The Iran Deal Cannot be a Template for a North Korea Deal if NK doesn’t Want to Deal

This is a rather tardy re-post of something I wrote for the Diplomat in the wake of the Iran deal in late July.

I still think my basic argument is correct. North Korea is far more isolated than Iran, so it needs the weapons a lot more. It also spent a far larger proportionate share of GDP to develop those weapons. So there’s no way they’d give them up without impossible concessions like the withdrawal of USFK or the end of multiparty elections in South Korea.

I do think the Americans, and especially South Koreans, would be open to dealing. But the Norks aren’t. The South Koreans especially just want to find modus vivendi with North Korea so that they can forget about it. But being ignored as the backward, nut-ball, third-world hellhole that it is, is exactly what the Norks don’t want. They crave the prestige of global attention, because otherwise they’re just a nuclear version of Zimbabwe or Turkmenistan. And how could the heroic Baekdu bloodline preside over a dump no one cares about?

So forget any deals. Provocative, nuke-adulating North Korea is here to stay. The full essay follows the jump.

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Note to Congressional Republicans: Please Don’t Send One of Your Iran Letters to China

Does anyone wonder what it would be like it neoconservatives brought their unique blend of bluster, recklessness, and belligerence to Asia? I kept thinking about that in the wake of that wildly irresponsible Iran letter from the Senate GOP last month. As Jonathan Chait notes, that letter was the perfect metaphor for neoconservative rashness, poor planning, maximal belligerence, and relentless nationalist self-congratulation. And this will be the tone of the GOP primary (again) too.

Now try to imagine how that would have gone down if we had sent that letter to China. Yikes! I hope these guys stay focused on the Middle East where their free-lancing recklessness and belligerence have manageable costs. But please, please keep these people away from Asia, where they know even less than in the Gulf and the costs are much higher. Scary.

The following was originally written for the Lowy Institute, here.

2010 Asia Predictions: How did I do?



Last year in January, I made  some predictions on Asian security. It is always useful to look back at how one did. I did ok, but one might criticize me  that I predicted too many things would not happen. That predicts the lack of change, which is easier than predicting proactive change. That is true.

But prediction is one of the great goals of the social sciences. Indeed it is our hardest chore, and no matter how much we read, data we collect, or theories we propound, we still don’t seem to do much better than the ‘random walk’ theory. Depressing, but nonetheless worth the effort. So here is a quick review of my record. (For a nice collection of the worst world politics predictions from 2010, try here; thankfully none of mine are as eye-rollingly bad as them.) Here is a nice run-down from CFR on the big (East) Asia events of 2010. Note the differences from mine below.

My review of my 2010 Korea predictions will go up on Thursday. Here are my 2010 Asia predictions in retrospect:

1. There will be some kind of power-sharing deal in Iran before the end of the year.


I really blew this one. My sense 12 months ago was that Iran was really slipping toward some sort of genuinely systemic crisis. Not primarily because of the street demonstrations. Those are relatively easy for dictatorships to contain with nasty head-crackings. In the movies (Avatar), the people overthrow the powerful, but in reality it is usually other powerful who overthrow the powerful. That is, elites usually depose other elites in dictatorships. And that is what I thought we saw in late 2009: the emergence of real splits inside the regime’s elites. Particularly, I thought that the clerics’ growing hesitation on Ahmadinejad’s policy of confrontation with the West might lead to a real cleavage requiring some kind of accommodation. Note that I did not predict a revolution or major change in the regime’s Islamist character. No one really expected that. But I did think that Ahmadinejad needed the clerics for legitimacy in what is still an overtly theocratic state. Looking back, I am fairly impressed at his ability to maneuver these domestic difficult waters, while nonetheless continuing to bluff the West. Yet perhaps the external bluff is the key to that internal success. Perhaps the nuke program insulates him against clerical unhappiness. He can appeal to a Persian populist nationalism with the nuclear issue, which allows him to ideologically outflank the clerics. If this is so, then Ahmadinejad is more enduring then we anticipate.

