The Self-Defeating Dynamics of American Hegemony in the Middle East: The Leveretts on Conversations with History


Our experience in the U.S. government—running from roughly the period of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s until March 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, when we left our positions at the White House on the National Security Council staff—effectively spanned the high-water mark of American primacy in the Middle East.  In an interview for the University of California’s Conversations with History series, see here, we discuss how our government service gave us “ringside seats” to watch as “the United States really misused that primacy, misused its supremacy in ways that were grossly counterproductive for its own interests, and for America’s standing in international affairs.”  We also reflect on how our experience in government has both prompted and helped us to explore the ways in which succumbing to an “imperial temptation” in the Middle East distorts American perceptions of the region and warps U.S. policy outcomes.    

Turning to Iran, we argue that “structure” alone can’t explain modern Iranian foreign policy; one must also pay attention to culture and agency (in non-social science-speak, “choice”).  In particular, one must appreciate the enormous differences between Iranian strategic culture under the Shah and Iranian strategic culture under the Islamic Republic.  These differences explain why the Shah’s foreign policy was hegemonic, while, as Hillary puts it, “The Islamic Republic looks at regional and international relations, at regional politics in terms of balance.”  It seeks to replace U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East not with Iranian hegemony, but with balance. 

In the interview, we describe how encouraging the spread of more popular and representative governments in the Middle East is a central element in the Islamic Republic’s balancing strategy.  This leads into a discussion of the extremely polarized reaction to Going to Tehran—including, on the negative side, highly personal attacks against us.  On this point, Flynt says,

“The problem that people have with us—they’ll say it’s a question of ‘tone,’ or this or that—the real problem is that what we’re saying is that, particularly in a Middle East in which public opinion is mattering more than ever before, the United States does not have a narrative with which to compete for influence.  We’ve got carrier battle groups coming out our ears, but we do not have a narrative…The Islamic Republic has one, and it knows how to use it to its strategic advantage…[For Americans with a hegemonic perspective on the Middle East,] we’re creating cognitive dissonance.”       

Of course, we take up the place of Israel in both American and Iranian grand strategies.  We have enormous respect for John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt; Flynt was one of the few former U.S. officials to speak to them on the record for their essential book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.  But we differ somewhat from John and Steve in our argument that “blind” American support for Israel is not primarily a function of the Israel lobby.  Rather, the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” is driven by American elite perceptions, since the 1967 war, that a military dominant Israel helps America’s own hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East; in this context, the Israel lobby is “pushing on an open door.”  

We discuss other topics during what turned out to be a substantively very rich conversation with Harry Kreisler:  the Iranian case for the integration of participatory politics with Islamic governance as the only way for Muslims to reassert their independence and embrace true self-determination; the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election; the Iranian nuclear program; and the imperatives for U.S. rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.  We end on the “Nixon-to-China” model, the real requirements for a U.S. diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran, and the future of America’s role in the Middle East.     

Hosted by Harry Kreisler, Conversations with History has for 31 years recorded interviews with some of the world’s leading scholars and practitioners of international affairs, journalists, writers, and other public intellectuals (e.g., Andrew Bacevich, Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, the late Chalmers Johnson, Kishore Mahbubani, John Mearsheimer, Kenzabuo Oe, and Stephen Walt).  We are humbled and gratified to be included in the series, and grateful to Harry Kreisler for inviting us.  We encourage everyone to watch the video—and urge all who do to leave comments where the video is posted on You Tube as well as here.   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Kenneth Waltz, Noam Chomsky, and America and Israel’s Real Concerns about Iran’s Nuclear Activities

Kenneth Waltz, who was for decades a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley and is widely acknowledged as one of the most important modern theorists of international relations, died last week.  Neither of us ever studied at Berkeley, but anyone who studied international relations in the West (or in many non-Western venues) during the past half century was at least indirectly a student of Waltz.

There are a growing number of tributes to Waltz, by his students (see, for example, Steve Walt’s remembrance, here) and by others (see, for example, here).  We want to focus on Waltz’s relatively recent role in the American/Western debate on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

Of course, the Islamic Republic denies that it is pursuing or wishes to obtain nuclear weapons, and even U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies acknowledge that the Islamic Republic is not currently trying to build them.  Nevertheless, most Western discussion simply assumes that nuclear weapons are the ultimate goal of Iran’s nuclear program—and that Iran’s acquisition of such weapons would further “destabilize” the Middle East.

