Back in 2002, the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a book by Kenneth Pollack (subsequently director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Studies at Brookings), entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. The book argued that Saddam Hussein was irrational and undeterrable and that the United States had no choice but to remove him from power. Part of the book’s effectiveness derived from Pollack’s portrayal of himself as a belated convert to preventive war: he had opposed using force in the past, he said, but was now convinced—oh so reluctantly—that no other course was prudent. The book provided intellectual cover for all those liberal hawks who were looking for some way to justify supporting the war, and thus played an important role in a great national disaster.
Last week, CFR president Richard Haass appeared to be channeling his inner Pollack in a Newsweek column calling for regime change in Iran. Describing himself as a “card-carrying realist,” he sounded Pollackian notes of reluctance and resignation. He says that he normally thinks that “ousting regimes and replacing them with something better is easier said than done,” and adds that he previously backed the Obama administration’s decision to try diplomacy first.
But now, he says, he’s “changed his mind.” He’s convinced that Iran is trying to acquire the capacity to build a nuclear weapon (a carefully worded phrase, by the way, as having the capacity to build a nuke is not the same as actually building one and Iran may merely be seeking a latent capacity akin to Japan rather than an actual nuclear arsenal). He also thinks — from his lofty perch in New York City — that Iran “may be closer to profound political change than at any other time since the revolution that ousted the Shah thirty years ago.” Although he doesn’t call for a U.S. invasion (which we don’t have the forces for anyway), he wants the U.S. and its allies to be more vocal about Iranian human rights violations and advocates slapping targeted sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Meanwhile, neither senior U.S. officials nor congressmen should have any dealings with the Iranian regime, and we ought to push hard for sanctions on refined petroleum products at the U.N. (where they won’t be approved). Somewhat inconsistently, he thinks “working-level negotiations on the nuclear question should continue,” even though he must know that there’s hardly any chance that they will succeed while we are doing all the other things he advocates.