2. Israel will not bomb Iran.

This is a negative prediction, so it was a little easier. But still, given how much noise Netanyahu and the Israel lobby in the US make on this issue, including regular veiled threats to take matters into their own hands, I do think this deserves some credit. Also, the Wikileaks revelations that Sunni Arab states might look that other way on a bombing add further weight to my prediction’s riskiness. Netanyahu is playing a tough negotiating game with the US, but this one was probably a bridge too far, although I bet the righties in his cabinet are unhappy. Still, Israel really needs the US, and that need will deepen the more it becomes apparent that the Israeli right is the primary force blocking an Israeli accommodation with the rest of the Middle East. And without US approval, unlikely on Obama’s watch, I still think the cost-benefit calculus tilts against an Israeli strike. That said, a strike is more likely this year, because the Iranian nuclear program keeps rolling along and Iran (point 1 above) has not softened.

3. Japan will disappoint everyone in Asia by doing more of the same – more moral confusion over WWII guilt and wasteful government spending that does nothing meaningful to reverse its decline.

This is another negative prediction, and seems like an easy one too, because it just predicts more of the same from a country that has been doing that for 20 years. But placed the context of the DPJ’s (pseudo-)revolutionary election victory of late 2009, it still seemed like a mildly risky prediction at the time. Recall that the DPJ came in saying it would change so much – fixing the ever-sliding economy, improving Japan’s relations with its neighbors, edging away from the US, etc. All that turned out for naught. Some of this was because China seemed to flip out in 2010 (a big positive prediction I really missed – X!). China’s 2010 behavior pushed Japan back toward the US in a way the DPJ probably wanted to avoid. But on the other issues, Japan still strikes me as stuck in a terrible historical funk. It can’t seem to get beyond the fact that the glory days of its developmentalist economy (1960s-80s) are over, and that more Asian-style state intervention now just means more debt. Nor can it seem to figure out, despite the DPJ talk, that the rest of Asia is genuinely freaked out by Japan and pays attention to every change in Japan’s defense policy or utterance by defense officials. Worse, every time some disgruntled righty in Japan say the old empire wasn’t so bad after all, the neighbors go into paroxysms on incipient Japanese re-militarization. My own experience with Japanese students tells me that Japanese are just blind to this (although Japanese academics do seem aware). So my sense was that for all the DPJ talk, there was no real popular interest in a Willy Brandt-style ostpolitik on the history issues. Nor does that seem to have changed in the last year.

4. North Korea won’t change at all.

X! – It got worse!

Who would have thought that the worst state in the world could plumb the depths yet further? Somehow the loopy Corleones of Korea – the Kim family gangster-state – became ever more unhinged and dangerous. My original prediction was aimed at those who thought that Kim Jong Il’s trips to China and China’s growing ‘investment’ in NK might somehow hail a Chinese-style liberalization, at least of the economy a little. To be fair, no one expected NK to morph into a ‘normal,’ somewhat well-behaved dictatorship like Syria or Burma. But there was a mild hope that NK, finally, under the weight of economic collapse and the pressure to show results for the 2010 65th anniversary of the state’s founding, might open a little. I thought that was far-fetched, so in that sense, my prediction was right. But more importantly, I missed that NK would actually go the other way. Instead of possible better behavior, NK went overboard – provoking three major crisis – the Cheonan, the new uranium plant, and Yeonpyeong– in just 7 months. Wow. Wth is going up on there?!

5. The US drawdown from Iraq will be softened, hedged and qualified to be a lot smaller than Obama seemed to promise.


This one seems mixed but broadly accurate. It was a gutsier positive prediction, but the evidence is not definitive. I was genuinely surprised when the last brigades rolled out, but then, there are still 50k US troops in Iraq (more than in Korea or Japan, btw). Now that Iraq is off the front pages, and with Obama’s speech that it is all over, no one pays attention much. But we are still running around performing what really should be called combat operations, and Americans are still dying. And in Afghanistan, the Obama people are now openly moving the goal posts from 2011 to 2014 now. While I didn’t predict that, it does fit into my general sense that Obama can’t really end the GWoT quickly as he hinted during the campaign. Instead, it seems likely that it will slowly splutter out.

