Sullivan on Bipartisan Policy on Iran

Andrew Sullivan links to the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Recent Report on Iran-US relations.

Sullivan is against bombing and for engagement but his interpretation at the end I find wanting:

My core belief is that the Iranian people are on our side. The key is to somehow leverage them against their repulsive regime. It’s going to be very hard and very treacherous. But it’s the biggest national security challenge facing the next president.

It’s certainly true that the Iranian population (even post-Iraq) is the most pro-American population in the Middle East.  They are not Arabs, have a separate history and culture, have strong ties to the US via ex-pat families in the US (US pop culture is strong in Iran).

But Sulllivan goes astray when he states that the key is to “leverage” the population against the regime.  Granted the regime is repulsive and abhorrent.  But people do not exist for them to be used as leverage for our goals.  Especially in this case.  Nothing would more quickly hurt the chances of indigenous Iranian reformers than being seen as a fifth column for the US.

The issue is to deal with the regime, to see if the 30 years of bad blood (the hostages, the CIA murdering their president/overthrowing their government/backing the brutal Shah) can be buried.  The regime is given a clear choice between change of behavior and good to come from it (i.e. regime change off table, entrance into world banking system, recognition of their role as regional power, esp. in Iraq) OR war.

If you want sanctions, then target them at the big wigs, the elites with the military-industrial-clerical complex that is Iran.  Don’t target the population.  Putting the squeeze on them is not likely to start a revolution against the regime.  The regime is embedded very deeply.  They have to be dealt with and then a policy of containment, connectivity, and watch the system collapse.

And #2 contra Sullivan, the biggest national security threat facing the next president is Pakistan (not Iran) in terms of foreign policy and domestically possible catastrophic cascading failure in the economic sector leading to massive violence in the streets and/or the possibility of security breakdowns around non-linear climate events.


A comparison of this Andrew Sullivan and this Ross Douthat post re: Palin is an instructive exercise. I find myself more on the Sullivan side–particularly this dangerous emphasis on strength and truthiness (which even Ross finds disquieting), i.e. the Dubya-ization of the Republican Party/our politics.

I think relative to Ross’ point about how the real Anakin Palin is in there (the reformer) whose only been turned Vader-esque by the Emperor McCain (or is it Steve Schmidt?) and can still be saved, I’d half agree.

Namely she strikes me as a careerist pol. She is uber-ambitious and seems to me willing to do whatever/say whatever she needs to do to get power. So IF the kind of party/reformist agenda Douthat advocates (and I generally support–at least on heterodox economic views) were to become electorally viable and the Republican Party after having a lost were open to such a shift in order to re-gain power, then I can absolutely see Palin becoming that kind of politician/voice. But I don’t think it’s because that’s who she really is deep down more just because that is what would be in her political interest to do. And she could pull it off given her life story, it would look legit, so all the better. I tend to think she ran her reformer/anti-Republican corruption campaign in Alaska because she screwed over for her spot in the party machinery–i.e. she should be a Federal Senator right now.

On a broader note, I’ve been getting more new readers of late discussing these topics, (welcome folks!!!) so for the benefit of those (or anyone who doesn’t know) I’ll say that while I have a deep affection for a number of conservative philosophers and thinkers (both historical and current blogger types), I’m in the Andrew SullivanJohn Cole school re: The Republican Party. Namely that it is a poison in the political body and that it should die a horrible death so that it can become resurrected (hopefully) as a party of serious human beings who are not driven by gut-instinct, ideology, put short term political gain over a serious proposal for governance of the country relative to the actual problems of today (as opposed to say the ones of the 1970s). And while I disagree with the Democrats on a number of points, I’ll take them over the alternative at this point. They’ll screw some things up to be sure, but I have no sense they can f–k up as badly as the Republicans have and will in my mind continue to do under a McCain-Palin administration.

Edit I:  While the stuff about Trig was out of bounds imo, I generally agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that last night’s Palin interview validated some of Sullivan’s key points vis a vis Palin and countered the charge of him being (on the whole) hysterical.

Published in: on September 12, 2008 at 1:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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Smithian Expansion on a Douthian Retort to Sullivanian Musings on Warrenism

Intra-Atlantic blogging to the hilt on this one.

Andrew quotes the following passage from Rick Warren’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. This is Warren speaking:

I believe in the separation of church and state, but I do not believe in the separation of politics from religion. Faith is simply a worldview. A person who says he puts his faith on the shelf when he’s making decisions is either an idiot or a liar. It’s entirely appropriate for me to ask what is [the Presidential candidates’] frame of reference.

Sullivan opines:

The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs, is based on idiocy or lies? I wonder if Warren has ever read Locke, or Hobbes, or Machiavelli or would even understand the term secularism if it knocked him square off his pedestal.

