Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
Recently it was suggested that presidential primaries drive Republican and Democratic hopefuls into making a mess of foreign policy: Republicans emphasize their suspicions about arms control agreements with the Soviets; Democrats rail against new weapons systems and any resort to the use of force to back up diplomacy. This commentary—an editorial in The Washington Post—concluded that the process of the primaries exacts a high cost in American foreign policy, and that it will not be easy for the next president to reclaim a middle ground laid waste by excessive partisan rhetoric.
But the middle can be variously defined. What will matter is how a new administration deals with the core issues of American security policy: arms control and national defense, the use of force, including U.S. military forces, abroad. Even these issues must first be addressed in the broad historical context of those enduring postwar commitments and responsibilities that both Republicans and Democrats have subscribed to since 1945.
If the new administration is to develop a cohesive and coherent foreign policy, it cannot escape the changes in our nation’s strategic position. It must recognize three fundamental new conditions. First, there is a potentially dangerous disparity developing between those vital security interests that the American people are prepared to support with force, and the degree and kind of force we are willing and able to employ to protect these interests. In short, our aims may exceed our resources.
The extent of American commitments abroad has not declined; in some parts of the world our obligations have even increased. This new reality has led some to argue once again that we must reduce our commitments and thereby decrease the risks our country must face. But it is far easier to demand a reduction in commitments than to define with clarity those commitments that can, in fact, be safely reduced. In practice, we must decide whether the loss of prestige from abdicating responsibilities will reduce the effective use of American power more than the reduced claims on our resources might enhance our standing.
Our current commitments are likely to continue even if our military power remains more limited, when measured against those commitments, than it has in the past. This situation implies an increased degree of risk. Both Republicans and Democrats will have to acknowledge this change in our global position, for there is not likely to be any acceptable way to escape from either responsibilities or risks.
This security dilemma, the growing gap between our objectives and our capabilities—sometimes described as a decline of relative American power—has been recognized in both parties, but the diversity of proposed remedies has accelerated the breakdown of the national consensus. The simultaneous end of any semblance of a national or bipartisan consensus in the country on foreign policy is the second new factor that the next administration must face.
Republicans, led by Arthur Vandenberg and Henry Stimson in the 1940s, promoted bipartisanship in foreign policy that was sustained until its demise over Vietnam. Efforts to restore a consensus on security issues under the Reagan Administration have run afoul of deep differences over U.S. policy toward Nicaragua and an appropriate U.S. role in the Persian Gulf. It has thus become increasingly difficult to maintain a national consensus in support of the employment of U.S. force and forces abroad. And, of course, no administration is eager to incur the domestic political penalties and divisions inherent in engaging U.S. military forces in combat situations.
It is clear that, as some of our strategic advantages have declined, a national consensus is all the more necessary in order to maximize the effective use of our residual power. But such a consensus cannot simply be wished into being. It can be restored only gradually over time, through the development of mutual trust and sustained credibility on the part of both the president and the Congress.
Reestablishing such trust, however, is all the more difficult in light of the third new factor: the revival of the struggle between the executive and legislative branches over foreign policy. This tension is inherent in the constitutional separation of powers but it has been exacerbated by new concerns over both the formulation as well as the implementation of policies—again, evident most recently in the debates over aid to the contras as well as the War Powers Act and its applicability in the Persian Gulf crisis.
Our nation must guarantee our essential interests at a reasonable risk through a judicious balancing of commitments and power: this means maintaining a credible deterrence and national defense as well as an ability and a willingness to use armed force, directly and indirectly. If we cannot achieve this, then a more restrictive interpretation of vital security interests must necessarily follow, at a cost to our national security that cannot be predicted. I believe that the Reagan Administration has succeeded in bringing our interests and power more into line, to the point that the inherent risks are approaching an acceptable level. The next Republican administration can build on this achievement.
The issue of military security has confronted every administration since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. How much is enough, and at what price, have been perennial questions. All presidential aspirants claim to favor a strong defense. Little agreement exists on the price of such a posture. It is already clear that opinions are divided on matters such as cutting the defense budget, spending levels for strategic defense, the timing of new conventional weapons programs and the pace of naval modernization. Consequently, much of the foreign policy debate leading up to the next national election will likely revolve around the role that arms control, and perhaps superpower cooperation in limiting regional conflicts, might play in the balancing of America’s foreign interests and commitments with appropriate power, resources and the political will to support them.