2010 Asian Security Predictions


This is always a useful exercise, if only to see how wrong you are next year. So let me go on record.

These are in no particular order.

1. There will be some kind of power-sharing deal in Iran before the end of the year.

Why: Andrew Sullivan’s superb coverage suggests to me that the regime is increasingly facing a mobilized population pushing for something like a color revolution. Given the the regime is divided too – which is a strong hallmark that it may lose the gathering contest – it seems highly unlikely the troika dictatorship of Ahmedinijad & cronies, the clerics, and the Basij can survive entirely intact. The won’t be swinging from the lamposts, but look for something shaky and transitional like Zimbabwe’s messy on-again-off-again coalition government.

2. Israel will not bomb Iran.

Why: I have always found this possibility wildly overrated. The logistics are atrocious, the military value is mixed at best (b/c Iran has de-concentrated its nuclear program, unlike Iraq’s Osarik), the Americans oppose it, the Palestinians will go ballistic, it would save the mullahs from the own currently rebelling people.

3. Japan will disappoint everyone in Asia by doing more of the same – more moral confusion over WWII guilt and wasteful government spending that does nothing meaningful to reverse its decline.

Why: The DJP did not really get elected to change things, but more to make the status quo work again. The Japanese growth model was great until 1988, and then the Japanese locomotive just went off the rails. But I’ve seen no evidence of the socio-cultural revolution in attitudes toward consumption, education style, the construction industry, lifetime employment, government debt, etc. that means the Japanese public actually wants to reform Japanese social structures.  In fact, Hatoyama wants to roll back the one big change of the LDP in the last 20 years – the privatization of postal service cum government slush fund. On education, e.g., various Japanese figures have said for decades that the Asian mandarin system of memorization is rigorous and suffocating. (Koreans say the same.) But nothing has happened.

As for the apology tour everyone in Asia wants from Hatoyama? Forget it. Again, there is no public opinion data from Japan that suggests that Japanese really want a Willy Brandt-style Asienpolitik to heal wounds with China and Korea. East Asians still retain 19th C notions of race, and the Japanese are still tempted by the rightist spin on WWII that it saved Asia from white imperialism and brought modernity to Korea, China, and SE Asia. If Japan really apologizes – particularly to Koreans on whom they look down as weaker and backward – then a central myth in the conservative pantheon of Japanese race and history will shatter. The Japanese elderly and conservatives are not even close accepting this normative shift; there’d be riots in the streets.

4. North Korea won’t change at all.

Why: If there is one thing we all seem to expect all the time, but never happens, it’s this. Everyone has predicted the implosion of North since the early 1990s. The end of Soviet aid, the Chinese recognition of SK, the death of Kim Il Sung, the weakness of the playboy son Kim Jong Il, the famine, the placement on the axis of evil, Jong Il’s stroke – all were supposed to bring the much-prophesied end.

I see only one faint shred of evidence of movement –the pushback on the currency reform of December 2009. The regime sought to reign in private markets – emergent as an alternate food source after the 1990s famine – by dramatically shrinking the money supply. There has been resistance, especially in the Chinese border regions. But that Kim felt that he could simply roll back 10 years of under-the-radar marketization suggests how strongly the regime feels it is entrenched.

5. The US drawdown from Iraq will be softened, hedged and qualified to be a lot smaller than Obama seemed to promise.

Why: If there is one thing post-Saddam Iraq has always needed, its more US troops, not less. I agree that we seem to have turned a corner there. But Thomas Ricks seems worried, and I think he scoped Iraq’s problems better than anyone, including DoD under Bush. We are supposed to leave by August 31, 2010, but are they taking down those mega-bases we put up? Are the contractors pulling up stakes? If more contractors simply fill the US hole, isn’t that cheating? A fairer way to put it is that the US will be there in a different capacity – training, protecting, arming, flying, fighting (semi-publicly and less though) – kinda like the way we stayed in Vietnam even after Nixon and Laird declared Vietnamization. So, I will agree that US combat troops will shrink somewhat, but the US presence will stay massive, and I bet that combat troops will hang on for awhile under various escape-hatch provisions about ‘conditions on the ground’ and what not.