In “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” published last year in Foreign Affairs, Waltz stood this discussion on its head.  Reviving an argument he first laid out over thirty years ago, Waltz posited that nuclear deterrence between competitive or even antagonistic states (think the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War) is uniquely stabilizing.  In his view, power that is unbalanced by countervailing power is the ultimate source of instability in international affairs, and nuclear deterrence is a very effective form of balancing.  Updating this assessment for the present-day Middle East, in his July/August 2012 Foreign Affairs article Waltz wrote that what is truly destabilizing for the region is unchecked Israeli power, especially Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly.  From this perspective, he argued that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would actually enhance strategic stability in the Middle East.

Unlike Waltz, we do not assume that the Islamic Republic is trying to develop nuclear weapons—nor do we believe that Tehran should do so.  In our book, Going to Tehran, and in other venues, we put forward an alternative reading of the purposes of Iran’s nuclear program—a reading much more congruent with the way in which the program has actually been conducted, with strategic and religious debate in the Islamic Republic, and with Iranian public opinion.  We think, however, that Waltz’s argument highlights important aspects of what’s wrong with American and Western debate about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.

Much of the negative reaction to Waltz’s Foreign Affairs article has focused on the Islamic Republic’s alleged “irrationality.”  To work, deterrence requires instrumental, cost-benefit-calculating rationality.  The “mad mullahs” who run the Islamic Republic, it is held, hardly meet this standard.  No less than Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed this view, telling NBC’s Meet the Press in September 2012,

“I think Iran is very different.  They put their zealotry above their survival.  They have suicide bombers all over the place.  I wouldn’t rely on their rationality…Since the advent of nuclear weapons, you had countries that had access to nuclear weapons who always made a careful calculation of cost and benefit.  But Iran is guided by a leadership with an unbelievable fanaticism.  It’s the same fanaticism that you see storming your embassies today.”

Building on this polemical characterization, Netanyahu in the same interview directly attacked Waltz and his argument:

“You want these fanatics to have nuclear weapons?  I mean, I’ve heard some people suggest, David, I actually I read this in the American press.  They said, well, you know, if you take action, that’s a lot worse than having Iran with nuclear weapons.  Some have even said that Iran with nuclear weapons would stabilize the Middle East—stabilize the Middle East.  I think the people who say this have set a new standard for human stupidity.”

But even senior Israeli national security officials acknowledge that Netanyahu’s polemical characterization of Iranian decision-making is a caricature.  As former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in 2010, “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, [would] drop it in the neighborhood.  They fully understand what might follow.  They are radical but not totally crazy.  They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process, and they understand reality.”

What, then, are the real reasons for the strongly negative reactions among American elites to Waltz’s argument?  In his remarks at our event at MIT last week, Noam Chomsky goes to the heart of this question.  Commenting on the regular briefings that U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon provide to Congress, Prof. Chomsky noted,

“Of course, they talk about Iran as ‘the Iranian threat.’  And they point out that the threat is not military.  Iran has very low military spending, even by the standards of the region (of course, miniscule as compared to the United States).  It has a strategic doctrine, which is defensive, designed to deter invasion long enough for diplomacy to set in.  And they say that, if Iran is developing nuclear weapons—for which they have no evidence, but if it is—it would be part of their deterrent strategy.

And that’s crucial.  The U.S. cannot tolerate a deterrent strategyIsrael, incidentally, is exactly the same.  You read a couple of weeks ago that Israel bombed military sites in Syria.  And the reason that was presented was because they might help a deterrent to an Israeli attack on Lebanon—namely that they might go to the only force that deters an attack:  Hizballah.

States—which are technically called ‘rogue states’—that believe they have the right to use force freely everywhere cannot tolerate deterrence, for obvious reasons.  That’s what the threat is.”

Prof. Chomsky’s explanation why the United States and Israel cannot tolerate deterrent strategies on the part of other Middle Eastern players is critical.  As we have written before, this is why the United States and Israel portray purely defensive prospective military preparations by the Islamic Republic—such as the acquisition of more sophisticated air defense systems—as somehow “threatening.”  It also highlights the real reason for American and Israeli concern over Iran’s nuclear activities—that an Iran with even a latent, theoretical capacity to develop a nuclear deterrent would rein in the ability of the United States and Israel to use force freely anywhere they want in the Middle East.

