Superpower Outage

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 13.

Jonathan Tobin, writing at the Commentary blog, rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.

But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.

The problem with American power, like all power, is that it waxes and wanes. We have become used to the notion that U.S. preeminence in the world and the Middle East is a constant. But it isn’t so. Geography has rendered the United States the most self-contained superpower in history. As a result, it goes through manic bouts of interventionism and isolationism, and sometimes awakens to the responsibilities of its power too late. It did so during the Holocaust, and it did so during the first years of Israeli independence, when the fledgling Jewish state had to look to the Soviet Union and France for the arms essential to its defense. The simple truth is that Israel cannot rely on the United States to do just the right thing at just the right time. That’s at the heart of the crisis of confidence between the United States and Israel over Iran, and its sources run deeper than the particular world view of Barack Obama.

More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

Hedging has been a fundamental principle of Zionism from its inception. That’s how it managed to outlast the fall of two empires that dominated the Middle East in the pre-state decades. When political Zionism emerged, the Ottoman Empire still held sway over the land, and Theodor Herzl went as a supplicant to the sultan’s palace in Istanbul. As late as 1912, the future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the future second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, went to Istanbul to study Ottoman law, on the assumption that they would have to build the Yishuv under the same Ottoman power that had ruled the country for four centuries. (Here they are, looking like the deputies to the Ottoman parliament they planned to become.) A few years later, Ottoman power collapsed. Fortunately, Chaim Weizmann had laid the foundations for the support of the Allied victors, above all the British, whose empire now expanded to encompass the core of the Middle East.

British dominance in Palestine lasted for thirty years, during which London became the center of Zionist political activity. Britain was the mother of democracy, bastion of freedom, and home to a strong tradition of philo-Judaism and Christian Zionism. Much was made of “shared values.” But Britain, after facilitating the remarkable growth of the Yishuv, backtracked on its commitment to Zionism at the very moment of paramount Jewish need. It was Ben-Gurion who understood that the world war would bring down the British empire across Asia and Africa, Palestine included, and who sought an alliance with the ascendant United States. Still, years would pass before the United States would admit Israel to a “special relationship,” leaving Israel to fend for itself in the world’s arms market. That insecurity drove Israel to ally with Britain and France against Nasser’s Egypt—to Washington’s chagrin—and to build a nuclear capability with French assistance—in defiance of Washington.

Those days may seem distant, and Israel and the United States have had an extraordinary run. But history stands still for no people, and if our history has taught us anything about geopolitics, it is this: what is will not be. However enamored we are of the status quo, Israel needs a Plan B, and it has to consist of more than editorially flogging America for failing to maintain its forward positions in the Middle East. The State of Israel, like Zionism before it, must be agile enough to survive a power outage of any ally, and to plug in elsewhere. If Israel’s long-term safety really did depend on America’s will to govern the world, then it would be a poor substitute for Judaism’s own survival mechanism, by which the Jewish people outlasted the fall of countless host empires. But Israel’s future depends upon something within its own grasp: its ability to read the changing map of the world, to register the ebb and flow of global power, and to adapt as necessary.

Let us pray for the perpetuation of America’s power to do good in the world. Let us prepare for something less.

• Jonathan Tobin replies to this post.

The Middle East Circa 2016

I have been remiss in not posting my remarks on a panel held on May 12, at the annual Soref Conference of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I shared the podium with Robert Kagan and Robin Wright, and the assignment was to envision the Middle East five years hence, in 2016. The Institute has published a précis of the entire conference, including my panel. Below, my remarks as delivered (or you can watch me say the same thing here).

When I received the assignment for today, it reminded me of that 1999 book, Dow 36,000. At the time the authors wrote it, the Dow stood at 10,300, and the book became a bestseller. But today the Dow is only 20 percent higher than it was then—it’s only at 12,700. Last February, one of the co-authors wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Why I Was Wrong About ‘Dow 36,000’.” “What happened?” he wrote. “The world changed.” Well, what a surprise.

