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Kagan: The Reconciliation

Robert Kagan emails to contest one element of my critique of his column. I wrote:

Kagan begins with the premise that the Bush administration pursued an idealistic policy of supporting the Iranian opposition, which Obama has abandoned in the name of realism:

The United States had to provide some guarantee to the regime that it would no longer support opposition forces or in any way seek its removal. The idea was that the United States could hardly expect the Iranian regime to negotiate on core issues of national security, such as its nuclear program, so long as Washington gave any encouragement to the government's opponents. Obama had to make a choice, and he made it. This was widely applauded as a "realist" departure from the Bush administration's quixotic and counterproductive idealism. 

Exactly what support did the Bush administration give to Iran's opposition? Kagan does not say at all. Moreover, if the Bush administration was frenetically aiding the Iranian opposition, and Obama has turned its back on them, Kagan might want to explain why the opposition languished for eight years and has sprung to life only after Bush departed the scene.That's not dispositive, but it is the sort of complicating wrinkle Kagan might want to address. Alas, he does not.

Kagan emailed to say, "I do not in the op-ed suggest that Bush was helping the Iranian oppositon." I replied that the passage clearly suggested otherwise, especially the phrases "departure" and "no longer." He then emailed to clarify:

let's be clear:  in his Nowruz statement, Obama did deliberately depart from Bush's practice of addressing only the Iranian people, not their rulers.  and this was an intentional part of his policy to reassure the rulers that he considered them legitimate.  this was widely discussed at the time and is not disputed.  and I'm not even saying that it was a mistake.  Bush, on the other hand, occupied a policy no-man's land:  not being willing to endorse the legitimacy of the regime AND not helping the opposition.  my point is that Obama had moved to a policy of accepting the legitimacy of the regime, in keeping with the grand bargain approach, and that the continuation of that approach would eventually be to promise the regime that the US would undertake no actions that would in any way be destabilizing to it.  (I realize now that the wording implied that we HAD been helping the opposition).  then the political crisis came, unexpectedly, which has complicated this approach.  Obama, I would argue, is still reluctant to question the legitimacy of the regime because to do that would depart from the grand bargain approach.

 as I said, I am prepared to be proved wrong, and, in fact, want to be wrong.  but I am not yet persuaded.

So, there you have it. It's also worth pointing out that Kagan--while still, I think, wrong about Obama's motivation toward Iran--has hardly been a knee-jerk critic of Obama.

Here on the Plank we're bringing people together.

--Jonathan Chait