National Security Network

Iran Exposes Deep Conservative Split on Foreign Policy

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Report 23 June 2009

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A clear and striking split has emerged amongst conservatives in response to the situation in Iran. Moderates, realists and GOP foreign policy leaders have all come out in support of the Administration’s approach and attacked neoconservative calls for meddling more in Iran. On the other hand, neoconservatives and the party’s political leadership have taken to the op-ed pages and the airwaves to denounce Obama’s approach and have called for more direct intervention in Iran.  This rift exposes an old fault line among conservatives, made new by their lack of new policy ideas in response to a dynamic, popular incumbent.  This divide is between a more moderate and realist approach modeled after Bush 41 and a more extreme and hard-line vision that adheres to the neoconservative view of foreign policy practiced by Bush 43. Yet the press has framed the debate as one pitting Obama against “Republicans” or Obama against “conservatives” – as if conservative opposition to Obama was monolithic. But in fact the debate is taking place between current and former policymakers of both parties and one extreme neoconservative faction. Unfortunately for the conservative movement and the country, this faction – whose policy ideas have been so discredited over the last eight years – includes the conservative leadership of the House Representatives and the former Republican candidate for President.  But the unity among national security thinkers, progressives and realists is at least as important a storyline.

Recognizing that meddling in the elections of Iran would be dangerous, traditional conservatives side with the president, oppose neoconservatives:

  • Joe Scarborough, Conservative talk show host and former congressman: “All we would do is undermine those people in the street, who the second that they are attached to the United States of America, the country after all that’s been known in Iran as the great Satan since 1979, we will undermine their cause… It’s so shortsighted I find it stunning...What would John McCain and Lindsey Graham specifically have the president say? All of those people that are emailing in and telling me that I’m being liberal? Oh really? I’m being liberal? No I think it’s called restraint.” [Joe Scarborough, 6/22/09]
  •  Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State for Richard Nixon: “I think the president has handled this well. Anything that the United States says that puts us totally behind one of the contenders, behind Mousavi, would be a handicap for that person. And I think it’s the proper position to take that the people of Iran have to make that decision.” [Henry Kissinger, 6/17/09]
  • Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), Ranking Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “When popular revolutions occur, they come really from the people. They’re generated by people power within the country. For us to become heavily involved in the election at this point is to give the clergy an opportunity to have an enemy…and to use us, really, to retain their power.” [Richard Lugar, 6/16/09]
  • James Baker, Secretary of State for George H.W. Bush: "If we're out there, beating up on them, criticizing, they'll just say, 'This is the Great Satan.'" Baker added, "A president has to walk a very fine line here, particularly when the revolution was built on anti-American sentiment." [Dallas Morning News, 6/19/09]
  • Brent Scowcroft, National Security Advisor for George H.W. Bush: Brent Scowcroft said in an interview that the Obama administration should continue a cautious approach and that criticism from opponents "is not carefully thought out." "I think the administration is about right in their reaction," he said. "We have to keep our eye on the ball. While it would be comforting to blast what is happening over there, you have to ask how it would help matters. A more belligerent tone would not be helpful."[WS Journal, 6/20/09]
  • Nick Burns, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs for George W. Bush: "President Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to see aggressive statements, a series of statements, from the United States which try to put the US at the center of this.” [Nick Burns, 6/16/09]
  •  Conservative Senators Mel Martinez (R – FL), Bob Corker (R – TN), John Thune (R – SD), and Lamar Alexander (R – TN):  According to an article in the Politico last week, Senators Mel Martinez (R – FL,), Bob Corker (R – TN), John Thune (R – SD), and Lamar Alexander (R – TN) all support the President’s approach for dealing with Iran.  [Politico, 6/17/09]
  • George Will, Conservative columnist for the Washington Post: “The president is being roundly criticized for insufficient, rhetorical support for what’s going on over there. It seems to me foolish criticism. The people on the streets know full well what the American attitude toward the regime is. And they don’t need that reinforced.” [George Will, ABC News, 6/21/09]
  • Pat Buchanan, Conservative Commentator: “When your adversary is making a fool of himself, get out of the way... U.S. fulminations will change nothing in Tehran. But they would enable the regime to divert attention to U.S. meddling in Iran’s affairs and portray the candidate robbed in this election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, as a poodle of the Americans.” [Pat Buchanan, 6/16/09]
  •  Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and Reagan administration official:  “To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous. The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week. John McCain and others went quite crazy insisting President Obama declare whose side America was on, as if the world doesn't know whose side America is on.” [Peggy Noonan, 6/19/20]

Neocons continue to advocate an ideologically driven policy that politicizes an international emergency. The debate taking place over America’s response to the Iranian election crisis has not been between the President and Republicans, but rather between the president and a group of extreme partisan ideologues who seek to oppose President Obama at every step and advance a failed Bush-era foreign policy approach: 