The Reagan Administration focused its attention on enhancing the military strength of the country, as a central priority. Mr. Reagan’s promise to do just that certainly contributed to his election in 1980, and his success in realizing this objective surely contributed to his reelection four years later. Critics may argue about the effectiveness of the allocation of funds to one or another specific defense program, and they may even debate the utility of the military strength achieved in the past years. But the perception of restored American military strength made it possible to negotiate with Moscow, and has given the Soviet Union an incentive to negotiate over outstanding issues in the Soviet-American relationship.
The new Soviet leader apparently recognized the new situation confronting the U.S.S.R. The Reagan Administration’s enhancement of our country’s military posture threatened not only Soviet gains in relative strategic offensive strength acquired in an earlier period but promised to mobilize our technological advantages in the furtherance of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This presented General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev with a choice. He recognized that the Soviet industrial-technological base could not be used both to reform a stagnant and backward economy and, simultaneously, to sustain an arms competition with the United States. Thus he resumed arms control negotiations, met with President Reagan at the Geneva summit and, finally, accepted the American position on eliminating medium-range missiles.
The Administration was attacked for its strategy of building strength in part as one means of achieving a more advantageous negotiating position. That strategy has paid off. It has revived genuine arms control negotiations; indeed, it established arms control as a centerpiece of East-West relations and very likely West-West relations for some time to come. It is not at all clear whether strategic arms agreements, comprehensive or otherwise, will actually enable the United States to safeguard deterrence at less cost and risk. But we seem to be entering a more or less continuous round of negotiations on controlling strategic and nuclear arms—and doing so from a stronger position than when the talks began in 1981-82.
Some critics, Democrats and Republicans, contend that an agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces creates a slippery slope toward the "denuclearization" of Europe. It is prudent to look into the risks and opportunities of a post-INF environment. But this long-term concern should not paralyze our consideration of the immediate unfinished business. An INF agreement along the lines presently contemplated should and is likely to be ratified in early to mid-1988.
Some people have genuine doubts about the political or military efficacy of such a treaty, but I suspect that much of the debate surrounding ratification will have little to do with the actual contents of such a treaty. On the one hand, any major controversy in the Senate’s review of an INF treaty and the larger public debate could transform the consideration of the treaty into a referendum on nuclear and conventional force modernization, or the value of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or even the future of SDI. On the other hand, concerns that an INF treaty might weaken our position in Europe could lead to demands or promises of undiminished or increased spending on various defense programs relative to NATO Europe.
The next stage may well be crucial. A general agreement exists between the Soviet Union and the United States to seek to negotiate a 50-percent reduction of strategic offensive forces. An agreement significantly reducing strategic nuclear offensive forces might be achievable even before the end of the Reagan Administration. But relating strategic offense and strategic defense, and most particularly dealing with the Soviet insistence on linking SDI to any START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) accord militates against optimism, both in the negotiations and in the Congress. Unfortunately, it is not at the negotiating table in Geneva but in the Congress that the most significant arguments could take place regarding the START-SDI linkage, as well as the link between arms control and strategic modernization programs.
A major issue in the Congress is the proper legal interpretation of the ABM treaty. The debate is between a "narrow" or a "broad" interpretation of that treaty. Unfortunately, the players in the debate are all on the American side of the table. The Soviet Union, by adopting a position at Reykjavik that can only be described as "super-narrow," has little incentive to deal with the issue seriously as long as it believes that it may be decided in its favor by American legislators. The Soviets are eager to maintain selected portions of the ABM treaty in order to constrain the SDI program.
In this light, I believe that a consensus on the nature of the country’s commitments under the ABM treaty and a parallel commitment to a strong SDI program are essential. If there is no bipartisan consensus on these issues, we may never know whether areas of compromise are possible between the general Soviet determination to kill SDI and the Reagan Administration’s commitment to advance it. Thus far, the Administration has successfully resisted crippling restrictions on SDI research permitted by the ABM treaty. Moreover, I think that the Soviets may settle for an outcome that provides a degree of predictability in the strategic defense area, while the United States moves forward with a robust program that includes research, testing and development.