Those realities should prompt everyone to reconsider just what are the real threats to strategic stability in the region.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


“Iran and American Foreign Policy: Where Did the US Go Wrong?”— Noam Chomsky and The Leveretts at MIT


Earlier this week, the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT sponsored an event, “Iran and American Foreign Policy:  Where Did the US Go Wrong?”, featuring Noam Chomsky and the two of us; for a video, see here, or click on the video above.  The event was moderated by Prof. Ali Banuazizi of Boston College.  (For those wanting to cut to the substantive chase, Hillary’s presentation starts 18:20 into the video, Flynt’s starts at 37:00, and Chomsky begins at 54:00, followed by Q&A with the audience.) 

As Hillary notes in her opening remarks, we are especially grateful to Prof. Chomsky, and not just for appearing with us—though we do thank him for that.  More importantly,  

“We thank him for prodding us…In his famous essay, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals,’ published in the New York Review of Books forty six years ago, Prof. Chomsky pointed out that ‘when we consider the responsibility of intellectuals, our basic concern must be their role in the creation and analysis of ideology.’  For more than half a century, Prof. Chomsky has been both fearless and, it would seem, tireless in rigorously scrutinizing the claims of intellectuals who, in the service of power, ascribe universal validity to what are, in fact, very particular interests.  Above all, he has been unrelenting in his critique of what he sees as the ‘fundamental political axiom’ of American foreign policy—‘namely that the United States has the right to extend its power and control without limit, insofar as is feasible.’” 

It was in this critical spirit that we came to MIT.  We left deeply inspired by Prof. Chomsky, an incarnation of that spirit, whose comments were simultaneously powerful, profound, and delightful.  One example: 

“It’s now sixty years since the U.S. overthrew the parliamentary government in Iran.  And since that time, not a single day has passed in which the U.S. hasn’t been torturing Iran, constantly.  Jimmy Carter was asked about this, and he said, ‘Well, it didn’t really matter, it’s ancient history.’  Obama’s standard line is, ‘Let’s not look to the past; let’s look to the future.’ 

That’s a very convenient position for criminals.  ‘Let’s forget everything that happened.’  Somehow, victims don’t feel that way.  They have memories.  You see this all over the world.  The victims have memories which the perpetrators don’t know about, or like to forget:  ‘It’s all in the past; let’s forget it.’  I think it’s useful to remember a quip of William Faulkner’s, who said, ‘The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.’  And that’s true in this case.  For victims, the past isn’t past.”         

But, while deeply appreciating the past, Prof. Chomsky is also very much forward looking, telling his audience that Americans have the power to demand different policies from their government.  In that regard, we will always treasure Chomsky’s verdict on our book, Going to Tehran, offered at the beginning of his remarks: 

“The most important thing I can say tonight is actually very brief.  Three words:  Read this book.  That’s good advice.  You’ll find a lot of information that’s not generally available, some that’s not available at all, also very valuable insights and understanding which is sharply different from views in the United States, attitudes in the United States that are so conventional and unchallenged they can fairly be called a ‘party line.’  [You’ll also find] perspectives that may help, if they’re widely enough understood, to halt a very clear drift towards what could be a terrible war.” 

Pray for peace, and thank God for Noam Chomsky. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Flynt Leverett on Washington’s Hegemonic Ambition and U.S. Policy Toward Iran and Syria


Appearing on Russia Today’s CrossTalk, see here or click on the video above, Flynt argues that

what really drives American foreign policy toward Iran is a post-Cold War determination on the part of the United States to dominate the Middle East, to play a hegemonic role in the Middle East—to micromanage political outcomes in key Middle Eastern states so that those states’ strategic orientation is subordinated to U.S. foreign policy preferences and the Middle East has a regional order which is essentially run by the United States.  From that perspective, the problem with the Islamic Republic of Iran is that it won’t play along with this kind of hegemonic ambition.  It’s said it’s very open to improved relations with the United States, but that has to take place on the basis of equality and American acceptance of the Islamic Republic. 

That’s not the Washington agenda for the Middle East, and it drives this very hostile posture toward Iran.”  

