GOP Foreign Policy Debate: Iran, Covert Ops, and Sanctions
Nov 14, 2011

GOP Foreign Policy Debate: Iran, Covert Ops, and Sanctions

While most of the CBS GOP Presidential Nomination debate on foreign policy in South Carolina was predictably following the standard script, there was one issue that somewhat surprised me. That is, the extent to which multiple candidates were very emphatically endorsing the use of covert operations to cause regime change. I will also look at the symmetry in belligerent comments surrounding Iran and the comments about the use of sanctions.

Green Movement in Iran
The two countries up for such regime change are the Assad regime in Syria and Ahmadinejad in Iran. The opposition protesters in Syria and the Green movement in Iran were to be supported by the covert ops, but beyond this there wasn't really any specification of what the covert ops were supposed to be. This should be seen as a very audacious and belligerent calling for covert attacks on another sovereign country.

Newt Gingrich went as far as openly talking about taking out scientists, presumably those working on nuclear weapons. I hadn't realized American polititians were able to openly talk about assassinating civilian scientists in other countries on national television. The key, he says, is that because it is covert ops these actions can be denied and disputed. One might wonder what good it is to maintain plausible deniability when one is openly calling for it.

In some sense, covert actions is almost the perfect way to attack Obama. Because the general public - and even expert analysts - have very little idea about what covert operations have actually occurred, Obama appears not to have much of a public record and so can be easily bashed for not doing enough. No matter how much he is or is not actually doing, the Republicans can easily attack him for not doing enough since nobody knows what he has done in this covert arena. Furthermore, covert action can sort of be presented as the be all and end all solution, capable of achieving almost anything. Need to end a nuclear program? Just use covert ops. Want to change a regime? Just use covert ops. It is the perfect black box solution to all of our enemies. Interestingly enough, when Pakistan is raised (presented by the GOP as half friend, half foe) there was not a peep about covert ops because Pakistan does not have the status as the epitome of evil towards which any and all actions is justified by that fact alone.

Personally, I think using covert ops to support the Green movement in Iran and the protesters in Syria is a horrible idea. Of course, it is a gross violation of the very concept of sovereignty and is quite likely to result in significant blowback in multiple ways. But perhaps more importantly, I want to see these movements - to which I express my enormous solidarity - achieve success on their own and not on the back of US foreign policy actions. It allows the movement to remain not corrupted and to achieve its own goals, not that of the US. In fact, I suspect they will be much more likely to succeed if the US doesn't get involved, because of the blowback that an association with the US will delegitimize the movement in the eyes of both the regimes and the public to which they need to appeal to for support.

A belligerent Iran? 
One of the central criticisms of Iran that is made by the hawks is that Iran often says all these really belligerent things. Ahmadinejad will stand before the UN General Assembly and deny that 9/11 or the Holocaust occurred, or they will write 'Death to America' on their rockets. Largely these things are said for their own political reasons because it engenders domestic and regional support for Ahmadinejad and Iran that they are standing up to the hated US power. As always, action speaks much louder than political minded rhetoric to which certain facts should be recalled such as the fact that Iran has never - not once since its inception - launched a war on another country.

Whatever one thinks of the dangers of Iranian rhetoric, I have long maintained that US and western rhetoric is actually just as belligerent as that of Iran, albeit perhaps slightly more subtle. Obama may say that he isn't taking military options off the table. Sure, it isn't 'Death to Iran', but it very explicitly is a direct threat from the world's largest superpower that they may choose to use their enormous military might to entirely end the current regime in Iran as they repeatedly have done in the past. While it is spoken in a reserved and subtle way, it is backed by an extensive history and the reality that they have the power and perhaps the motivation to do just this. Indeed, the recent leaks that Israel has been planning a military strike against Iran demonstrates just how real these threats are and we should never pretend for a moment that Iran is being asymmetrically more belligerent than we are being.

So when the Presidential candidates talk on an public forum being watched by millions of people in such a belligerent manner it should receive the same criticism we would level if others were saying it about us. They are talking about using direct covert attacks and assassinations to end the nuclear program and to work with the Green movement which ostensibly would lead to regime change in Iran. If the nuclear program doesn't work out, then a military attack on Iran is supposed to be the obvious end result with the candidates tripping over each other to see who can say this most forcibly. This is a level of warmongering not really seen since the 2003 run up to the Iraq war.

Ironically, Mitt Romney made the same point that McCain made about Pakistan back in the 2008 debates towards Obama saying that a Presidential debate was not the right forum to announce plans for unilateral strikes into another country. Perhaps this is very true. Yet, much of the stage including himself had just announced plans for regime change through covert ops on just such a public forum. It is worth noting that since getting elected, Obama did end up committing a massive escalation of the drone war in Pakistan including helicopter strike teams to take out Osama bin Laden. As in, if they are willing to say it in a nomination debate, they are probably going to be willing to do just that.

The idea of increasing sanctions on these purportedly evil regimes was, like covert ops before it, seen as a sort of cure all solution. If only Obama had taken tougher sanctions against Iran and Syria then these countries would be behaving properly. Unfortunately, reality is a little bit different. Firstly, sanctions are crippled by the fact that unilateral sanctions are rarely effective and it is hard to get important countries like China and Russia on board. Very often, US unilateral sanctions just results in the shifting of the Iranian economy more towards Russian and Chinese dependency, which is hardly helpful. Regardless, sanctions against Iran have actually been very substantial.

Secondly, the major thing which is not sanctioned is oil, which none of the candidates mentioned. As long as Iran can sell its oil, it will be do perfectly fine. One can do targeted sanctions to prevent military and nuclear equipment from coming into the country, but beyond that anything more general is just going to hurt the people and entrench dependency on the regime. We saw the miserable failings of the Oil For Food sanctions regime against Iraq during the nineties which by UN estimates saw the death of perhaps a half million children under the age of four as a result of these sanctions. I hardly think a repetition of that here is a good idea.

Thirdly, it doesn't necessarily work. Enormous sanctions regimes have been levied on countries like Cuba and North Korea for four decades with no change in regime (and, undoubtedly, much covert work done as well). The Oil For Food program in Iraq didn't succeed in regime change, it just entrenched Saddam Hussein and led to the second Iraq war. For more on sanctions, read my previous post here.

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