Obama supporters continue to cling (perhaps out of bitterness) to the notion of direct diplomacy with Iran. Their retort to the tidal wave of criticism is, “well, what would you do? Invade Iran.” This is part of the Democratic strategy of criticizing U.S. foreign policy. It takes an incredibly narrow view of the history of Iraq. Perhaps many Obama supporters cannot remember that far back, but the United States imposed sanctions on Iraq for 12 years. For many Obama supporters, this dates back to their kindergarten days. The notion that the United States reflexively invaded Iraq after 9/11 is as absurd as the most deranged Obama fantasy.
Iraq is a separate animal from Iran. Iraq was a brutal, but secular, dictatorship run by an aging psychopath. Iran, though run by equally brutal psychopaths, has a growing populist democracy movement. There are reformers, in some cases openly calling for democratic reforms in Iran, such a pro-American base did not exist in Iraq, certainly not with nearly the same strength.
Invading Iran is not a plausible scenario for many reasons. So what would I do about Iran? More importantly, what would Ronald Reagan do? Toppling an evil empire, as the old Cowboy from Tampico showed us, requires determination, restrained aggression, compassion and cooperation (and a little bit of luck).
Reagan showed us that determination (some would say “Cowboy diplomacy” or “stubborn refusal to be reasonable”) is not a weakness in the face of evil. A president needs to convince the enemy, the people under its oppression, U.S. allies and the global spectators (the United Nations, for example), that the full power of the United States will be brought to bear so that freedom, not tyranny, will win the day. Certainly, a president must be willing (and plausibly so) to commit the full might of the U.S. military to destroying Iran. This commitment must be broader than that. It must include economic policies and diplomatic efforts with other countries. Most importantly, this determination cannot waiver, it cannot be subject to the whims of pollsters or pundits. In 1987, after six years of “preparations”, Ronald Reagan demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall. His speech writers objected. His Secretary of State objected. The media mocked him as a dottering old fool. Two years later, the wall came down.
Reagan knew that naked determination, however, was not enough. Just as in high-stakes poker, restrained aggression is key to brinkmanship. Reagan knew that placing Pershing II missiles in Europe would provoke the Soviets. He also knew they deserved it and would see it as a sign of strength. Reagan was roundly mocked for the Strategic Defense Initiative, a futuristic system that now protects the United States and its allies. But the old man knew that the floundering Soviet economy and years of brain drain meant the Soviets could not possibly keep up.
Reagan also knew that there was a fundamental difference between a Soviet and a Russian. He often spoke warmly of the Russian people, with compassion and empathy for their plight. He knew, and he was able to convey, that every man and woman were born with the same rights and that communism is an affront to basic human dignity. He said so, sincerely, publicly and often.
Finally, Reagan was a great communicator. He knew that, as powerful as the United States is, it cannot take on the entire world. Nor can the United States prosper in a world where our allies become embittered or isolated by our unilateral foreign policy. He knew that, even though the United States would bear most of the burden of promoting freedom, our allies and those who remained neutral should always feel welcome in the fight.
So, what would Reagan have us do?
- He would never, ever, meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As former Reagan adviser K.T. McFarland points out, “negotiating without leverage is not negotiating, it’s begging.” You will know it’s time to meet with the Iranian leader when the Iranian leader is a moderate, not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Patience is a passive form of determination. Reagan would spend his first term in office publicly criticizing and ostracizing Iran until regime change became its only hope for survival. He would promote an aggressive domestic policy for energy independence and a strong U.S. dollar, along with sanctions crippling the Iranian economy (just as cheap oil crippled the Soviet economy).
- Reagan would use our military gains in Iraq to occupy and frustrate Iran along its common border with Iraq. No Iranian would be able to cross the border without seeing an impressive display of American hardware and clear-eyed GI’s just waiting for Mahmoud to try something stupid. Just as the Soviet Union was unsettled by the Pershing II Missiles in West German, so Iran will be unsettled by 10 battalions of the U.S. Army amassed on its border and two carrier groups loitering off shore. Moreover, any Iranian agent found in Iraq will be treated as an invading force. Overly aggressive Iranian speedboats will experience the devastating accuracy of the American Navy, just as Gaddafi’s air force learned in the 1980s.
- Reagan would also find compassion for those suffering in Iran. Radio Free Iran (and Video Free Iran) would give Iranians hope, and kind words appealing to the Iranian people’s basic humanity would embolden reformers and give the Iranian Lech Wałęsa the courage to challenge the mullahs. Americans would open their doors to Iranian families and word of American compassion and the benefits of freedom would be trumpeted throughout the broader Middle East.
- Finally, direct diplomacy would be used, but not with Iran. Reagan would meet with our allies and those who trade with Iran. We would apply pressure against those who would deal with Iran and reward those who turn away.