Today, Flynt explains, such hostility is strongly reflected in U.S. policy on the Iranian nuclear issue and on Syria: 

“If you look at the American position on the nuclear issue—the nuclear issue could be solved diplomatically in a matter of weeks, if the United States would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.  But that would mean the United States was accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity with legitimate national interests.  And the United States isn’t prepared to do that.  Instead, it keeps insisting that Iran has to surrender that right for diplomatic progress to be possible. 

If you look at the position on Syria—there’s been the meeting between Secretary Kerry and [Russian] Foreign Minister Lavrov in Moscow, and people are looking toward the possibility of a conference.  But already the planning for this is getting balled up because the Russians, quite reasonably, think if you’re going to have a conference on Syria, you need all the relevant and important players there—which means you need Iran there.  And the United States is already balking at having Iran take part in a conference on SyriaThat is just not diplomatically seriousIt’s privileging this ambition to hegemony in the Middle East over really serious diplomacy.”     

As to diplomatic prospects with regard to Syria, Flynt notes,

“Russia, Iran, China (the players that are usually associated, in common parlance, as in some ways being supportive of the Syrian government):  if you look at their position, and even the position of the Syrian government, they have been open to a political process—to having a dialogue with the opposition aimed at some sort of political settlement, which would produce a different kind of political order in Syria.  But it’s the opposition elements, backed by the United States, which have insisted not just on preconditions but in effect on ‘pre-results’ from a meeting, where they have to have, up front, some commitment that Assad is going to step down before this process even gets going.  That’s not a serious diplomatic position. 

If you want to stop violence in Syria, you have to get all parties to the table, you can’t have these kinds of absurd preconditions, and you have to get down to the business of diplomacy.  I think that Russia, frankly, China, and Iran have been trying to do that, trying harder to get that kind of process off the ground, than the United States has beenBecause for the United States to do this means it’s acknowledging that it can’t just dictate outcomes in this part of the world.  It actually has to accommodate other parties’ interests; it has to accommodate on-the-ground reality.”     

Flynt goes on to put Russian and Chinese vetoes of three U.S.-backed UN Security Council resolutions on Syria in a very different perspective from that typically deployed in mainstream Western discourse: 

The Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN come against the backdrop of both Russia and China having let the Libya resolution go through in March 2011—the Libya resolution that authorized the use of force to protect civilian populations on humanitarian grounds, but which the United States and others then turned into, basically, a regime change campaign, with NATO aircraft flying missions where they’re out to kill Qaddhafi.  From a Russian perspective, from a Chinese perspective—I think from a decent international legal perspective—that is, to say the least, an extremely problematic scenario.  And Russia and China were not about to let this scenario repeat itself in Syria.”   

Turning to Syrian oppositionists, Flynt suggests that it is unlikely they represent even a narrow majority of Syrians:  “What about the 40-50 percent of Syrian society that continues to support Assad?  I think Assad retains the support of about half of Syrian society.  What about them?”  He also challenges some of the dominant images of Syrian oppositionists in the West—and defines that real choice confronting American policymakers with regard to Syria:    

“When you look at the situation in Syria, it’s obvious that many innocent people have been killed, and that is a profound tragedy.  But I think that the narrative in the West—that this was basically a peaceful protest by Syrians that was responded to brutally, and these people took all of this violence until a year later, eighteen months later, they had to start responding violently—I don’t think that’s really the way things played out[O]utside powers—the Saudis, others—were pouring money and weapons into Syria from a very early point

The agenda was not to bring democracy to Syrians.  I don’t think the Saudis care about that; frankly, I don’t think the United States cares all that much about that.  The agenda was to topple Assad as a way of hurting Iran’s regional position70,000 dead Syrians later, this project has not workedNow countries like the United States face a choiceThey can either accept that this project of toppling Assad to hurt Iran has failed, and they can get serious about a diplomatic process that might produce a political settlement and end violenceOr if they keep doing this, if they keep supporting the opposition, we’re going to be looking at literally years of continued violence, and who knows how many more tens of thousands of dead Syrians

That is the choice…[For] as long as opposition groups have outside supporters like the Saudis, like the United States, who are in a sense egging them on, they have absolutely no incentive to face political reality and enter some kind of negotiating process…They don’t have an interest in doing that because there are outsiders who will help them keep the violence rolling along indefinitely.” 

