely associated with his rule.

On the sainthood/angelic spectrum, I'd put the Shah many ticks closer to Hades than Mossadegh. However, we made the former our representative in Iran, and toppled the latter.

There was, of course, blowback. We're still dealing with it today.

Eric :

I wasn't defending the Shah; far from it. In fact, the core of the argument that I've been advancing in these posts is that neither Mosaddegh nor the Shah represented appealing alternatives. And I suspect you understand that 'destabilizing' a ruler who you think is liable to usher in an extended period of national and regional instability, and then replacing him with an autocrat who presided over two decades of relative stasis, is indeed a move designed to enhance stability. The United States gambled that the short-term damage of removing Mosaddegh would be outweighed by the long-term gains in stability of reinstalling the Shah and dialing back the pace of modernization and nationalism. It actually won that bet in the short-term; whether the Islamic Revolution was fomented or accelerated by the intervention, or whether it would have come even faster under Mossaddegh, is ultimately an unanswerable question.

In this series of posts, I have been objecting to the common trope that by toppling Mosaddegh, the United States derailed an incipient democracy and set in motion a religious revolution. It seems to stem from a common view, implied by your initial post and explicitly articulated by El Cid, that the United States has a near perfect record in the Middle East of betting on the wrong horse. Since the figures we've supported have had generally deplorable records, there is a natural tendency to suppose that had we made different decisions, we would have produced different outcomes. We tend to focus on our own actions as determinative. Blowback, moreover, is a seductive concept - the notion that we are mostly responsible for the problems we encounter around the world is perversely flattering, for it implies that we have the power to solve those problems by making better decisions.

The point I'm trying to make is that the record of the United States in the region is somewhat more complicated. If few (if any) of the leaders or movements we have backed have turned out as we hoped, it's mostly because virtually none of the region's leaders or movements were liable to move in the direction we might like. The problems in the Middle East are mostly not of our making. Had we thrown our weight behind Mosaddegh's coup and overthrow of the Shah, our record would have been equally suspect. Critics would have accused us of imposing a modernizer on a traditional society, thereby fomenting a fundamentalist counter-revolution and fostering extremism; of stifling democracy by supporting a man who dissolved parliament and rigged elections; and in all likelihood, of supporting a man whose nationalism would eventually have placed him in opposition to our regional interests. And they would have been right, just as they were right to criticize our support of the Shah.

The menu of choices in the Middle East generally includes bad, worse, and worst of all. Moreover, the choices shift constantly - the movement that seems only bad today may be the worst of all tomorrow. When we get involved in the business of choosing which movements to support, we always lose. There are no winning choices. On the other hand, some degree of involvement in the region is inevitable - we're the world's greatest power, and our decisions are going to have some impact. The best option is to lower the stakes - if you gamble with less, you lose less. At the moment, our dependency on oil means the stakes are high. Freeing ourselves of that will, at least, minimize our losses.

And I suspect you understand that 'destabilizing' a ruler who you think is liable to usher in an extended period of national and regional instability, and then replacing him with an autocrat who presided over two decades of relative stasis, is indeed a move designed to enhance stability.

And I suspect that you understand that Mossadegh was not really likely to usher in such instability, but rather that the British were concerned with his desire to implement greater control over Iran's oil. And, given that fear, we proceeded to destabilize him.

Had we thrown our weight behind Mosaddegh's coup and overthrow of the Shah, our record would have been equally suspect.

Huh? What does this mean? Are you saying that we could have (in any conceivable world), after overthrowing Mossadegh, then backed a coup by Mossadegh to overthrow the leader we re-installed in the first place? No, not even I would have favored that. Once we overthrew Mossadegh, we couldn't back a coup by him.

The United States gambled that the short-term damage of removing Mosaddegh would be outweighed by the long-term gains in stability of reinstalling the Shah and dialing back the pace of modernization and nationalism. It actually won that bet in the short-term; whether the Islamic Revolution was fomented or accelerated by the intervention, or whether it would have come even faster under Mossaddegh, is ultimately an unanswerable question.

Obviously, I don't agree with you on the gains in stability from the Shah. Quite the contrary.

Further, we could have had gains in stability under Mossadegh if we...just stopped destabilizing his regime!!! That would have been a sure bet, and then we wouldn't have had to worry about the potential blowback.

And yeah, it is pretty certain that the Shah's ouster was the result of the Shah's rule, and that anger at the Shah found its way to our shores pretty easily. Iranians aren't idiots. They recognized the power behind the Shah - and I don't find that particularly flattering.

As for Khomeini, he was a force regardless. But we certainly set the conditions for his ascension, and had no contingency plan to back other more moderate factions after the Shah fell. The better bet would have been backing Mossadegh (or his democratically elected successor!). Democracy and all that.

Since the figures we've supported have had generally deplorable records, there is a natural tendency to suppose that had we made different decisions, we would have produced different outcomes. We tend to focus on our own actions as determinative.

You tend to ignore this: if an outside power is interested in securing a natural resource or local advantage for itself (such as oil) - and maintaining an advantageous position for its oil companies - it will be impossible to find "good" local leaders and movements to back.

"Good" movements/leaders wanted nothing to do with our agenda. For good reason.

It was the same dynamic in Latin America. Anyone that me and you might consider "good" was quickly disposed of.

Blowback, moreover, is a seductive concept - the notion that we are mostly responsible for the problems we encounter around the world is perversely flattering, for it implies that we have the power to solve those problems by making better decisions.

You know what is an even more seductive concept? You know what concepts get rewarded by an elite that has skin in the game? That blowback is a myth. That there are no good options, so we are justified in toppling democratically elected regimes and backing (and/or implanting) ruthless dictators.

