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.