Michael Ledeen: “regime change” for Iran, Syria

Noting the rise of Islamist Shi’ites to power in Iraq, we recently asked Is Iran the real winner? One who seems to think so is Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute. In the Nov. 30 National Review Online, he takes the Bush administration on for retreating from the maximalist necon agenda to reshape the Middle East. He especially accuses US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad of a “policy of preemptive embrace of our announced enemies.”

The war in Iraq was waged against an evil regime run by (minority) Sunnis. The object of Operation Iraqi Freedom, oft stated by the president and his Cabinet secretaries, was the overthrow of Saddam and the liberation of the Iraqi people. We have repeatedly promised to create the first democracy in the Arab Middle East, in which a constitution will protect the rights of the people, and the people will elect their own leaders.

Most of the establishment in the Muslim Middle East hates this idea, because, if implemented regionally, it would remove every current leader. The royal families, Baathists, and mullahs vastly prefer the kind of dictatorship imposed on the Iraqi people by Saddam and his (Sunni) Tikritis. They have been the Sunnis’ biggest and boldest lobbyists, constantly issuing outrageously meddlesome statements from their own capitals and from meetings of the colossal failure known as the Arab League. They don’t want democracy. They want the big guys to call the shots, and they want the Iraqi Sunnis to have power far beyond their real political strength.

Incredibly, they have convinced the American government to do just that.

Throughout the constitutional negotiations, the Sunnis repeatedly found support from Khalilzad and his colleagues in the embassy, the State Department, and the National Security Council. They made a big deal out of the relatively high level of Sunni participation in the referendum, even though the Sunnis came within a whisker of defeating the Constitution itself. This, even though the Shiites and Kurds were routinely murdered and tortured during the Saddam years, and even though they constitute the overwhelming majority of Iraqis.

What the Sunnis need, really, is a lesson in minority democratic politics. They need to understand that they only way they are going to get meaningful national power (they are guaranteed considerable regional authority thanks to the federalist constitution) is by forming alliances and coalitions, by effective political advocacy, and by demonstrating the will and capacity to act on behalf of all Iraqis. Our little exercise in holding the losers’ clammy hands sends precisely the wrong lesson. We are telling them that they can get our largesse just by whining, they don’t have to prove their worthiness first. We should have asked for Sunni cooperation against the terrorists before we supported them in the constitutional debates. But that would have been the “old way” of doing things: insisting on surrender before trotting out the aid programs.

The same holds in our as-yet undefined policy towards Iran, which is arguably the most important single component of the war against terrorism (this follows logically from the uncontested fact that Iran is the world’s biggest supporter of international terrorism). While the president has made many statements about the evils of the mullahcracy in Tehran, he has not only failed to carry out any action against the Islamic republic, he has repeatedly authorized unannounced meetings with Iranian representatives, in a futile effort to work out some kind of deal by which Iran would promise to limit its support for terrorism, especially inside Iraq, and we would promise, or hint, or imply, that we wouldn’t attempt to support democratic revolution in Iran. These talks have been going on throughout the five years of Bush the Younger, many of them under the auspices of Ambassador Khalilzad, whose conversations with the mullahs have now been publicly acknowledged and formally approved.

It’s hard to imagine what President Bush expects to gain from this little announcement, or indeed from talks with the Iranians. The last time Ambassador Khalilzad went in for extended talks with the mullahs, he produced a triumph of unnecessary appeasement: the proclamation that Afghanistan would be called an “Islamic republic.” It seemed to me at the time that this was not at all what the president had had in mind, but it seems to me now that I was clearly wrong. For if W. really intended to take a stand against the Iranian regime, he would not have approved Khalilzad’s (shameful, in my view) preemptive surrender to Iran’s most important diplomatic goal, nor would he have rewarded Khalilzad by sending him to Baghdad, nor would he approve of the public announcement of a new round of talks with the mullahs.

But the Islamic republic will never do anything to help us, or our soldiers, or our allies. The Iranians themselves have no doubt of their role in the contemporary world: They see themselves as our gravediggers. “Following the downfall of Communism, today, only Islam stands against America’s imperialism,” says Yahya Safavi, the head of the Iranian national-security Council. And he means it.

All of this preemptive appeasement inevitably weakens the forces of democratic revolution in the Middle East and elsewhere, as it greatly cheers the tyrants who, just a few months ago, were seriously considering the best place to take early retirement. The president seems to have bought into all the worst slogans of the State Department and the CIA: Stability is more important than revolution, exit strategy trumps victory, and so on. It may get him love letters from Foggy Bottom, and maybe even benign treatment from the New York Times, but it will also get him new attacks, both in Iraq and elsewhere (most certainly including our own country), and it will fuel a new counterrevolution that will make our mission far more perilous.

Remember Churchill’s great judgment on Chamberlain at Munich: He had a choice between war and dishonor; he chose dishonor, and got war.

Bush should not want those terrible words to define his second term, but he is certainly moving in that direction right now.