Now there was a lot of talk that sounded like “Middle East 36,000” just a couple of months ago. This is a new Middle East, everything you thought you knew is wrong, bet on revolution and you’ll be rewarded handsomely with democracy. Let’s face it: Americans like optimistic scenarios that end with all of us rich and the the rest of the world democratic. There’s much in the American century since World War Two to foster such optimism. But while you enjoy reading your copy of “Middle East 36,000,” I’m going to quickly tell you what’s in the small print in the prospectus—the part that’s in Arabic.

First, the competition. For years, the structure was defined by what I’ll call, for short, the circle and the crescent. The circle was comprised of Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, wrapping around the region. It was an informal alliance of unnatural allies. American credibility and the willingness to use its power kept the circle intact. Opposite it was the crescent, beginning in Iran and stretching westward through Iraq, Syria, and into Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamists. Iran’s skill in using its leverage has kept the crescent in alignment. The crescent is smaller but more cohesive and integrated than the circle—largely because it’s mostly Shiite.

These two formations are being transformed. In fact, the circle is pretty much broken, a scene of elbowing and shoving. The deterioration between Turkey and Israel started it, now the scuffling has commenced between Egypt and Israel, and this is only the beginning. In contrast, the crescent is still intact. As Syria wobbles, the Western end of the crescent could come undone. But the crescent is a more natural formation than the circle. Some of those in it happen to be cousins, so it’s more resilient. And even as Iran represses its own people, it’s been able to build bridges to Erdogan’s Turkey and post-Mubarak Egypt, capitalizing on disarray in the circle.

Now, what the competition might look like in 2016 is anyone’s guess. Alliances will have shifted; some states may flip alliances. But the key variable, I think, is whether the United States can or can’t resurrect a stable coalition of unnatural allies. If it can’t, a few cohesive middle powers are going to emerge as rivals for dominance, and they will be testing one another as they jostle to fill the void left behind by the United States.

There are four middle powers: Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. They are already operating beyond their borders, with flotillas to Gaza, and rockets to Lebanon, and secret bombings of Syria, and troops into Bahrain. By 2016, the middle powers will have developed more capabilities to do these sorts of things, from long-range missiles to surveillance satellites, and nuclear weapons will be next. And their competition will have intensified. In this respect, the Middle East in 2011 bears a certain resemblance to Europe in 1911. Looking five years out, that’s not an analogy we would want to see fulfilled.

Now you notice I didn’t include Egypt as a middle power. There has been much talk of Egypt returning to its Arab vocation, to its past role as a regional leader. It’s unlikely. Egypt is going to have to recover from the revolution, which will depress the economy as long as uncertainty lasts. Is Egypt too big to fail? That’s going to be the Egyptian question in Washington between now and 2016. Egypt desperately needs to raise the rent others pay for its good will, so while we’ll hear the sound of the rattling sabre, more insistent will be the sound of the rattling cup.

What about the other countries that aren’t middle powers? Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, the Palestinians? The defining character of these states is that they are highly segmented. Under a ruthless dictator, they have played larger roles—think of Iraq under Saddam, Syria under Hafez Asad, even the Palestinians under Arafat. But as the era of the dictators winds down, the likely outcome will be a mix of quasi-democratic practices with regionalism, sectarianism, and even tribalism. Violence will be endemic, and disaffected groups on the margins will seek to break away from ineffectual central governments. In some places, the very map may be redrawn. Some of these states are little empires, preserving in amber the interests of the long-defunct empires of Europe circa 1916. By 2016, some of these mini-empires could fracture. And in this volatile situation, Israel is unlikely to part from its own best lines of defense, the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.

Finally, a warning label on Islamism. Those who were mesmerized by images from Tahrir Square, and thought that Islamism was passé, saw only what they wanted to see. Today Islamists call the shots in Lebanon, they’ve survived a serious challenge in Iran, they dominate the scene in Turkey, they’re busy planning their creeping takeover in Egypt, and they’re poised to set the agenda for the Palestinians. Democracy, such as it is in these places, is usually a mechanism of Islamist empowerment. No one knows how this will play out by 2016. It does mean that Islamism’s opponents will have to be much more agile than they were when the dictators were doing the work.

So I’ve read you the small print. But this is just a caveat, not a prediction, and the story can be changed. It can be changed by what used to be called a “wild card,” but is now called a “black swan”—something unpredictable yet decisive. There could be an Iranian spring. There could be a breakthrough on energy. China could propel itself into the Middle East. Who knows? No one does.

