The Biggest Cliche of All: 'Hard-Liners Waiting in the Wings'

You’ve heard the argument before, perhaps the single most-used foreign-policy cliché: “if we don’t work with the current regime — totalitarian, authoritarian, or otherwise repressive as it is — the hard-liners waiting in the wings will take over, and things will be much worse for the United States.”


It has, of course, been used most in recent times about Iran, especially after the election of the so-called “moderate” Hassan Rouhani. A staff member of the leading American apologist group for Iran, the National Iranian American Council, puts it this way:

Reza Marashi, research director of the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group that supports the nuclear talks, said it is political suicide for any Iranian official to accept no enrichment. Tehran’s hard-liners would accuse them of capitulation to the United States and Israel.

The logic is clear: if those warlike neo-cons argue that the deal favored by President Obama is not acceptable, and if we don’t allow the regime in Iran to continue with enrichment, the real bad guys will win the argument in Iran — and then there is no hope for keeping Iran from getting the bomb.

(For an answer to the claims about Rouhani, read Sohrab Ahmari, here and here.)

Here is the argument again, presented most succinctly in an article by Harvard professor Matthew Bunn. He is also an advisor to the White House on nuclear issues. In his “Deal weakens Iran’s hard-liners and strengthens U.S. interests,” Professor Bunn writes that those who argue the deal with Iran actually increases Iran’s chances of getting a nuclear weapon are “ … wrong. With this deal in place, it will be much harder for hard-liners in Iran to argue that Iran should tear up its agreements and build a bomb.”

We’ve also heard the argument recently regarding Russia and its aggression against Ukraine. Gregory Feifer explains:


Despite Putin’s challenge to European values and security, a rising tide of commentary is urging Western leaders to moderate their response, arguing that sanctions would have little effect, that they’re not in their interests, or both. After all, the logic goes, Moscow says it’s not interested in invading eastern Ukraine.

For a rebuttal, in yesterday’s New York Times, Alexey A. Navalny — who ran for mayor of Moscow as a pro-reform opposition candidate, and is now under house arrest for his criticism of the Putin government — writes the following:

There is a common delusion among the international community that although Mr. Putin is corrupt, his leadership is necessary because his regime subdues the dark, nationalist forces that otherwise would seize power in Russia.

The argument that we can’t assert our values and defend American interests because it will hurt the moderates in adversary countries has always been false, and yet, it has been used way back in the early days of the 20th Century.

He is correct: during research for the book my wife and I are writing about the presidency of Warren G. Harding, we came across a letter written on Jan. 12, 1921 to Harding by Bruce Bliven, then managing editor of a New York City paper, The Globe. He was soon to become an editor of the “progressive” magazine of opinion The New Republic. Bliven told the president that he learned from the paper’s reporters, who were “in close touch with the Russian situation,” that the time had come for U.S. policy to change, and for the new administration to offer diplomatic recognition to the still young Bolshevik revolutionary government.


Russia’s government, Bliven wrote:

… is being subject to extreme pressure to persuade it to move toward the left. … we have reason to believe that Lenin and Trotzky, (sic) in spite of the fact that they are regarded in America as irreconcilable radicals, are now regarded by many of the Russians as not being radical enough; as being almost “middle of the roaders.”

Indeed, Bliven claimed that waiting in the wings was “an extremely radical and bitter organization” in Petrograd, and that unless we did what Lenin and Trotsky wanted, they would likely gain power in Russia.

Bliven further wrote:

If this group should, as now seems very likely, gain control of the Russian government during the next few months, the results would be disastrous from the point of view of the allies and the United States. This radical group has only one purpose: the overthrow of all the capitalistic governments everywhere and the setting up of communist governments in their place. The radicals would reject any proposition to trade with Western powers. It is obvious that under these circumstances the allied governments would have only one alternative which would mean a complete blockade of Russia and unremitting war against its government. The amount of suffering which this would entail about an already anguished world makes it an alternative to be viewed with the greatest apprehension.

Bliven urged Harding to work with the “more liberal and even conservative group” led by Lenin and Trotsky that understood that even a communist regime needs to maintain relations with Western powers, and to compromise with them. This liberal group, he wrote, “is now largely in control of the Soviet government.”


Bliven recommended that President Harding be both “intelligent” and  “statesmanlike,” and act to “strengthen the hands of the liberals in Russia and prevent a catastrophe.” Recognition of the Soviet regime, he assured the president, would lead to the Soviets acting to “modify [its] scheme of things to a considerable degree” and would “almost certainly result in a victory for the liberals.”

Of course, Bliven told the president that he wrote because of his “patriotic interest in safeguarding the welfare of America.”

Harding, of course, ignored Bliven’s advice, and correctly continued the policy of non-recognition of the Soviet regime. As for Bliven, as the British conservative historian Paul Johnson has written, “it is not surprising that Bliven went on, in the 1930s, to become a credulous propagandist for the Communist-run Popular Front.”

Looking at Bliven’s argument from our present-day perspective, one can see how foolish and ill-informed his advice was.

The Soviet regime was at the time well in control of the first-generation Bolshevik leaders, led by Lenin and Trotsky, both of whom ruthlessly advanced Soviet power and crushed any possible opposition stemming from the remaining Mensheviks, anarchists, and even revolutionary sailors, soldiers, and workers who dared to turn against Bolshevik leaders in the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921.

It was the leaders who always were in control of Russia, not a mythical hard-line group waiting in the wings, that sought to advance the Red Army to Poland’s borders; worked in the West to foment revolt in countries like Hungary, where a short-lived Bolshevik regime under Bela Kun was set up in 1919; and did what it could to create unrest as far from its shores as possible, including support of revolutionary agitation in Britain and the United States.


Yet in our own day, the pundits who have followed in Bruce Bliven’s footsteps use the same arguments and analogies as he offered as advice in 1921, brought up to date to be used when deciding what policy to pursue with regimes like Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

When will they ever learn from the past?


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