Many Democrats, however, regard SDI only as a "bargaining chip," to be traded away for substantial Soviet reductions of offensive nuclear forces. On the other hand, some Republicans advocate the near-term deployment of a basic defensive system. While abandonment of research, testing and development would be dangerous, no favors would be done to the SDI program by rushing to a deployment based primarily on political calculations rather than technical feasibility.
Despite much Democratic opposition to it, the notion of strategic defense has become a permanent feature of the American strategic landscape. Strategic defense programs will outlast the SDI acronym, even though no administration can commit its successor to its policies and programs. But the next president will have to go back to the drawing board, not so much with respect to SDI research and testing programs, but because he will have to develop sustained domestic political support for the program. And to do so the next administration will have to put its case forward in a larger national security context.
The Strategic Defense Initiative stems from both a dissatisfaction with our existing nuclear strategy and a belief that changes in strategy might be technically feasible for us and the Soviets. The next administration will have to recast the SDI issue. The issue of what is technologically possible must be embedded in a debate over what is strategically desirable and practical. I hope that the next president and a majority of the Congress will permit full exploration of the contribution that strategic defense might make to our overall national security. It is to those security interests that SDI funding levels ought to be linked, not to transient arms control strategies.
Arms control cannot serve as a substitute for an adequate defense posture, any more than it can exist separately from national security policy. Too often, Western negotiating strategies have assumed it can. But it will be too easy to blame arms control alone for the problems the next administration will encounter in adjusting to a changing strategic environment. If arms control is to serve as a flexible instrument of military strategy and further the prospect of achieving greater compatibility between negotiating policies and military strategy, then military and foreign policy objectives will need to be spelled out with greater clarity.
Managing the Soviet-American relationship is the core issue. But it is integrally related to a second major issue: redistributing military and nonmilitary burdens around the world. Both the U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf and the prospect of an INF agreement have stimulated congressional demands for greater burden-sharing by our allies. The demands have, in turn, generated reluctance and skepticism within the alliance regarding American motives and the wisdom of American policies.
The task of strengthening conventional forces in NATO Europe has always been urgent, expensive and politically sensitive. Despite the important link between Europe’s security and our own, and despite concern in the Congress that an INF agreement will highlight the conventional force imbalance in Europe, political sentiment in the United States has been running in the direction of reducing our NATO expenditures. Such sentiments will be all the more difficult to resist if the Congress cannot be convinced that the NATO allies are assuming a larger share of the burden in strengthening the alliance’s conventional forces in a post-INF environment. But even assuming a political willingness on the part of the European allies to do more, there will continue to exist some sentiment in the United States to reallocate military resources away from NATO and in the direction of the Middle East and the Third World in general, where American commitments outpace capabilities.
In the early 1970s, Democratic leaders in the Senate demanded a unilateral reduction in American forces. This was resisted by a Republican White House. Now the pattern is reemerging. I believe the national interest dictates that it should not be a partisan issue, and I hope that a viable consensus can be created in order to meet our obligations and responsibilities.
Any debate over a redistribution of responsibilities around the world will not be limited to defense budgets and commitments alone. A third major issue is also related: how to deal, in an explicit and comprehensive fashion, with the enormous changes in our relative economic strength. During the last four decades our nation has countered the Soviet military threat and provided a strategic safety net for the free world, but at staggering costs. Previous administrations have demanded persistently that wealthy friends in Europe and Japan do their duty in the furtherance of common aspirations of mutual defense and maintenance of world economic prosperity. But our friends have acted on the assumption that the United States remains the world’s greatest power and that it will continue to act responsibly whether or not others follow suit and pay their share.
One of the most crucial tasks for the next president will be to negotiate much more successfully a redefinition of the roles that we and our allies must play and the accompanying allocation of resources to pay for those roles. Without such negotiation, the United States will fall victim to a piecemeal reordering of domestic spending priorities among legitimate demands for defense, for investment to modernize our competitive industries and social infrastructure, and for expenditures vital to the health, education, safety and economic security of American citizens. The gap between missions and means will become larger and the risks to collective Western security will increase substantially.