Finally, Flynt challenges the fundamental premises of those criticizing the United States for not having “done more” in Syria already: 

“As far as the United States doing what ‘was necessary’ early on, there is this small matter of sovereignty, there’s this small matter of international law that says you only get to use force when the Security Council authorizes it or under a fairly narrow interpretation of self-defense in the UN Charter.  The United States has no right—it may have a hegemonic prerogative (or think it does), but it has no right—to impose no-fly zones over sovereign states to get rid of a leader that it doesn’t like

[F]ind one case in which the United States applied military force, ostensibly for the protection of civilian populations, in which part of its agenda was not also regime change in that country.  If you look at the Balkans, if you look at Iraq, if you look at what we did in Libya, if you look at what we say we want to do in Syria—in every one of those cases, the argument for humanitarian intervention is inextricably bound up with the argument for coercive regime change.  Frankly, I think Russia and China are eminently justified in saying that they’re not going to enable that.”     

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Dr. Ron Paul on “What No One Wants to Hear About Benghazi”

Although he left the U.S. Congress in January, Dr. Ron Paul continues to fight the good fight for strategically sound and morally defensible U.S. foreign policy, in the Middle East and elsewhere.  We append below a statement that Dr. Paul issued recently about the pseudo debate in Washington over the September 2011 attack on the U.S. “facility” in Benghazi, Libya. 

What No One Wants to Hear About Benghazi

By Dr. Ron Paul,

Congressional hearings, White House damage control, endless op-eds, accusations, and defensive denials. Controversy over the events in Benghazi last September took center stage in Washington and elsewhere last week. However, the whole discussion is again more of a sideshow. Each side seeks to score political points instead of asking the real questions about the attack on the US facility, which resulted in the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Republicans smell a political opportunity over evidence that the Administration heavily edited initial intelligence community talking points about the attack to remove or soften anything that might reflect badly on the president or the State Department.

Are we are supposed to be shocked by such behavior? Are we supposed to forget that this kind of whitewashing of facts is standard operating procedure when it comes to the US government?

Democrats in Congress have offered the even less convincing explanation for Benghazi, that somehow the attack occurred due to Republican sponsored cuts in the security budget at facilities overseas. With a one trillion dollar military budget, it is hard to take this seriously.

It appears that the Administration scrubbed initial intelligence reports of references to extremist Islamist involvement in the attacks, preferring to craft a lie that the demonstrations were a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic video that developed into a full-out attack on the US outpost.

Who can blame the administration for wanting to shift the focus? The Islamic radicals who attacked Benghazi were the same people let loose by the US-led attack on Libya. They were the rebels on whose behalf the US overthrew the Libyan government. Ambassador Stevens was slain by the same Islamic radicals he personally assisted just over one year earlier.

But the Republicans in Congress also want to shift the blame. They supported the Obama Administration’s policy of bombing Libya and overthrowing its government. They also repeated the same manufactured claims that Gaddafi was “killing his own people” and was about to commit mass genocide if he were not stopped. Republicans want to draw attention to the President’s editing talking points in hopes no one will notice that if the attack on Libya they supported had not taken place, Ambassador Stevens would be alive today.

Neither side wants to talk about the real lesson of Benghazi: interventionism always carries with it unintended consequences. The US attack on Libya led to the unleashing of Islamist radicals in Libya. These radicals have destroyed the country, murdered thousands, and killed the US ambassador. Some of these then turned their attention to Mali which required another intervention by the US and France.

Previously secure weapons in Libya flooded the region after the US attack, with many of them going to Islamist radicals who make up the majority of those fighting to overthrow the government in Syria. The US government has intervened in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the same rebels it assisted in the Libya conflict, likely helping with the weapons transfers. With word out that these rebels are mostly affiliated with al Qaeda, the US is now intervening to persuade some factions of the Syrian rebels to kill other factions before completing the task of ousting the Syrian government. It is the dizzying cycle of interventionism.

The real lesson of Benghazi will not be learned because neither Republicans nor Democrats want to hear it. But it is our interventionist foreign policy and its unintended consequences that have created these problems, including the attack and murder of Ambassador Stevens. The disputed talking points and White House whitewashing are just a sideshow.