More to the point, though, the United States could do something to help improve the story. Earlier I said that the key variable is whether the United States can or can’t resurrect a stable coalition of unnatural allies. The way to do this isn’t to resolve their age-old differences—you can’t, and you end up looking weaker for failing. The way to do it is to be consistent in rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies. Then people will want to be your friends, even if they don’t like the company. In other words, to resurrect the circle, you have to clip the crescent. You might not get to “Middle East 36,000.” But you might just prevent a crash.

George Kennan, Iran hawk

In the November issue of Foreign Policy, Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, published an essay entitled “The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct.” Until recently, Sadjadpour had been one of the foremost advocates of “engagement” with the Iranian regime—a policy that has come to naught. Now he makes a fallback case for “containment,” explicitly evoking the memory of the renowned American diplomat George F. Kennan. It was Kennan who, in his famous “long telegram” of 1946 (later published as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”), first elaborated the concept that became known as “containment.” That approach guided much of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union through the Cold War.

Sadjadpour employs the rhetorical device of taking ten passages in Kennan’s famous essay and substituting “Iranian” for “Soviet,” “Tehran” for “Moscow,” “Khamene’i” for “Stalin,” and so on. Kennan is thus transformed into a full-blown prophet “anticipating today’s Iran.… Kennan’s wisdom does not call on the United States to shun dialogue with Tehran, but merely to temper its expectations. In the process, Kennan would caution, America should remain ‘at all times cool and collected’—and allow the march of history to run its course.” One is led to conclude that a resurrected Kennan would have the United States avoid military confrontation with Iran, preferring to “contain” it by other means.

Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101, and just what he would say about Iran today is anybody’s guess. But if the exercise is valid at all, perhaps it is only fair to ask what Kennan did say about Iran. During two crises, in 1952 and 1980, he made policy recommendations—in 1952, to the State Department in private, and in 1980, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in public.


In 1951, Iran’s new nationalist premier Mohamed Mossadegh challenged Britain over control of Iran’s oil. This prompted Kennan (by that time, January 1952, a private citizen awaiting confirmation as ambassador to the Soviet Union) to write a long, unsolicited memo intended for Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

“The thesis to which we acquiesced in Iran,” he wrote, “that such arrangements [i.e. Western concessions] can be cancelled or reversed abruptly, on the basis of somebody’s whim or mood, is preposterous and indefensible.” The West had every right to thwart Iran’s actions by force: “Had the British occupied Abadan [Iran’s oil fields and refineries], I would personally have no great worry about what happened to the rest of the country.” The only possible concern, he added, was the Soviet response. But if the Soviets wanted war, “I doubt that Abadan would be the place they would choose to start it. Abadan is a long way from the Soviet frontier.”

Indeed, if any of the West’s vital strategic assets in the Middle East were jeopardized by “local hostility,” Kennan argued, they should be “militarily secured with the greatest possible despatch.” “To retain these facilities and positions we can use today only one thing: military strength, backed by the resolution and courage to employ it. There is nothing else that will avail us.” The least concession would invite disaster:

The idea that the appetites of local potentates can be satiated and their deep-seated resentments turned into devotion by piecemeal concessions and partial withdrawals is surely naïve to a degree that should make us blush to entertain it. If these people think they have us on the run, they will plainly not be satisfied until they have us completely out, lock, stock, and barrel, and then they will want to crow for decades to come about their triumph, in a way that will hardly be compatible with minimum requirements of western prestige. The only thing that will prevent them from achieving this end is the cold gleam of adequate and determined force. The day for other things, if it ever existed, has now passed.

Kennan was unconcerned that the “locals” might resist in any effective way: “If we do this quietly, with determination, and without being apologetic about it, there may be a great many flamboyant words and a certain amount of brandishing of weapons against us, but I doubt that there will be much more.” And he dismissed counter-arguments that forceful action might mire the West in conflict—estimates “often based on calculations relating to a major adversary, when it is actually a local adversary with which we would have immediately to contend.” In other words, the Persians weren’t Russians.