Similar budget and resource debates occur in every vital democracy, and the larger industrialized democracies are becoming more adept in advising each other on desired outcomes. Moreover, it is important to understand that greater burden-sharing is not confined to the defense sector. Failure to end disastrous agricultural subsidization and dumping policies, for example, can affect the political will of one ally to defend another. There is a subtle relationship between nuclear arms control and a commercial trade tax proposal on soybean exports and farmer subsidies in the European Community. Agricultural subsidies and dumping conflicts undermine not only our economic efficiency but the grass-roots sentiments in the United States that are so vital to our defense commitments. To the extent that American exporters believe they are being treated unfairly while European allies run large balance-of-payments surpluses with the United States, a sense of alienation will erode popular support for meeting defense commitments in Europe.
Over the next several years, during the implementation of an INF agreement, the priority task in NATO Europe will be to strengthen our mutual conventional force posture. This will require expenditures to correct critical deficiencies and integration of new conventional technologies with tactical military innovations. It is also likely that alliance members will insist that such efforts be supplemented by arms control negotiations to reduce conventional force disparities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In short, another "dual-track" approach.
But this time around, it may not work. It will certainly be argued, once again, that the time is not propitious for the United States to seek a major redistribution of security burdens with its allies, at least in Europe. But given that a reduction in our national budget deficit is so critical to America’s economic well-being, it is unlikely that our global defense burdens can be maintained solely on the promise of anticipated arms control outcomes.
The Reagan Administration will leave to its successor several innovations in Third World policy. The Vietnam experience not only still influences our willingness to intervene in any Third World conflict; it still inhibits the prospect of any direct U.S. military intervention. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, lessened popular opposition to indirect military involvement, and the Reagan Administration has been able to regain some freedom of action to permit assistance, or military advice and training, or covert aid, for groups like the Afghan freedom fighters, Jonas Savimbi’s rebel forces in Angola, and, of course, the Nicaraguan contras. One reason is unaltered national opposition to the establishment of Soviet bases and/or Cuban dependencies, especially in the western hemisphere. Yet there remain strong inhibitions against intervention and the use of force, directly or indirectly, to accomplish such aims, not only in Latin America but in the Third World at large.
Reinforcing inhibitions against either the direct or indirect use of military force to promote America’s interests in the Third World is congressional reassertion of its role in the war-making process, as vividly demonstrated in connection with events in the Persian Gulf. The jury is still out on the impact of U.S. involvement in that region. At issue is the gap between a commitment to an objective and the political will to support it in practice. The next administration will discover that there is no logical solution to the disparity.
With regard to our Latin American policy, for the moment, both the Administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress provide verbal support for the Arias "peace" plan while continuing their guerrilla warfare over aid to the contras. To be sure, the Administration is rightly skeptical about Sandinista willingness to comply with the terms of the plan, and seeks to use that as leverage to gain renewed military aid to the contras. For its part, the Democratic leadership, which applauded the Arias plan as a pretext for cutting off such aid, grows concerned as Latin leaders themselves insist on full Sandinista compliance and denounce cosmetic or half-measures. The Democratic leadership in the Congress at times seems more interested in halting aid to the contras than in promoting democracy through full implementation of the Arias plan.
Debate continues over the direction of American policy in the Third World. Under the so-called Reagan Doctrine, we have supported anti-communist forces in countries currently dominated by Marxist regimes or clients of the Soviet Union. Viewed as the conscious promotion of such Western values as individual freedom and democracy in places where these values are denied (and where such a pursuit is not deemed dangerously explosive or excessively expensive in military terms), the Reagan Doctrine appears to fit comfortably into the objective of containing Soviet influence and power. But much of the political attractiveness of the doctrine flows from the effort to go beyond the defensive terms of limiting Soviet expansionism to the offensive in positively promoting liberation and seeking to reverse communist or Marxist control over various countries and their internal institutions.