Does the US Need a Long-Term Exit from the Middle East?: 2. Iran

iran flag


In my last post, I suggested that maybe Afghanistan is a bridge too far. More generally after 8 years of the GWoT, I am starting to think the GWoT more generally is going that way too. I know it is vital for US security, but the costs are really starting to scare me, encouraging the isolationist hidden in every American: if they don’t want our help in Eurasia, fine – let them kill each other as they wish.

A friend went to hear a Council on Foreign Relations speaker on Iran – inevitably an ex-national security type. The speaker said we are leaving Israel in the wind to deal with Iran, and that the likelihood of an Israeli strike is rising faster than most people think. Here was my response.

“She sounds to me like your standard neo-con hawk actually – mixing analysis with policy preferences, trying to scare the hell out of the West with frightening scenarios that imply if only the US was tough and committed, this would not have happened. I think she reads the Kagans too much.

A few points:

1. Nuclear proliferation is inevitable. It’s already underway in Asia seriously. The US can’t bomb, sanction, invade all these places. We better find a way to live with this, instead of saying every time a proliferator is on the cusp that we should consider military force. That’s a recipe for forever war as the costs of nuclearization continue to come down.

2. Israel’s security is not America’s security. If they want to start a war with Iran, then that’s their issue. The US informal security guarantee to Israel cannot mean that we get chain-ganged into every conflict it wants to fight.

3. I think the likelihood of an Israeli strike is wildly overrated. They’re not stupid, and they know they are deeply isolated on this one. Israeli hawks are probably bluffing to encourage the US and UN to move more meaningfully on Iran. It’s the Richard Nixon ‘madman’ theory all over again: if Israel acts wild and erratic enough, maybe others will be spooked into doing something.

4. Iran with nukes is more dangerous, but let the locals balance/contain it first. It should not be our affair firstly.

5. We don’t really have much choice. Iran is genuinely committed to nuclearization, and Americans are unwilling to use serious force to stop that. So all we can really do is watch from the sidelines. Our hands are tied by a US public opinion that has been deeply anti-interventionist after Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Asked if I had suddenly become a dove on the GWoT:

“I don’t know. Maybe. But I think more that I am really beginning to worry about the costs of the war on terror. It goes on and on, and the US is bankrupt now, seriously, and really overstretched. We just cannot afford this stuff much longer – we’re becoming like Britain in the 30s or the USSR in the 80s. I can see the enthusiasm out here in the Chinese scholars I meet. They are relishing watching American fritter away its power running around the caves and deserts of the ME. Israel is our friend and should be, but the ME is becoming a sinkhole for US power. We desperately need Israel to find peace with its neighbors, or to cut it loose, because its exceptionalism is becoming just too expensive for the US now. We need to start seriously telling the Israelis that American support is not a blank check. If the Jewish religious right wants an apocalyptic war over the territories, and  to bomb Iran…, well, that’s just a bridge too far. Right now Iraq and Afghanistan are enough. Do we really need to risk a regional war between Israel and the US on one side, and Muslims on the other?  Increasingly, I am thinking we need a long-term out from the ME. It’s bankrupting the US. I don’t know. My thinking on the ME is in real flux; maybe because I am watching Asians get rich and strong while we are stumbling. The trend lines are just not good. The ME just seems so intractable, and it is becoming such a huge drain on the US.”

