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For A Prudent Idealism

I like to think of myself as a prudent idealist in foreign policy and also as a follower of Woodrow Wilson (at least before Wilson, in the spring of 1919, beaten down and incapacitated by illness, became incapable of making the distinctions and compromises necessary to successful diplomacy). I am certainly as enthusiastic as anyone else about Iranians taking to the street against Ahmadinejad. But unlike some of my colleagues, I fully support the Obama administration's cautious diplomacy and worry about their appearing to take sides in the contest between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.

Here are some obvious guideposts for a prudent idealism:

1. Revolutions--and major regime changes--happen organically and cannot be imposed from outside without unforeseen and often unfavorable consequences. Wilson learned this in Mexico in 1914; George W. Bush should have learned it in Iraq. There are exceptions, of course, when a defeated people disown their rulers and look to their conquerors for guidance or when a people look to outside help to prevent intervention from another sinister power (Japan and Germany after World War II meet both criteria.) Needless to say, Iran doesn't fit these specifications.

2. Promoting regime change can be worse than futile; it can be counter-productive. An obvious example is U.S. policy toward Castro's Cuba, which was ostensibly driven by a desire to unseat him, but which perpetuated his rule. It's a good bet that if the U.S. had been trading vigorously with Cuba since 1989, today's Cuba would look a lot more congenial. Another recent example is American support--at least immediately afterwards--for the coup against Venezuelan Hugo Chavez in 2002, which strengthened Chavez's hand.

Countries are held together by a spirit of national pride--it's the positive side of nationalism, and it's particularly strong in countries that were once under imperial control or suffered from Western interference. The U.S. has a long record of intervention in Iran. It's not just Mossadeq in 1953 or the Shah. As recently as last year, we were spending money to overthrow the regime. That had exactly the opposite effect intended. And for the Obama administration to throw its support to Ahmadinejad's foes now would help Ahmadinejad invoke his country's national pride on his own behalf.

In other words, there are severe limits on the U.S. intervening in a country's internal affairs, and in this case they are more severe for the U.S. than for countries that have enjoyed less conflictual relations with Iran.  We don't even have an ambassador we can recall. Sure, we can call for fair elections and the right of free assembly, and denounce the killing of demonstrators or the jailing of opposition candidates, but we can't, as Richard Just would suggest, "protect" the "Iranian liberals" from the state. Nor could we have protected the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square from the regime's tanks. And our incapacity is not just military; it is also political.

3. Our enemies' enemy is not always our friend--or revolutions do not always pit God against Satan. Yes, American citizens are taking sides, but the American government should be very wary about taking sides in Iran or in some place like Georgia. Richard cites McCain's statement "we are all Georgians now" as something to praise rather than condemn, but one has to remember that in the context, McCain was saying that we are all supporters not just of Georgians, but of the Georgian government of Mikhail Saakashvili in his conflict with Russian Vladimir Putin.  McCain, too, had pressed for Georgia to position itself as a foe of Russia.

Yes, on balance, the Georgian head of state was certainly more of a democrat than the Russian. But the Georgian government has not proven to be a bastion of liberalism and may have provoked the Russian invasion. It was certainly appropriate to call for a ceasefire and to demand a withdrawal of Russian troops. The U.S. should do what it can to prevent big nations from grabbing the territory of smaller ones--that is not just a matter of human rights, but of preventing the basis for new world wars. But saying "we are all Georgians" went well beyond that.

Similarly, the Obama administration has to be very careful about backing, or even placing great hopes on, someone like Iran's Moussavi and even on his impassioned followers. If we are seeing the beginning of another revolution--or structural transformation--in Iran, it is worth remembering that before the dust clears on this events, Kerensky can become Lenin and Bani Sadr can become Khomeini. The U.S. should use its influence--and get European countries to use theirs--but we should be careful and not allow ourselves to get into crusading mode where we think we can protect or defend one side against the other.

I offer these words not as a rejoinder, or stark alternative, to what my colleague Richard Just has written, but an attempt to bring a measure of prudence to his idealism.

--John B. Judis

Click here to read a response from TNR executive editor Peter Scoblic.