There is a relationship between the Reagan Doctrine and the objective of improved superpower cooperation in nuclear arms control. In the 1970s efforts to reconcile conflicting objectives in these two areas involved codes of conduct or rules of the game. These efforts foundered when the Soviets sought to take advantage of new targets of opportunity in the Third World (e.g., Angola).
Some will counsel the next president to resume that effort with the argument that the wide-ranging reassessment, under Gorbachev, of Soviet involvement in the Third World has led to a decision in Moscow to reduce sharply Soviet "interests" and material support for marginal Marxist-Leninist states. I am skeptical. There are no indications that the Soviet leadership will countenance a retreat from established positions in the Third World. Moscow may be engaged in a "breathing period," a reassessment of the risks it is willing to run on behalf of prospective clients and the military and economic resources it will or can devote to such commitments. Mr. Gorbachev may even be disinclined to take on costly new commitments while simultaneously seeking to lessen the costs of existing ones over the long haul. But there are few signs of a conscious policy decision to diminish support for existing clients in the near term.
The next administration can adapt the Reagan Doctrine to the changing relationships between the superpowers and their respective policies toward the Third World. Thus far the Reagan Doctrine has emphasized military pressure as a means of raising the costs of Soviet involvement in the Third World. That emphasis alone is unlikely to achieve a major reduction in Soviet influence. It is time to ask what the American strategy ought to be during any Soviet "breathing period." If the Soviet Union should feel more vulnerable in the Third World, this will present new opportunities for American policy. What can American strategy build on the successes of the Reagan Doctrine? To the extent that an American policy of supporting struggles against tyranny of the left or the right is successful, what then?
We should move beyond the current version of the Reagan Doctrine by combining military and economic inducements in a political framework reflecting our estimates of the optimum possibilities in each region. The President and Congress must find a new consensus on appropriate funding of an imaginative and comprehensive economic and political program.
Currently, funds are virtually nonexistent for ongoing efforts in most countries and for new initiatives. We must enlist the vast economic resources of Japan and our NATO allies to work with us in encouraging the foundation of market-oriented democracies. Our collective plans to do so must be bold and broad. The Reagan Doctrine ought not to be viewed only in the context of Soviet-American competition; it provides policy guidance as well to U.S. bilateral relations with a number of Third World countries. Aid to anti-communist forces must be taken beyond the notion of a proper and not necessarily proportionate response to Soviet assistance to Marxist regimes or insurgencies: the commitment flowing from the doctrine should not cease abruptly because of successes earned through various pressures.
The defensive-deterrent shield provided by the United States for the promotion of its national security interests and those of its allies is also the shield that makes possible the promotion and maintenance by the United States and its allies of democratic ideals and institutions throughout the world. As we promote the building of democratic institutions abroad we may find that this policy is sometimes at odds with our commitment to provide for a common defense, in which case security measures often are given precedence over democratic aspirations.
But consider our recent experience with the Philippines. Events in 1986 suggest how American ideals of promoting legitimate security interests are mutually reinforcing. Former President Ferdinand Marcos won the support of successive American administrations because our officials were confident that he would ensure continued joint use of Subic Bay and Clark military facilities. Eventually, his position eroded because of his incompetence in prosecuting resistance against an internal Marxist insurgency and in protecting our base facilities, quite apart from growing perceptions of his political corruption. The Administration came to the view that the survival of the U.S. bases in the Philippines was "ancillary" to the issue of encouraging democratic reform in the government, and that the failure to undertake such reforms would inevitably result in the loss of the bases in the intermediate future. In the process of noting the growing failure of Marcos, the United States rediscovered that only by focusing on the policy objective of restoring democracy in the Philippines could we hope to retain a stable alliance and preserve mutual use of valuable military facilities on the soil of that sovereign country over the longer term.
There is a valuable lesson in this experience. Support for democratic progress can be compatible with maintenance of our security interests. We must seek to make this the rule rather than the exception.
Since 1940, when the Republican statesman Henry Stimson joined President Roosevelt’s cabinet, Republicans have considered bipartisanship an essential feature of our party’s approach to foreign affairs. Republicans, for the most part, supported the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO and the Korean War. The Truman foreign policy could not have succeeded without the initiatives and cooperation of Senator Arthur Vandenberg in forging bipartisan support in Congress. In those years, Republicans took long steps to move away from a heritage of isolationism.
