SEVERAL weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with a very smart senior American diplomat, a veteran of both Republican and Democratic administrations, about policy towards several authoritarian regimes. The thing about such regimes, he said, is that the diplomatic efforts of outside countries can have at most a marginal effect on their internal politics. You can't simply tell the government of another country that they have to start treating their political opposition differently, and expect them to do so. Their calculations will be dominated by their own assessments of what they need to do to retain power and, in the case of governments that are in some sense patriotic or nationalistic, to enhance the power and welfare of their nations. This strikes me as an observation so rock-solid that it's really quite shocking that America's foreign-policy debate seems usually to proceed under the opposite assumption—that American attitudes and actions will determine the fate of whatever foreign country we've decided to care about this season.
This is apropos of a debate Daniel Larison and Patrick Appel are having over Iran. I think they're both right. The substance of the debate is what we should think of Hillary and Flynt Leverett, two foreign-policy analysts who favour "engagement" with the Iranian regime and who have from the beginning discounted the possibility that the Green Movement will succeed in toppling it. Mr Larison argues that the Leveretts have been unjustly attacked, as though to believe that the regime would not fall were the same as condoning it:
If skeptics have seemed a little too sure about things, how ridiculously overconfident have many other observers been? Have the latter been right about much of anything so far? On balance, whose arguments seem to be more in accord with reality? Shouldn't that be the relevant measure in gauging the merits of what the Leveretts have had to say?
Mr Appel responds that the Leveretts have, in fact, seemed to condone the regime, by downplaying the violence it has employed to suppress the democracy movement, and by arguing that it won the presidential election in July.
The Leveretts' substantive point, that we should engage with the Iranian government we have, is a serious position that deserves real debate. Arguing, without sufficient evidence, that [Ahmadinejad] won the election outright was not necessary to advance this position but doing so made their position easier to defend, as did downplaying the protests and ignoring the violence. Pundits who advocate bombing Iran should address all the likely consequences of that action. Pundits who advocate engagement with Iran should recognize the crimes that the Iranian government has committed against its people.
Mr Appel titles his post "The Iran debate we should be having". What strikes me is that it is of little import what Iran debate we have. The question of what stance the American government adopted towards the Green Movement was always moderately peripheral. We are now arguing not about what stance to adopt towards Iran, but about what stance to adopt towards members of our own political elite who have argued for various stances towards Iran. My own instinct is that the prospects of any serious diplomatic gains from any Iran strategy are too uncertain to be worth calculated pursuit, and one might as well use this as an occasion to take a possibly unproductive stand for human rights, without resorting to counterproductive aggression. But I think the aggressive, pro-bombing stance is the only one that's clearly unacceptable and based on dangerous fantasies. Short of that, a lot of positions are acceptable, and none are likely to matter too much to the progress of Iran's heroic Green Movement. We can't do much about that except hope.