That the pursuit of oil justifies any manner of interference and mischief - and that there aren't really consequences to be paid down the line.

They don't hate us for our actions and policies, they hate us for our freedoms. And the like.

Now that's seductive. Pays well too.

I'm curious about how we have so many discussions about US meddling in the Middle East with almost no discussion about the USSR at the same time. Not in a 'blame the communists' sense, but for a bit of historical perspective about the reasoning behind certain actions. Quite a few things that seem pseudo-mysterious if you don't mention the USSR, make a little more sense if you realize that the Middle East was a bit player caught up in the stomping grounds of giants around them. And they know it, which is a huge part of their resentment.

But there are long discussions about US action in the Middle East which seemingly don't remember that the US was one of two superpowers meddling in the Middle East. If the US were not, it wouldn't have been a meddle-free zone by any means.

Seb: Duly noted. Oil and countering the USSR were our two animating principles.

Which is the point.

Backing "good" leaders has rarely been a paramount interest for US foreign policy. In this, we are like every other nation that has ever existed. We are in the business of furthering our interests, and are willing to use whatever local proxies help us to achieve those desired ends.

The good news is that there are some checks on our government's nastier proclivities. It is actually possible to shame our government to act better, and abandon local champions that go too far.

Eventually, IKE/Kennedy grew tired of Trujillo's brutality in the DR. Duvalier became too much in Haiti. And Bush 43 couldn't work with Karimov in Uzbekistan ultimately.

We're more comfortable working with authoritarian regimes there--democracies might put people we don't like in office. Look at Hamas.

I'm reading Avi Shlaim's biography of King Hussein and that issue has already come up--the US has just decided (this is in the 50's) to back Hussein because of fear of communism.

"But there are long discussions about US action in the Middle East which seemingly don't remember that the US was one of two superpowers meddling in the Middle East."

As regards Operation Ajax, the USSR wasn't a significant player:

[...] When Mossadeq canceled public appearances and instead carried out government business from his residence, the Western media claimed he was being paranoid and melodramatic. A note at the Foreign Office stated ambiguously: “You might well consider it desirable to put about the story that the communists are plotting against Musaddiq’s life, and are trying to plant the responsibility onto the British” (FO 371/Persia 1952/9859). Along similar lines, Lankarani bombed the home of a prominent cleric, and sent leaflets to others in the name of the Tudeh heralding the imminent dawn of a bright new “atheistic” republic. This frightened some, including future leaders of the Islamic Republic (Kianuri, 1992, 252).

Wilber also writes that suitable articles were planted in Western papers and then replanted in Iranian newspapers. Publications such as Newsweek raised the hue and cry that the country was on the edge of falling into the communist abyss (August 10, 1953). They claimed that the Tudeh had infiltrated the National Front; that leading members of the government — namely, Fatemi, Abdol-Ali Lofti, the Justice Minister, and Mehdi Azar, the Education Minister — were secret fellow-travelers; that Mossadeq was about to make a deal with the Soviets; and that if he did not do so the Tudeh was poised to launch an armed insurrection.

Throughout the crisis, the “communist danger” was more of a rhetorical device than a real issue — i.e., it was part of the cold-war discourse. The British and American governments knew Mossadeq was as distrustful of the Soviet Union as of the West. In fact, they often complained to each other about his “neutralism.” They knew perfectly well that the so-called “fellow-travelers” were staunch nationalists (after the coup some of them obtained refuge in the United States). They also knew that the Tudeh, even though the largest political organization, was in no position to seize power (F0 371/Persia 1952/ 98597; FO 371/Persia 1953/104573; Declassified Documents/1981/CIA/ Doc 276). Despite 20,000 members and 110,000 sympathizers, the Tudeh was no match for the armed tribes and the 129,000-man military. What is more, the British and Americans had enough inside information to be confident that the party had no plans to initiate armed insurrection. At the beginning of the crisis when the Truman administration was under the impression a compromise was possible, Acheson had stressed the communist danger and warned if Mossadeq was not helped the Tudeh would take over (FO 371/Persia 1051/1530). The Foreign Office had retorted that the Tudeh was no real threat (FO 371/ Persia 1952/98608). But, in August 1953, when the Foreign Office echoed the Eisenhower administration’s claim that the Tudeh was about to take over, Acheson now retorted that there was no such communist danger (Roosevelt, 1979, 88). Acheson was honest enough to admit that the issue of the Tudeh was a smokescreen.

One might also note that the emergent Khomeini movement was as sympathetic to the secular Tudeh (communist) movement as the Taliban was to the communists in Afghanistan.

The problems in the Middle East are mostly not of our making. Had we thrown our weight behind Mosaddegh's coup and overthrow of the Shah, our record would have been equally suspect.

If only there were some third option . . . some way to stay out of the game . . .

But no. The assumption behind much of our foreign policy in the last few decades is that we get to exercise veto power over decisions about who gets to govern in any country where we judge ourselves to have a vital, strategic, or even just reputational interest. Which has often taken the form of (1) find a local badass who will be our badass, (2) make him the most heavily armed local badass, (3) continue to arm him until he decides he'd rather be his own badass than our badass, (4) discover that our badass is really really bad, loudly and piously denounce his badassery, and start over at (1).

I would only argue that 'we' backed the 'wrong horse' in the sense that the people who run this country picked exactly the horse they wanted, and the fact that it made life worse for the locals and for the average U.S. citizen, particularly in the long run, is completely and utterly irrelevant to their aims.

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