Iran: Democratic Realism Didn’t Last Too Long


Two months ago, I predicted the imminent death of foreign policy realism among US liberals and the Democratic party. It turns out I was right faster than I thought. The tumult in Iran has brought back all those basic US idealist instincts: democracy and liberalism are the only ‘real’ way to govern, the US should nag others to govern themselves the way we do, liberals’ pain anywhere in the world is a US concern, nondemocracies are run by thugs we should not cater to. In short, foreign policy idealism (if you like it) or imperialist hauteur on democracy and liberalism (if you dislike it) is back! And it only took five months under O.

Try F Kaplan, previously a biting critic of aggressive democratic idealism under W, or R Just on the sudden ‘re-rediscovery’ that the US should be in the democracy promotion business, or the Wall Street Journal‘s fear Obama won’t help the Iranian protestors.

Leslie Gelb once wrote (I can’t find the link) that Americans historically oscillate between idealistic interventionist optimism (‘make the world safe for democracy,’ Saving Private Ryan) and sullen realism stemming from disillusion when others reject our help (how could they?!), or worse, actually fight against us (Iraq debate 2004-07, Black Hawk Down). But I think on balance – since the US really joined world politics after Reconstruction – Americans have tilted toward idealism. We have this incorrigible belief that our lifestyle and constitutional order are the best on the planet, and that breeds an idealism (arrogance?) that can be suppressed by Vietnams and Iraqs, but not rooted out. You can see it in the sudden enthusiasm for leaning on Iran. Just two weeks ago, we were the country recovering from ideology and trying to deal with the world as it is. Now we are trying to decide what kind of intervention in Iran’s domestic politics would be best (here too).

It’s all rather amusing to watch; like a child, waves of exuberance and despondence come and go (always masquerading as ‘lessons of history’ or a ‘new paradigm’). But optimism and self-confidence are always psychologically more appealing to anyone or country. Americans are quite nationalistic and really believe in US exceptionalism, so Obama’s despondence and ‘apology tour’ hardly fit the deeper national psyche. What country likes think of itself as disdained and dismissed by others? So as soon as those Iranian students started waving democracy posters, all the old US habits and prejudices about foreign policy burst out.

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