George Santayana’s observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is one of the most hackneyed phrases in all of writing, yet for all its overuse, it retains a certain placid stubbornness, preying on our collective subconscious as a potent, if not perhaps entirely reliable, indicator of truth.
During a Pierson Master’s Tea on Thursday, diplomat Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which oversaw the early occupation of Iraq, came to discuss contemporary Middle East politics. He left the audience with no ambiguity about his conception of the future of American-Iranian relations. Drawing from authority, he cited Churchill: “We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s eye of disaster.”
Even the most clueless neophyte at history understands the appeal to the age-old example of Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler’s Germany. Bremer’s implication was clear: If we fail to act now, Iran may eclipse even the horrors perpetrated by the Third Reich.
Bremer suggested that ten years of comprehensive sanctions on Iran had failed to bear fruit and the notion of a constructive dialogue was laughable. I probably agree that Iran is dangerous and all options should be on the table to prevent it from acquiring the bomb. Opponents will use the Santayana quote to bring up Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, but there are definitely other lessons from Iraq (and Afghanistan, for that matter) that we ought keep in mind.
As we move towards a potential military assault against Iran, if we do exercise that route, policymakers must take care to exercise foresight and set a realistic plan for our mission there that we can adhere to. The evolving and nebulous nature of America’s goals in Afghanistan — from defeating the Taliban, to degrading the Taliban, to God-knows-what — has been a perennial source of frustration for the American public.
Soon we will leave that country with a robust narcotics trade, a vibrant insurgency, pervasive corruption and a seething hatred of America exacerbated by Qur’an burnings and massacres. The problem of establishing civil order proved insurmountable. This did not hold as true for Iraq at first. But as Bremer conceded, a constitution is only a piece of paper. Governments can crumble as quickly as they are erected, and trends there are turning uglier by the day.
If we go into Iran, we must limit ourselves to a narrower mission than the state building we have undertaken in the past. We must limit ourselves to destroying nuclear capabilities and toppling the regime, and leave the rest to the Iranians themselves. This is certainly a controversial position — detractors will leap to argue that this path will engender a chaotic state, a fertile breeding ground for terrorism.
To that, I would respond that first, a nuclear Iran poses a greater threat to American interests, and second, Iran already serves as a state sponsor of terrorism — intervention could hardly cause worse terrorism to crop up. Prolonged intervention with troops on the ground would lead to accusations of meddling and another quick portrayal of Americans as “occupiers”.
If we eliminate components of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and eliminate its rulers, this empowers the inheritors of the Green Revolution’s legacy to create their own Iran. This is certainly not going to lead to a democratic Persian paradise. The impacts will likely be civil strife and killings, riots and bitter disagreements over governance. But the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan is that our ability to tailor states to our liking is a myth. We should ensure that they cannot threaten us or our major allies, and then wash our hands of the mess.
A prolonged engagement rivaling those in Iraq or Afghanistan would tax an already-exhausted military at a time when defense spending needs to be cut as the result of the budget crisis. Not only that, but it would also undermine our position vis-à-vis China, who would enjoy the luxury of sitting on the sidelines and watching its great rival once again flail ineffectually and squander resources.
If a post-nuclear and post-Ahmadinejad Iran is a terrible country but not a direct danger to us, we should leave well enough alone, and we should make that commitment to leave well enough alone now, ahead of time. America has not the will, the wealth or the wisdom to build a nation in 2012 anywhere but at home.
Michael Magdzik is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.