Democratic Illusions

Anyone who had illusions about the Democratic Party as the electoral vehicle of choice for the antiwar movement has got to be dispirited by the "big three" presidential wannabes: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. None have come out clearly and unequivocally for withdrawal from Iraq, and all refuse to rule out military action against Iran. The situation appears even worse when we look at who’s advising them when it comes to foreign policy. A recent cover piece in the New York Observer throws the spotlight on these otherwise obscure (yet important) figures – hat tip: Matt Yglesias – and the result isn’t pretty.

The "Iraq-eteers" are a "collegial" group, we are told, and, while there are differences of emphasis, all fit within the parameters of conventional liberal internationalism – of the sort that got us into Vietnam and will help keep us in Iraq. Particularly disappointing for principled opponents of interventionism is one Derek Chollet, co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, which advocates a "centrist foreign policy," i.e., interventionism, but with less melodramatic flair than the neoconservatives over at the Project for a New American Century.

As an introduction to Chollet’s views, I would point to this post on, the cyber-headquarters of the "national-security Democrats," who keep themselves busy coming up with alternatives to simply withdrawing from Iraq – and who were too "responsible" (that is, intimidated by Republican chest-beating) to oppose the war outright. "Time," Chollet warns, "is running out":

"The hard-line mullahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad show little sign that they are interested in bargaining for anything less than an independent nuclear capability. They are on a collision course with the rest of the world – and rather than sensing trouble, they seem to relish the situation."

No mention that the Iranians approached the U.S. government in 2003 with the prospect of negotiations for a comprehensive settlement to all outstanding issues between the U.S. and Tehran, even offering to give up some of Osama bin Laden’s relatives (including a son), in exchange for some indication of Washington’s willingness to engage. By dropping the context of U.S.-Iranian relations and negating the sad history of American intransigence, Chollet makes it appear as if the Iranians are solely to blame. But that isn’t true. Another aspect of the Iranian-U.S. relationship Chollet fails to mention is the lack of any centralized command-and-control when it comes to Iranian foreign policy: various agencies and factions within the government pursue differing and often competing agendas. To hear Chollet tell it, however, one would think the hard-liners in Iran are in total control. Again, it just isn’t true.

Diplomacy, avers Chollet, is all well and good, but those hardheaded Iranians – who stubbornly insist they have as much right to develop nuclear energy as any other nation on earth, including the U.S. and Israel – are not caving:

"That’s why the military options are being discussed in Washington. While a U.S. military campaign remains highly unlikely, the fact it is even being considered is a reflection of how desperate – and dangerous – this crisis has become."

Yes, there’s "still room for creative diplomacy," but Chollet believes the prospects for war – a war he clearly thinks would be justified – loom rather large at the moment:

"There is the problem of time. We face a cold reality: Better policies perfectly executed might not work before Iran has developed nuclear weapons. So while we must hold the line that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, the limited options before us require clear-headed thinking about living in a world with a nuclear Iran. It’s not just prevention we have to worry about; it’s containment and deterrence.

"A nuclear Iran would fundamentally alter the strategic chessboard in the Middle East, and spark a regional Cold War. The West would have to make clear the consequences of any use of Iran’s weapons, and should explore offering security guarantees to Iran’s most likely targets, like Israel and, perhaps someday, a peaceful and democratic Iraq. …

"The consequences of Iran going nuclear are so serious that we must be placing far more energy now in a solution to stop it. But given our limited options for doing so – and the real likelihood that whatever we do, the Iranian regime is not persuadable – responsible governance requires that we begin to prepare for the worst."

Why is a nuclear Iran "unacceptable" to the U.S.? Yes, surely one can see how the Israeli government would strike such a stance, but how, exactly, is America threatened by the prospect of Iranian nukes? We lived with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union for almost half a century. Pakistan has nukes, as does India – and Israel. The principle of deterrence has worked pretty effectively with them over the years, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t function in much the same way where the mullahs are concerned. In any case, there can be no disarmament of Iran until the entire Middle East is turned into a nuclear-free zone. I wouldn’t hold my breath, however, for the Israelis to go along with that. After all, they won’t even officially acknowledge they have nukes, let alone sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (Iran, on the other hand, is a signatory.)

It’s funny how the U.S. didn’t object to Iran’s nuclear program when the shah was touting it as evidence of his country’s entry into modernity. We helped them build it every step of the way, until the Iranians overthrew the widely hated monarch and set up the current regime. Now they’re finishing what the shah started. That’s called "blowback," as Chalmers Johnson explained in his classic book of the same title, a backlash generated by our interventionist foreign policy. After being targeted by the president of the United States as a member of the infamous "axis of evil," is it any surprise that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear capacity? This is the crucial context in which Iran’s actions take place, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to Chollet.

The idea that Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would necessarily have to mean a regional war is odd coming from someone who clearly believes such a war might be necessary in order to ensure Iran doesn’t cross the nuclear threshold. Should we go to war in order to prevent a war? This hardly makes either moral or military sense. Again, there may be interests in the region that would stand to lose if Tehran goes nuclear – Israel, for one, would lose its nuclear monopoly, and the Sunni nations, already nervous on account of Shi’ite revivalism, would be put on edge – but there is no clear reason why the U.S. has so much at stake as to launch a preemptive strike.

Security guarantees for Israel are a bad idea: under the rubric of such an agreement, we could find U.S. troops deployed in Lebanon or even the occupied territories. The irony of offering security guarantees to the Iraqi state, even as it decomposes into its constituent ethno-religious components due to our actions, is likely not lost on Iraqi nationalists. Iraq does need security guarantees of a sort, however – to restrain its U.S. and British occupiers, who remain immune from Iraqi law and whose presence is overwhelmingly opposed by the Iraqi people.

Chollet tells us to "prepare for the worst" – and, if Edwards gets into the White House, we may have to. With Bush and the other Republicans, at least we know what we’re getting: perpetual war. When it comes to the Democrats, however, we run into the danger of thinking we are getting a foreign policy based on sweet reason when what we’re in for is the same old interventionist crap. These people sit around in their offices every day thinking up new ways to meddle in the affairs of foreign peoples. They are perpetually "concerned" about this "crisis" or that "turning point," and they are constantly warning us that "time is running out." Unless "we" – meaning the U.S. government – do something, the world as we know it will end.

That is a delusion, of course, and a dangerous one, but there you have it: it’s the culture of the Washington policy wonks, who assume government action is the solution to each and every problem, both nationally and internationally. To these little lords of creation, there is no problem they can’t come up with a government-funded solution to. Skepticism about the limits (or morality) of American power abroad is limited to "far left" commentators such as Noam Chomsky and Alex Cockburn, or Republican "realists" such as John Mearsheimer and Andrew Bacevich. Self-proclaimed "centrists" of the Edwards-Chollet variety are always interventionists.

It is telling that Chollet is the foreign policy voice of the most ostensibly "antiwar" of all the Democratic candidates, John Edwards. I’ll cover the others in future editions of this column, but suffice to say at this point that the prospects for finding and fielding a genuine antiwar candidate within the Democratic fold seem almost nil.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].