In his Nov. 23 column in NRO, Ledeen emphasized a political path to regime change in Iran and Syria, drawing an analogy to Solidarity in Poland, the anti-Milosevic opposition in Yugoslavia and the People Power movement in the Philippines (bizarrely, given US support of Marcos). Does this mean he does not support bringing the war to Iran and Syria? He equivocates, of course, implying maybe actual military intervention could have been avoided if only the White House had listened to him:

In 2002, I argued that our first move against the terror masters should be to give political and economic support to the Iranian people in their efforts to topple the mullahcracy. At that time, the streets of the country’s major cities were filled with demonstrators almost every week. Had the democratic opposition received the same kind of help we gave to Solidarity in Poland, the anti-Milosevic forces in Yugoslavia, and the anti-Marcos movement in the Philippines, the mullahs might have been brought down then and there, thus making the war against Saddam, the Assads, and the pro-terrorist elements of the Saudi Royal Family much easier, and greatly reducing the requirement for military power. A strategy of actively supporting democratic revolution throughout the region was precisely what President Bush proposed, and it made good historical sense: It was of a piece with the dramatic spread of freedom in recent decades, including the defeat of the Soviet Empire.

It was objected that such a revolutionary mission was far too ambitious, and that prudence required us to move carefully, one case at a time, all the while mending our diplomatic fences with friends, allies, and undecideds. But, as so often happens, the “prudent” strategy proved more dangerous. Moving step by step — first Iraq, then we’ll see — gave the surviving terror masters time to organize their counterattack before we liberated Iraq, and, as I predicted, the extra time was also used to develop the weapons of mass destruction that rightly concern us, and give urgency to our cause.

The long period of dawdling after the defeat of the Taliban, along with the failure of strategic vision that blinded us to the regional nature of the war, enabled the terror masters to develop a collective strategy, for which we were famously unprepared. Yet there was no excuse for us to be surprised, since, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad announced publicly that a terror war would be unleashed against us inside Iraq. That terror war would be modeled on the successful campaign against American forces in Lebanon in the mid-eighties. And so it was, including the Syrian-Iranian (Sunni-Shiite) alliance, often using Saudi jihadi volunteers.

Like it or not, we are in a regional war, and it cannot be effectively prosecuted within a narrow national boundary. There will never be decent security in Iraq so long as the tyrants in Tehran and Damascus remain in power. They know that the spread of freedom is a terrible threat to them, and that if there were a successful democratic Iraq, their power and authority would be at risk. That is why they are waging an existential war against us in Iraq.

It is virtually impossible to read the daily press without finding at least some further evidence of the Syrians’ and the mullahs’ deep involvement in the terror war in Iraq, and the Iranians are up to their necks in Afghanistan as well. Several weeks ago Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that playing defense against the terrorists in his country wasn’t good enough. Karzai stressed that we need to take the fight to those foreign countries where the terrorists are trained, which certainly includes Iran. There is abundant information about joint Iranian/Syrian support for the terrorists in Iraq, even including photographs captured after the battle for Hilla last year, which showed terrorist leaders meeting in Syria with Iranian and Syrian military intelligence officials. This was confirmed to me by a translator who worked for U.S. special forces during and after the fighting, who also read documents with similar information in both Hilla and Fallujah.

Our most potent weapon against the terror masters is revolution, yet we are oddly feckless about supporting pro-democracy forces in either country. Nor is there any sign of support for the Iranian workers, who just last month staged a brief national strike. Workers need a strike fund to walk off the job and stay at home, a lesson mastered by Ayatollah Khomeini, who sent sacks of rice all over the country in the weeks leading up to massive strikes against the shah in 1979. The opposition groups need good communications tools, from cell and satellite phones to laptops and servers. It wouldn’t be very difficult to organize this sort of support; it wasn’t that hard in the eighties, when we did the same for Solidarity and other democratic forces in the Soviet Empire.

Alas, we have no policy to support regime change in Tehran or Damascus. Indeed, there is no policy at all, four long years after 9/11. A State Department official recently assured me that there were regular meetings on Iran, although there is still no consensus on what to do. Whether this is paralysis or appeasement is hard to say, but it is certainly no way to wage a war on terror.

He ends by urging:

Active support of the democratic forces in the Middle East would be the right policy, even if there were no terror war, and even if Iran were not a shallow breath away from atomic weapons. It is what America is all about.

Faster, confound it.

So this raises the perennial question: how do we offer support for heroic dissidents in Syria and Iran without playing into neocon conspiracies? Maybe we should get to these dissidents with an offer of meaningful solidarity first, before they are co-opted. Or are we traitors for even entertaining this possibility?

The inimitable Michael Ledeen has been a supporter of a monarchist restoration in Iran. He helped broker secret Israeli arms deals for Oliver North in the 1985 Contragate scandal. In August 2002 he wrote in NRO: “One can only hope that we turn the region into a cualdron, and faster, please. That’s our mission in the war against terror.

See our last post on Iraq.