Solving Hard Problems: Albright’s “Iran Action Plan”


A while back, I sat in on a roundtable discussion with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Senator Sam Brownback to discuss a report they co-produced, “Uncommon Leadership for Common Values: Bipartisan Action on Human Rights“.
At the luncheon, I asked Senator Brownback and Secretary Albright about the gap between the ideals and objectives of enhancing global human rights and the reality that there are a lot of despicable thugs in the world and that America didn’t have unlimited resources. Albright’s response — which I have heard her say now several times — was that she saw herself as a “realistic idealist” or perhaps as an “idealistic realist.” I see myself as an “ethical realist”.

For a while, there was a growing trend in Democratic circles to develop a neo-conservative style, muscular Wilsonianism on the left. Some of these foreign policy practitioners and Democratic party apparatchiks embraced the notion of “American empire” and saw it as a force for shaping good. Thus, the difference between them and the likes of Feith, Wolfowitz, Libby and Perle was one more of nuance and shading.
Realism has been dying in both parties since 9/11 — but it seems to be making a comeback, though realists — whether ethical realists, idealistic realists or neo-realists — are still in feeble shape and not the dominant players yet in foreign policy.
But I offer the interesting action plan of Madeleine Albright that appeared in the Financial Times on 24 March as evidence of a serious pragmatism that is coming back to foreign policy.
Her advice to the G.W. Bush administration on Iran is eminently sensible. I particularly found insightful and on the mark this line:

As for Iran’s choleric and anti-Semitic new president, he will be swallowed up by internal rivals if he is not unwittingly propped up by external foes.

But here is the entire Madeleine Albright “Iran Action Plan“:

While this is not an administration known for taking advice, I offer three suggestions: the first is to understand that although we all want to “end tyranny in this world”, that is a fantasy unless we begin to solve hard problems. Iraq is increasingly a gang war that can be solved in one of two ways: by one side imposing its will or by all the legitimate players having a piece of the power. The US is no longer able to control events in Iraq, but it can still play a useful role as referee.
Second, the US administration should disavow any plan for regime change in Iran; not because the regime should not be changed but because US endorsement of that goal only makes it less likely. In today’s warped political environment, nothing strengthens a radical government more than Washington’s overt antagonism. It is also common sense to presume that Iran will be less willing to co-operate in Iraq and to compromise on nuclear issues if it is being threatened with destruction. As for Iran’s choleric and anti-Semitic new president, he will be swallowed up by internal rivals if he is not unwittingly propped up by external foes.
Third, the US administration must stop playing solitaire while Middle East and Persian Gulf leaders play poker. The president’s “march of freedom” is not the big story in the Muslim world, where Shia Muslims suddenly have more power than they have had in 1,000 years; it is not the big story in Lebanon, where Iran is filling the vacuum left by Syria; it is not the story among Palestinians, who voted – in western eyes – freely, and wrongly; it is not even the big story in Iraq, where the top three factions in the recent elections were all supported by decidedly undemocratic militias.
In the long term, the future of the Middle East may well be determined by those in the region dedicated to the hard work of building democracy. I certainly hope so. But hope is not a policy. In the short term, we must recognise that the region will be shaped primarily by fairly ruthless power politics in which the clash between good and evil will be swamped by differences between Sunni and Shia, Arab and Persian, Arab and Kurd, Kurd and Turk, Hashemite and Saudi, secular and religious and, of course, Arab and Jew. This is the world, the president pledges in his national security strategy, that “America must continue to lead”. Actually it is the world he must begin to address — before it is too late.

Just to be clear, what Secretary Albright has put forward is similar to what most sensible realists would suggest — and there are far, far more realists who are Republican than Democrat.
— Steve Clemons
UPDATE: The Financial Times piece linked above is complicated to get because of registration requirements, but a similar article by Albright also appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Thanks to LF for sending the LA Times link.