To the charge I might abandon Israel:

“Well, I am watching Asians get rich while we are hunting ghosts in the ME. The Chinese love this. They are watching the world’s only superpower blow its lead and fritter away its power in a probably vain effort to bring peace to the ME. It is becoming increasingly apparent that this is a fool’s errand. You must be thinking the same…”

Learning to Live with Asian Nuclear Proliferation – Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran…

Dr. Strangelove I worry about nuclear proliferation as much as anyone else, but the level of our hysteria over the creeping nuclearization of Asia is only met by our inability to do anything serious about it. I think it would be far more intelligent for us to start thinking seriously about strategy in a nuclearizing world. But we don’t; instead, we insist on a vision of nuclearization that ended decades ago when Israel became the first unofficial member of the nuclear club. Frequently we evoke nightmare images (‘a smoking gun in the shape of a mushroom cloud’) that scare the hell out of the West, but we have no palatable options to stop these programs. Slow but steady nuclearization increasingly seems likely beyond the ‘approved’ nuclear powers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So let’s get used to it and think about it differently.

I say this because it looks like the nuclear hysteria machine is gearing up again around Iran. You remember the last two iterations of this show – Iraq in 2002, and India and Pakistan in 1998. But short of Iraq-style invasions, which no one wants to repeat, it does not seem like there is much outsiders can do to stop a sovereign state’s determined nuclear drive. The technology is out there – the genie can’t go back in the bottle – and there are too many profiteers like North Korea or A. Q. Khan willing to sell nuclear technology. Further, we undermine the NPT regime when we look the other way on some states’ nukes (Israel, India) but flip out over others – Iran, Pakistan, NK.

We seem to have a cycle whereby we claim that ‘absolutely cannot tolerate’ Country X – especially with its dangerous record – with nuclear weapons. We write hyperventilating editorials like this and this. We create bloviating right-wing think-groups with scary names like the Committee on the Present Danger who tell us that WWIII or another 9/11, only with nukes this time, is around the corner! Then, we go to the UN Security Council to get some sanctions and what not, and then we go back again, and again, and then again. We hypocritically invoke the sacred NPT, even though the nuclear-haves have made no serious effort to meet their NPT obligations to the nuclear have-nots. Country X presses on anyway, because nuclear weapons, as de Gaulle famously said, are a prerequisite for great power status. Finally at some point, the CIA says Country X is 1-2 years away from weaponization, and we start talking about air strikes. If you think this sounds familiar, it should. We did this on NK in 1994 and then again after 9/11, Iraq in 2002-03, and today on Iran. At some point, I am sure Huge Chavez will say he needs nukes to defend the revolution against imperialism, and the US Senate will absolutely bananas. All we need to complete the show is an appearance by Dick Cheney to say that if there is even a 1% chance that Myanmar has weapons of mass destruction, we should bomb them. However the show ends with Country X getting the nukes after all, and no does anything because it is too scary, expensive, and unpopular at home.

If I sound cynical, it’s only because the reality is that we are in fact adjusting ourselves to an increasingly nuclear world. I don’t want these shady regimes to have nukes any more than anyone else, but, 1. what are we going to seriously do to stop them? and 2, it increasingly looks like we can slow their drives for awhile and contain their worst proliferation instincts.

1. Short of invading them or setting up an extremely strict UN cordon, it is nearly impossible to stop states committed to nuclearization. NK has proved this. It endured the worst (man-made) famine since the Great Leap Forward in the 1990s, but it still clawed its way into the nuclear club. We could attack incipient nuclearizers, but we tried that in Iraq, and it was a hugely unpopular disaster. No one is willing to invade NK or Iran or Pakistan simply over the nukes. The other alternative would be extremely tight UN sanctions to prevent the inflow of the parts and technology necessary. But the only serious UN cordon effort – of Iraq in the 1990s – failed badly, because the neighbors cheated so much, and because the cordon’s PR was atrocious. Saddam made the world think that Iraqi children were starving because of US/UN cruelty. So the sanctions were eased with the ‘Oil-for-Food’ program. But Saddam of course immediately pilfered that program, and, in UN HQ, ‘Oil-for-Food’ degenerated into corruption. In short, it is practically impossible to seal the nuclearizer off enough, and no one wants to go to war just over a nuclear program.

