I'm currently debating how the Iranian elections will affect the United States' engagement strategy for a forthcoming piece, and as I do, reading George Packer's thoughts. Packer is a fine writer and reporter and moreover takes a personal responsibility for his stories that is striking, but this line in his post seems like a transparent straw man:

Some advocates of negotiation seem to think that the resistance and stupidity have all been on our side — that if only America showed a little respect for Iran, called it by its rightful name of “Islamic Republic,” stopped talking about carrots and sticks (which Iranians associate with donkeys), then Iran’s rulers would be glad to start talking. It turns out that they have more to fear from talk than we do—in fact, at the moment it’s hard to know exactly what they have to gain by it and a lot easier to see what they have to lose. ... Perhaps they have a keener sense of their own interests than American commentators, so obsessed with America’s own behavior, imagined.

Which advocates have made that claim, please? I've seen arguments that changes in policy, among them dropping preconditions, will bring Iran to the table, but I've never read any advocate of engagement claim that "a little respect" would motivate Iran to negotiate. Packer may follow these issues closer than I, but if he can't identify actual people who make such statements, he should stop tarring proponents of engagement as blame-America types. It's the kind of comment normally reserved for right-wingers who falsely claim that the president expects immediate results from his initial diplomatic outreach and pillory him when there are no sudden changes in other countries' behavior.

His post does raise important ideas about the balance of realism and idealism that should be present in a liberal foreign policy, but as I wrote earlier, it's not clear that getting American policymakers involved in this process would be helpful for the Iranian opposition or for the United States. Given the vagueness of Packer's suggestions, it's unclear to me that the United States hasn't already done what Packer wanted in condemning the post-election violence and supporting efforts to ensure the election is fair. We'll likely hear more from the president at 5 p.m. when he appears with, Lord have mercy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for a press conference.

Update: Packer e-mails me to note that there was an example of the kind of argument he criticizes included in the post, this New York Review of Books article. After reading it, I still don't think that Packer's characterization of engagement proponents was accurate -- the piece offers a lot more than arguments for cultural sensitivity. Nor does it let Iran off the hook for its negative actions, although the piece's structure as a hypothetical U.S. policy to-do list doesn't really allow for extensive criticism of the regime. Do read the piece and make your judgment.

-- Tim Fernholz

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