The argument for “containment” of Iran was made not by Kennan but against him. The push-back came from State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau, which reacted with alacrity to his key proposal. “We cannot view with equanimity the suggestions about a possible British occupation of Abadan,” wrote the bureau head in response to Kennan, “with its conceivable attendant consequences in the rest of Iran. It appears to us that the moral disaster for us in the rest of Asia might well prove incalculable…. We still believe that patient, intelligent, constructive statesmanship offers the best prospect of basic solutions. There are still some indications that we may yet find solutions to the Iranian oil problem.”

Kennan had the last word in the exchange. If the United States persisted in its mistaken approach, he warned, it could lose “those specific facilities which are really vital and important and could probably quite successfully be held by force and determination.” The United States could only “rescue some of the most vital of the western positions” by “act[ing] rapidly, with determination, discarding our fatuous desire to be ‘liked’ and making it clear that the Russians are not the only serious people in this world.”


By the time of Iran’s revolution, Kennan’s status as a revered wise man of foreign affairs had grown enormously. In February 1980, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee invited him to testify in the midst of a double crisis. Iranian militants had seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November, and the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in December. The committee sought Kennan’s insights on the best U.S. response.

The headline of the Washington Post on the morning after Kennan’s appearance told a surprising story: “George Kennan Urges Tougher Stance on Iran.” Just how tough? Here is the first paragraph of the report (by Don Oberdorfer, February 28, 1980):

Veteran diplomat and historian George F. Kennan yesterday advocated a declaration of war against Iran over the hostage issue and quiet diplomacy with the Soviets over Afghanistan as well as a range of other alternatives to current U.S. foreign policy.

On reading this, all of Washington must have gasped, and it is worth repeating Kennan’s precise words to the committee, since he spoke some of them in prepared remarks and others in the course of an exchange. There was, he said in his prepared remarks,

a limit on the time we can afford to temporize with the problem [of the hostages]. If we temporize too long, our concern for their safety may be deprived of much of its meaning. I feel therefore that we should hold in readiness means of unilateral pressure on the Iranian regime, not excluding the military one, which, if the efforts of the Secretary General of the United Nations should fail, might be more effective in persuading the Iranian authorities that it would be to their interest to release these people.

The committee chair, California Senator S.I. Hayakawa, a conservative Republican, could hardly believe his ears, and he pressed Kennan on “military alternatives.” “What would it do to the fate of the hostages?” Sen. Hayakawa asked. “Would we have a confrontation with the U.S.S.R. if we took that path? At the same time I am not disavowing such a path, still I would like to ask some questions about the dangers and prospects involved.”

Kennan then dropped his bombshell:

A number of times, since these people were locked up and since we began to hear the series of unprecedented insults and expressions of contempt for this country that we have heard from the ayatollah [Khomeini], I have wondered why we and our Government did not simply acknowledge the existence of the state of hostility brought about by the behavior of the Iranian Government, and, having done that, then regard ourselves as at war with that country. Having taken that step, then we could do the normal thing, which would be to ask a third power to represent our interests in Iran, in which case the hostages would become their immediate responsibility, not ours. We would then also intern the Iranian official personnel in this country, I hope humanely, and not in the way that they have interned ours—because, after all, we have obligations to ourselves, too. But by doing this, we would put ourselves in a position, first of all, to offer the Iranians something to get them off the hook; namely, an exchange of their personnel, which might be helpful. But in any case, it would also put us in a position to make our own decisions about such military action that we might wish to take if it became necessary.

I don’t think that it would be useful for me to speculate on the sort of things we could do, because some of them might necessitate taking advantage of the element of surprise.

Kennan did allow that “any sort of harsher action against Iran to solve this problem” would have to be prefaced by “careful communication with the Soviet Government in an effort to explain to them exactly what we are doing and why.” As in 1952, the Soviet reaction mattered to Kennan—and other possible reactions didn’t.

This wasn’t the only hard line Kennan toed. Even if Iran did release the American hostages, Kennan urged that the United States regard Iran as a pariah until it admitted its error. From Kennan’s prepared remarks:

Even should the hostages be released, it would be wrong for us to attempt to establish at any early date normal official relations with the present Iranian regime. What the Iranian authorities have done has been a grievous affront to international law, to diplomatic practice, and to the entire international community. To offer to forget it before there has been evidence of a clear readiness on the official Iranian side to recognize their fault, accompanied by satisfactory and reliable assurances against the repetition of such conduct, would not offer a promising basis for future relations with that regime.