  • Senator John McCain, former Republican presidential nominee:  "I do not believe that the president is taking a leadership that is incumbent upon an American president, which we have throughout modern history, and that is to advocate for human rights and freedom,” and argued on Face the Nation that, "the United States hasn't done anything.” [USA Today, 6/16/09. John McCain, MSNBC, 6/22/09] 
  •  Eric Cantor, House Minority Whip, “The Administration's silence in the face of Iran's brutal suppression of democratic rights represents a step backwards for homegrown democracy in the Middle East.” [Eric Cantor, 6/15/09]
  • Lindsey Graham, Republican Senator from South Carolina: “I appreciate what the president said yesterday, but he's been timid and passive more than I would like, and I hope he will continue to speak truth to power.” [Lindsey Graham, ABC News, 6/21/09] 
  •  Paul Wolfowitz, Former Deputy Secretary of Defense for Donald Rumsfeld:  “The reform the Iranian demonstrators seek is something that we should be supporting. In such a situation, the United States does not have a ‘no comment’ option. Coming from America, silence is itself a comment -- a comment in support of those holding power and against those protesting the status quo… Now is not the time for the president to dig in to a neutral posture. It is time to change course.” [Paul Wolfowitz, 6/19/09]
  • Charles Krauthammer, neoconservative columnist for the Washington Post:  “Our fundamental values demand that America stand with demonstrators opposing a regime that is the antithesis of all we believe.” [Charles Krauthammer, 6/19/09]
  • Danielle Pletka, Vice President of the neoconservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute: “Just after Iran’s rigged elections last week, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets, it looked as if a new revolution was in the offing. Five days later, the uprising is little more than a symbolic protest, crushed by the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Meanwhile, the real revolution has gone unnoticed: the guard has effected a silent coup d’état.” [Danielle Pletka and Ali Alfoneh, 6/16/09]
  • Robert Kagan, neoconservative commentator: “But Obama's calculations are quite different. Whatever his personal sympathies may be, if he is intent on sticking to his original strategy, then he can have no interest in helping the opposition. His strategy toward Iran places him objectively on the side of the government's efforts to return to normalcy as quickly as possible, not in league with the opposition's efforts to prolong the crisis.” [Robert Kagan, 6/17/09]
  • Bill Kristol, neoconservative commentator: “He should support the demonstrators. He should say that stealing elections is unacceptable, killing demonstrators in the streets of Tehran is unacceptable. He could work with the Europeans to say, ‘Let's bring in international observers to review whether this was a fair election. If it wasn't, let's think about having another election.’” [Bill Kristol via Fox News, 6/14/09]

Yet the media is reporting a completely different story that neglects conservative divisions and instead portrays the debate as one between Obama and a seemingly unified conservative opposition. So far, the mainstream media has depicted the debate over what to do on Iran as one existing between the Administration and conservatives.  Today the Washington Post reported: “Iran's post-election tumult has exposed the sharply divergent ways in which the Obama administration and its Republican opponents view the nature of American power and the president's role in speaking to political dissent outside the borders of the United States. The debate over how far Obama should go in encouraging the protesters who returned to the streets of Tehran amid clouds of tear gas Monday has emboldened Republicans, who see an opportunity to criticize his foreign policy as too timid.” The Post continued, saying that remarks by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham demonstrate that “Republicans clearly see Obama's approach to foreign policy as a potential weakness.”  The Post’s coverage followed an earlier piece in the New York Times, which characterized the Iran debate similarly, as a battle between the President and conservatives. “Mr. Obama is coming under increased pressure from Republicans and other conservatives who say he should take a more visible stance in support of the protesters,” reported the Times.  The Times continued, saying “Some criticism of the Obama administration’s cautious posture may be politically opportunistic, coming from rivals who are eager to draw distinctions between Republicans and Democrats, to portray the administration as generally weak when it comes to international confrontation.”  Fox News also pitted the President against conservatives, describing how “Republican lawmakers,” believed he “needs to step off the sidelines and stand up for Iranians who are protesting last week's election and challenging the authority of the country's theocratic regime.”  The Associated Press’ coverage adopted this frame as well, describing how “Republicans intensified their criticism” of the President’s handling of the Iran crisis. [Washington Post, 9/23/09. NY Times, 6/17/09. Fox News, 6/21/09. AP, 6/21/09]

What We’re Reading

Iran’s Guardian Council rejects plea from opposition to annul the results of the election. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to be sworn in by mid-August. Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have ordered the family of Neda Soltan – a student shot dead in Tehran – to take down mourning posters in efforts to stop her becoming the rallying point for protests against the presidential election.

A Pakistani tribal leader who opposed the head of the Taliban was shot dead yesterday.

Coalition troops launched a massive assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan and were able to push militants out of some areas they had controlled.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called on Monday for the establishment of a Palestinian state within two years, a timeline he said is possible if Israel upholds its existing commitments and Palestinians concentrate on building government and civic institutions.

Defense officials from the United States and China are meeting in Beijing for two days of high-level talks.

The Obama administration is shutting down a controversial Bush administration domestic spy satellite program which had run out of DHS.

One hundred Romanians who left their homes in Belfast after recent racist attacks have decided to leave Northern Ireland and return to Romania.

The U.S. and Kyrgyzstan have agreed to let the U.S. military use a Kyrgyz airport to transport U.S. nonlethal military supplies to Afghanistan. Four months ago, the Kyrgyz government threatened to evict U.S. troops from the country.

The Pentagon will use a new strategy to anticipate future conflicts that includes a mix of conventional, set-piece battles and counter-insurgency efforts.

Deadly bombings killed at least 13 people in Baghdad Monday, complicating counter-insurgency efforts ahead of a planned withdrawal next week of U.S. troops from major Iraqi cities.

Somalia's transitional government requested military help from its neighbors to combat Islamist militants, but Kenya rejected the idea of sending troops and suggested the AU should spearhead such an effort.

A former Rwandan official was sentenced to 30 years in jail for his role in the death of "thousands of Tutsi refugees" in country's 1994 genocide.

Commentary of the Day

Christopher Hitchens discusses the rampant anti-Anglo-Saxon sentiment among Iran’s leadership.

Richard Cohen commends President Obama’s handling of the situation in Iran.

George Friedman at Stratfor analyzes the Iranian election and the history of revolution.

Andrew Lee Butters explores current tensions between Iran and its Middle East allies.

Bob Herbert criticizes President Obama’s slow approach to bringing transparency and accountability to matters of national security.

The Time of London opines on how “Islamists in Pakistan fear cricket” and how the sport can be used as a weapon against the Taliban.