DEBACLE: The American Failure in Iran by Michael & William Lewis Ledeen
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DEBACLE: The American Failure in Iran

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The debate over ""who lost Iran?"" may be just beginning, but Washington Quarterly editor Ledeen and George Washington University Mideast specialist Lewis are already on the scene with an indictment of Jimmy Carter's ""human rights"" approach to foreign policy. They run through a brief history of Iran that takes a tough view of Reza Shah and his son--not so much to discredit the pair, however, as to place their repressive actions in the double context of traditional authoritarianism and the problems of leadership-for-modernization. (When they point to SAVAK's tortures and murders, they note that conditions are even worse in Syria and Iraq.) Their argument leans heavily on a tenuous--and dubiously applied--distinction between ""authoritarian"" and ""totalitarian"" regimes. A totalitarian state, they say (more or less conventionally), is one in which structures of repression and total power are institutionalized; an authoritarian state, on the other hand, is the product of a single, or even several, individuals, and could potentially become less repressive with the passing of the man, or men, at the top. In the authoritarian category they lump the USSR, Cuba, China, Vietnam, etc.; the authoritarian states are our ""allies""--like Chile, South Korea, and, under the Shah, Iran. The lesson that Ledeen and Lewis draw, questionably, is that a foreign policy that seeks to advance human rights must aim at totalitarian states, because they are the bigger problem. Accusing Cyrus Vance, Harold Brown, Leslie Gelb, Anthony Lake, and other shapers of Carter's foreign policy of suffering from the ""Vietnam syndrome,"" they also maintain that reduced CIA information-gathering in Iran, along with inaccurate reporting by former ambassador Richard Helms, blinded Washington to the fragility of the Shah's power. By pressuring this ""authoritarian"" on human rights at the expense of ""national security interests,"" the Carter administration and the State Department do-gooders toppled a potentially reformable regime and created a totalitarian one. Ledeen and Lewis are not blind Pahlavi partisans (they accuse him of not creating a political structure to go with his ""White Revolution""); but they begin with the assumption that he was better than the Ayatollah--and not necessarily liable, for internal reasons, to fall. The book, foreshadowed by a piece in Washington Quarterly, will undoubtedly get much attention. But the search for scapegoats is more than a little reminiscent of the to-do over ""who lost China?"" a few decades back; and the American role--the total, long-run American role--is much more judiciously set forth in Barry Rubin's Paved with Good Intentions (1980).

Pub Date: April 21st, 1981
Publisher: Knopf