In the subsequent Q&A, Sen. Hayakawa pointed to “Khomeini’s approval of the terrorists and all them being totally intransigent and not admitting any fault whatsoever.” He asked Kennan “from whom can we expect this recognition of their fault without an overthrow of the present government?” Kennan did not think the regime was “very firmly” in power. “But if they do remain in power, and if they continue to take this present attitude, I would certainly not think that we should send any other official personnel there or have diplomatic relations with them at all.”

The Kennan testimony, and especially the call for a declaration of war, ricocheted through Washington, and it prompted a column by conservative journalist William F. Buckley, Jr. “I wasn’t there,” wrote Buckley,

but I can imagine that the Senators stared at [Kennan] as though he had been entered by an incubus. Dr. Strangelove. Professor Kennan continued with his characteristic calm. Yes, we should have declared war, and then instantly interned all Iranians living in this country, holding them hostage against the safe return of our own citizens. We should, moreover, have prepared to take such military measures as might seem advisable in the event our hostages were harmed.

Holy caterpillar! To declare war in this country would require a researcher to inform the president and Congress on just how to go about doing it.

Buckley waxed enthusiastic about the idea of a war declaration (he called it “a wonderful demystifier”) and praised Kennan for proposing it: “That such a recommendation should have been made by someone once dubbed one of the principal ambiguists among American intelligentsia reminds us that purposeful thought is still possible.”

But Kennan also drew flak. One contemporary critic, the columnist and former Democratic presidential adviser John P. Roche, wrote that “some have unkindly suggested that Kennan’s declaration of war was an indication he is senile.” Not so, opined Roche, pointing instead to Kennan’s archaic notions of diplomatic privilege. Kennan, he wrote derisively, “wants foreign service clubhouses to be shown the respect they merit. If not, send for a gunboat.” Roche’s preferred option on the hostages: “We just have to sit it out.” Once again, the case for restraint was made not by Kennan but against him.

In sum, when Kennan was asked for his wisdom on Iran in 1980—and in a prominent forum, too—he expressed views directly opposed to those Sadjadpour would attribute to him. Sadjadpour: “Kennan’s wisdom does not call on the United States to shun dialogue with Tehran, but merely to temper its expectations.” In reality, Kennan did call on the United States to shun dialogue with Iran until it admitted the error of its ways—hardly a tempered expectation. Sadjadpour: “In the process, Kennan would caution, America should remain ‘at all times cool and collected’—and allow the march of history to run its course.” In reality, Kennan called for the United States to declare war on Iran and contemplate military action, in view of the “limit on the time we can afford to temporize.”

In the very same testimony Kennan urged that the United States exercise supreme caution in challenging the Soviets over Afghanistan: “It is up to us to eliminate from our words or actions anything that might unnecessarily contribute to a heightening of the existing military-political tension.” Why the vast difference in approach? For Kennan, the Soviets were a “major adversary” while Iran was merely a “local adversary.” In Kennan’s eyes, Iran wasn’t on par with the Soviet Union—not even close—and deserved to be treated accordingly. Seizing and occupying Iran’s oil fields, declaring war against it, brandishing threats of military action—Kennan consistently advocated the toughest possible posture against Iran during the two great Iran crises he witnessed. He was ever respectful of Soviet Russia and always contemptuous of Iran.

So it isn’t difficult to imagine a resurrected Kennan shocking a Congressional committee by insisting that the United States bomb Natanz. That Kennan instead has been turned into a posthumous supporter of “containing” Iran is amusing—or would be, if it weren’t so misleading.

  • Sources: Kennan’s memo of January 22, 1952 and the subsequent exchange with the Near Eastern Affairs bureau are preserved in Kennan’s papers in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton, box 164, folder 28. Kennan’s Senate testimony of February 27, 1980 was published in Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Security Interests and Policies in Southwest Asia, pp. 87-123.
  • Note: An abbreviated version of this post also appeared as a letter in the January 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, with a reply by Karim Sadjadpour. More on this to come.