2. For as much as we worry about spiraling proliferation, we have managed to retard its spread, and more generally, we are learning to live with it. The new US Proliferation Security Initiative has helped contain NK nuclear technology. We bullied Kaddafi in 2004 into giving up any hopes of nukes or other weapons of mass destruction. Remember how the Indo-Pakistan nuclear competition was supposed to lead to rolling proliferation in Asia and the Middle East? That has not happened too much. We can get UN sanctions that will slow nuclear drives, even if total isolation is impossible.

In short, there are steps we can take to slow nuclearization and dampen proliferation. So the process need not occur too fast. We can buy time. But it increasingly it looks like we need to adjust to third world, particularly Asian, nuclearization. We need to start thinking about how to adjust beyond apocalyptic, all-or-nothing declarations about how we can never tolerate the spread of nukes and that military options need to ‘be on the table.’ That sort of  moralizing, black-white rhetoric encourages nuclearizers to buck up and stick it to the ‘empire’ for telling them what to do. Besides, we never follow up on these threats – it’s just too dangerous and democratically unpopular. So we just look foolish in the end.

Does State Hostage-Taking Work ?

An interesting quirk of authoritarian states’ foreign policies is a tendency to take western hostages when they wander onto their territory. Iran, China, and North Korea do this quite regularly. Burma too has gotten into the act lately.

Iran has repeatedly detained Iranian-Americans and journalists on all kinds of ridiculous charges like threatening the honor of Islam. Right now, it is holding three US hikers, who incredibly were hiking in Kurdistan and accidentally wandered into Iran. Call their destination choice a brain failure – a chronic disease among Americans traveling.

NK this year alone held two Americans for 3 months and a South Korean for 6. In the 1990s, after Tiananmen, China used to imprison Chinese-American human rights campaigners.

The first, most obvious question, is how these people wind up in these places. Usually, it is out of stupidity. It looks increasingly like Laura Ling and Euna Lee did in fact land, if only for a moment, on the NK side of the Yalu. And the American who swam to see Aung San Suu Kyi probably deserved some jail time or a fine. And the same goes for those hikers now held in Iran. Who goes back-packing for leisure along the Iran-Iraq border?! One can only imagine Bill Clinton or Jim Webb shaking their heads in disbelief when they are called upon to get these people out.

But there is a larger IR question here too. These accidental penetrations are usually mishaps or stupidity. So when they are convicted as ‘spies,’ it is almost always farcical, and the West knows it. This begs the question then, why do it? The process has become ritualized: arrest, followed by CNN & world news overexposure, then lots of backroom haggling, finally a trip by some dignitary to ‘win’ the release, concluding with a weird photo-op in-country, and then another overexposed media frenzy on the ‘prisoners’ return. (I heard Lara Ling is already looking for a book deal.) Here are a few thoughts why authoritarian states draw out this song-and-dance as much as possible:

1. The more closed your state is the more paranoid you become about any foreign intrusion, no matter how ridiculous, minor, or foolish. This is why the USSR was able to casually destroy KAL 007 in 1983, and Iran accused the BBC of sparking the recent post-election riots.

2. In the world of globalization and the Great Recession, no one really cares much for the bad behavior of NK or Burma. They are international headaches most of us like to forget about. So these sorts of incidents, with all their ritual, hysterical family outbursts, and Larry King interviews, are a great way for small, irrelevant states to garner rare global attention. Use whatever you’ve got to whip up a storm of attention. When China used to do this in the 1980s, China hands called it ‘gong-banging.’

3. Authoritarian states can simultaneously use these accidental intrusions for domestic prestige-taking. North Korea and other rabidly antiwestern regimes can periodically demonstrate to their own people the importance of the struggle against the US. This stuff helps justify the deprivation and international isolation.

4. Your can always garner a few nice concessions by trading these people back. If you are dirt-poor North Korea, you can trade SK or other hostages for all sorts of goodies – whiskey, dollars, cigarettes. If you are Iran, ask for spare parts for you collapsing industrial plant.