In doing so, however, Republicans preserved some ideas and attitudes—principles if you will—that have evolved over time even while differentiating them from many Democrats in foreign policy.
The Democratic Party has had great difficulty in reconciling its recent noninterventionist goal—"no more Vietnams"—with the need for a strong, confident and globally engaged United States. The Republican Party has sought to combine the twin imperatives of strength and prudence. A globally engaged great power is unlikely to be able to avoid involvements in peripheral conflicts.
Some Democrats continue to revert to moralistic arguments with a human rights content to criticize the foreign policy initiatives of the Reagan Administration. Still others adopt the language of "national interests" and "political realism" as a short-term political tactic to attack the Reagan Doctrine. For example, many Democrats continue to make largely moralistic arguments against the Administration’s policy toward Nicaragua. Instead of directly addressing the Sandinista threat to U.S. interests in Central America, many Democrats concentrate on the Administration’s tactics while simultaneously seeking to rebut the ideological rationale underlying the current policy.
Too many Democrats have focused their attention and criticisms on how the Administration has involved the country in Central American politics, and eschewed debate on how U.S. interests in effectively promoting peace and security in the region can be furthered. Too often, Democratic inputs to the debate on contra aid are confined to references to "slippery slopes," alleging that such aid constitutes the first step toward another Vietnam. While such dire warnings may carry some emotional appeal, they also reveal paucity in thinking about credible alternative policy directions.
Many Democrats attack the Reagan Doctrine for allegedly twisting anti-communist ideological objectives into the primary rationale for U.S. support of freedom fighters in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Yet many of their calls for a change in emphasis in the direction of realistic self-interest betray an overriding concern for tactical expediency rather than strategic necessity. Oftentimes, there is less a calculation of national interest than an obvious political desire to avoid any intervention in situations where success may entail costs. But U.S. interests cannot be determined exclusively or in major part by assessed degrees of difficulty of U.S. involvement and/or tactical alternatives. Efforts to reduce national interests to simplify the task of maximizing gains while cutting costs merely avoid the difficult issue of defining U.S. interests in Third World countries. Calls for noninterventionism seldom reflect a clear appreciation of interests and power.
Regardless of party, however, the next president will have a unique opportunity. America’s global position has changed radically since 1945, but a new administration can translate the rebuilding of the 1980s into a period of major and positive accomplishments. I would stress the following objectives.
We will need a general strategy that outlines clear-cut criteria for measuring Soviet actions against our legitimate security concerns. The test of our next president’s policy will be his ability to define precise criteria for progress toward peace and stability, and to test Soviet intentions against those criteria. The test of Gorbachev’s intentions must be his actions, not the growing sophistication of his public diplomacy.
Effective arms control will be an important element of that testing. It will remain both a necessary price of our continuing security, and a potential danger to it. It must not become a diversion from strategy or a substitute for defense planning, or be allowed to obscure the realities of the military balance, and the actions necessary to correct it.
Our alliance system must be sustained and strengthened as the basis for a coalition strategy; a new and more equitable distribution of burdens must be worked out. And we must obtain allied cooperation in attempting to relate concerns about arms control and the settlement of regional threats to our mutual security.
Both political parties have an obligation to participate in a continuous assessment of America’s strategic interests. While no one can dispute the necessity of tactical caution, it alone cannot answer the policy dilemma as to the appropriate balance between strength and prudence. Many efforts to redefine or constrict our strategic interests merely mask a reluctance or unwillingness to contemplate the use of military power. A redefinition of or retreat from military commitments should not be confused with a policy designed to protect and promote U.S. national interests.
The administration that is sworn in on January 20, 1989, will inherit a far stronger, safer and more durable position in the world than Mr. Reagan did in January 1981, with the frustration of Iran and the shock of Afghanistan. Not only is our foreign policy sound and our international position greatly improved, but we are also pursuing an active dialogue with our adversary, on the basis of the strength necessary to defend our interests—and all without the agony of a foreign war.