To which Douthat comments:

You know, I can pretty much guarantee that Andrew has read a lot more of Locke, Hobbes and Machiavelli than Rick Warren – and of any relevant political philosopher you care to name, for that matter. Yet oddly, the bumptious Warren seems to have a stronger grasp of what separation of church and state has actually meant in the American political tradition, both historically and philosophically, than my vastly more erudite colleague.

I think Douthat is correct in that assessment. But there’s another (deeper?) problem with Sullivan. Back to a piece of the Sullivan quote for a sec (my emphasis):

The entire basis for Western secular government, which rests on the capacity of people to distance absolute truth from political affairs

If I’m reading him correctly that means religion offers absolute truth. If that were the case then I can see Sullivan’s fear of Christianism, Islamism, or any kind of Religion-ism in public affairs. [Militant secularism (as opposed to simply secular governance) would also fit this mold and one could argue Sullivan is pushing down that road.]

But the point is that an absolute truth is poisonous to pluralist secular society because it is uncriticizable and therefore can be imposed over a pluralistic society with no recourse to defend dissenting viewpoints, whether of a different religious persuasion than the majority or of a non-religious nature as such.

I however don’t think religion offers absolute truth. Or if you prefer in a less theologically suspect way our human ability to understand revelation and its embodiment in religion (not limited to but definitely including ethics) is always flawed and imperfect. The practical result of which is more or less the same.

Sullivan is here (again if I’m understanding him correctly) assuming the same call it “metaphysical status understanding” of religion as the fundamentalists. The both assume religion offers absolute truth–and in this case specifically a certain kind of Christianity as that religion.

There are a number of problems with the notion of religion as providing absolute truth. 1)It’s excessively cognitivist (i.e. faith is a set of mental beliefs or picture representations about how things really are) 2)Whose religion is the absolute one? And how do we tell?

But if one were to not hold religion as providing absolute truth then it would seem the fears of it entering public discourse would abate, no? Assuming of course the religion in question were willing to accept the basic parameters of a secular state that does not choose sides in terms of life goals/views between religious and non-religious persons and that the religion if brought into the public sphere and deployed to justify a certain position is open to being publicly challenged and not assuming it has privileged space because of its religious background.

[Interesting in this regard that Warren said faith–not religion–is a worldview not the worldview.]

Or to broaden Douthat’s point, it’s not just in America where this tradition holds (though strongest there to be sure). I read this passage this morning (coincidentally right before reading Sullivan’s post) from atheist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and I thought it appropriate:

It [religion in a secular society] is expected to adopt a self-reflexive critical stance towards the limits of enlightenment. The conception of tolerance of pluralistic liberal societies not only requires believers to recognize that they must reasonably reckon with the persistence of disagreement in their dealings with non-believers and members of other faith. The same recognition is also required of unbelievers in their dealings with believers in a liberal political culture…

The neutrality of state power vis a vis different worldviews, which guarantees equal individual liberties for all citizens, is incompatible with the political generalization of a secularized worldview. Secular citizens, in their role as citizens, may neither deny that religious worldviews are in principle capable of truth nor question the right of their devout fellow-citizens to couch their contributions to public discussions in religious language. A liberal political culture can even expect its secular citizens to take part in the efforts to translate relevant contributions from religious language into a publicly intelligible language.”
(italics in original, boldface mine)

–pp.112&113, Between Naturalism and Religion, Jurgen Habermas.

This is part and parcel of what Habermas (and others) calls post-secular society.

Habermas writes:

In the post-secular society, the conviction is gaining ground that the “modernization of public consciousness” affects and reflexively transforms religious and secular mentalities, though not simultaneously. Both sides can then take each other’s contributions to controversial public debates seriously for cognitive reasons as well, assuming that they share an understanding of the secularization of society as a complementary learning process. (emphasis and quotation in original).” –Habermas, p.111

In other words, Sullivan is treading dangerously close to if not outright falling into a serious “pre-post fallacy”. Namely that a post-secular understanding of the role of religious and secularist mentalities in a secular society is inherently a return to a pre-secular understanding (i.e. a return to religious theocratic rule). Now, to be fair, in the US context, the potential danger of the latter (pre-secular theocratic) is strong and should not be underestimated–at least in certain geographic regions.

But Warren’s attempt at this civility conference might be pointing towards a post-secular (complementary) process. Might not, have to see how it plays out. But I don’t think it should be prejudged nor the former (post-secular) is possible and even exists in certain pockets.

Edit I: In the other half of his post Sullivan takes aim at Warren’s views on foreign policy and there I think, Andrew’s critique is more on target.