Lessons from Iran

Prediction in social science is d— difficult, but it is awfully easy to retrodict. Charles Kurzman makes the important point that when the outcome is clear in Iran in a few weeks or months, lots of ‘experts’ will say it was ‘inevitable.’ Excellent point against social science hubris. So, I will hazard my guess now, in advance:

1. These color revolutions, and their model, the Velvet Revolution, always seem to take us by surprise. Suddenly, previously apathetic populations explode and and waves of protestors hit the street. No one seems to be able to explain why quiescence so quickly collapses. This is terribly humiliating to the social sciences, because we strive to build theories that explain social action. Yet we seem to get it wrong time and again – particularly in identifying the social breakpoints which push populations from apathy into activism. The CIA has been criticized for years for wildly overestimating Soviet power in the 80s and having not even an inkling of the coming collapse. Even Paul Kennedy, one of the finest historians working today, assumed the USSR would survive into the 21st C. (And good prediction is why Nouriel Roubini is such a rock-star today.) We just don’t know nearly enough about the intersection of politics, psychology, and social mobilization. Nonetheless, the lesson I draw is that political apathy is ticking time-bomb. If you endlessly repress (and bore) your population, there will be a backlash. China and even, or perhaps especially, NK beware.

2. Stagnation and low growth seem to be a driver of these revolutions as much as freedom. Freedom is great, but so are mundane things like being able to travel or getting a cool, future-oriented job. Eastern Europeans didn’t just want liberalism, they wanted globalization – the fun hip, exciting lifestyle they saw filtering in on bootleg VHS or western TV shows. Who wants to work for some bland, grey, state-owned enterprise making soviet-model toasters? People would rather work for Yahoo or Intel and be connected the world and the future. That the China seems to be able to deliver this, where the Islamic Republic could not, is my guess why China seems more stable.

3. Autocracies are frequently terrible economic managers. East Asian states seem to be an exception to this, but even they have high levels of corruption and can become unexpectedly brittle (Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis). Ideologues who demand national, religious, or other principled ‘purity’ frequently must do so at the expense of cool, fun, modern global lifestyles. Who wants to be cut-off from the fun world of globalization, video games, HDTV, Starbucks, etc? Maybe the Amish or Haredim, but the vast majority of people hardly want to be constricted this way, or at the very least, they want to choose to be or not be so restricted. To the Amish’ credit, they at least allow their children a choice to stay or go. In these color revolutions, economic stagnation is usually combined with closed politics.

4. Foreign influence can energize these revolts, but not seriously participate. I think there was a W effect and an Obama effect that helped spur these movements. Both presidents spoke meaningfully about democracy (2005 & 2009), and both were followed by outburst of popular enthusiasm. That is a good correlation. Further outside attention can put the regime in the spotlight and so raise the costs a Tiananmen-style repression. But this hardly means it won’t happen. The best we can do is continue to talk about it in the press and keep attention on it. This will give the regime pause. But openly intervening is hard (these places are far way; what exactly would we do?). So part of the blame for the recent Iranian crackdown is the ADD-level attention span of cable news. Michael Jackson saved the mullahs. That’s globalization for ya’.

5. Islamic governance is not inevitable in the Middle East. The ME will always be the home of Islam. But Islamic politics is not the only way. Muslims clearly like more open politics, even if they do then vote for Islamists. Yes, Hamas got elected, and Turkey’s Islamists are reasonably successful. But then these parties must govern. Inevitably, they make mistakes, and in so far as they close politics to criticism, those mistakes will remain unaddressed, pile up, and exacerbate. When they screw up, there will be pressure from below for change. That Muslims vote for Islamist parties does not mean they want to never vote again, or live in an Islamist tyranny. The Iranian clerics confused the two. They saw the mundane rejection of the Shah as an apocalyptic endorsement for Islamic theocracy. So did Hamas. So to will the Islamist in Egypt if they ever tip Mubrarak. The trick is retain democracy while allowing Islamists to run. This is challenging. The US allows anti-systemic parties like nazis and communists to run. Germany, given it history of voting in the Nazis who then prohibited voting ever again, does not. Whether or not to allow parties who want to destroy democracies to run in deomcratic elections is tough question.

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.