A Correction for Michael Ledeen

I owe a correction to Michael Ledeen whose post on pajamasmedia.com last week accused me of misrepresenting the reasons for his opposition to a military attack on Iran. He objected in particular to a paragraph I wrote in a recent IPS article on the growing clamor among neo-cons and other hawks for preparing such an attack, in which I grouped him the views of his former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin. I had written:

“Since the Jun. 12, 2009 disputed elections and the emergence of the opposition Green Movement in Iran, a few neo- conservatives, notably Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Michael Ledeen of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), have argued that a military attack could prove counter-productive by rallying an otherwise discontented – and possibly rebellious – population behind the regime.”

“I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe I ever wrote or said it,” Ledeen wrote in response. “I really can’t imagine that those Iranians who are risking their careers, their limited freedoms and all too often their lives, will rally round the hated regime when somebody else attacks that very regime.”

After some very summary research, I have to say that he’s probably right — that he hasn’t said or written that he opposes a military attack for fear that it would rally the population behind the regime, although, in his 2007 book, The Iranian Time Bomb, he takes a somewhat agnostic view of the question.

“…[W]hile a military attack could stimulate a mass uprising, it could also provoke an eruption of anti-Americanism along the lines of ‘first they abandon us, now they bomb us.’ Nobody knows, and indeed it is probably unknowable.”

In the same passage, he doesn’t rule out a military attack as the eventual solution if his favored “regime change” strategy doesn’t work (and I suspect that’s where he’ll end up, probably later this year or early next).

In any event, the reason I credited him with sharing Rubin’s views on the subject was because I had just read an article by the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens entitled “Iran Cannot Be Contained” in the July-August edition of Commentary magazine in which Stephens wrote:

“A larger worry about the wisdom of military strikes concerns the political consequences within Iran itself. It is a concern shared by at least some people traditionally identified with the neoconservative camp, such as historian Bernard Lewis and analyst Michael Ledeen. In this analysis, any attack would give the regime what Lewis has called “the gift of Iranian patriotism,” a gift they have never really possessed and have only further squandered since last year’s bloody post-election fracas. Yet many Iranians who despise the regime, including the most prominent figures of the Green movement, nonetheless support its nuclear program and would rally behind the leadership in the event of an attack. That deeply felt if knee-jerk nationalist impulse—traditionally powerful in Iranian society—could spell the death of the Greens and thus any hope that regime change could, over time, happen from within.”

Now, I don’t know how Stephens misapprehended Ledeen’s views on this question, but presumably Ledeen can and will ask him and then berate him in another post for getting it wrong. I have no doubt that, given the incestuous nature of the neo-conservative world (See the chapter on the neocons in Janine Wedel’s new book, Shadow Elite) and the fact that Ledeen appears occasionally on the Journal’s editorial pages, they must be in fairly regular and presumably friendly contact.

In his post, Ledeen goes on to accuse me and others of my “progressive” ilk of being a “reactionary” and of “simply defending a tyrannical status quo” in Iran and then asks me directly: “How did it happen that advocates of democratic revolution are called ‘conservatives,’ while defenders of the oppressive status quo call themselves ‘progressives’?” Here’s my answer.

First, I don’t consider myself a “defender of the “reactionary” or “oppressive status quo.” I’m actually quite partial to the Green Movement as I understand its aims. And, because I am partial to it, I take seriously the repeated appeals of those most closely associated with it — both inside Iran and in exile — that the U.S. not take most of the steps that Ledeen has been urging, such as providing financial or other material support to opposition groups and imposing and enforcing tough energy-related sanctions. Their view appears to be that such moves will prove counter-productive and ultimately serve to strengthen the regime and the hardliners who currently dominate it. After all, it was Akbar Ganji, the celebrated Iranian journalist, exile and former political prisoner, who, among other recognized opposition figures, has repeatedly warned that these kinds of measures — and, even more so, military action — will make their struggle for democratic change far more difficult. So the question I would pose to Ledeen is why “advocates of democratic revolutionaries” such as himself don’t respect the views of the very democrats whose cause they claim to champion?

Second, I have never considered Ledeen a “conservative” in any conventional sense, just as I don’t consider those of the Religious Right to be conventional conservatives. Ledeen is rather a “neo-conservative,” which is an entirely different animal. Unlike most true conservatives, neocons believe strongly in the use of military power and other forms of violence and intimidation to achieve their political ends, including radical changes in foreign societies and their institutions. That is not a belief normally associated with conservatism, precisely because it tends to achieve very radical and often very destructive results, as in Iraq whose invasion Ledeen, like other neo-cons, championed.

Neo-conservatives also believe that the United States must exercise total military dominance over any potential rival or combination of rivals around the world — just as Israel must enjoy a similar status in the Greater Middle East — regardless of the fiscal consequences and the growing reality of what has been called “imperial overstretch.” “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business,” is what his former AEI colleague, Jonah Goldberg, called the “Ledeen Doctrine” back in 2002 after Washington’s famous “victory” in Afghanistan and in the halcyon days of AEI’s “black coffee briefings” when the neo-cons were pushing hard for war in Iraq and promoting the notion that Washington was the “new Rome.” That, too, is hardly a traditionally conservative position. Think Dwight Eisenhower who not only warned against the “military-industrial complex — of which Ledeen and the neo-cons have long been a huge booster (and from which they have no doubt profited immensely) — but who was also the last president who actually forced Israel to do something its government absolutely did not want to do; that is, withdraw from Suez.

Third, I don’t consider Ledeen or other neo-conservatives “advocates of democratic revolution,” except insofar as their advocacy applies only to foreign regimes they consider hostile either to the U.S. or to Israel. Indeed, their democracy promotion efforts are and always have been highly selective. I wrote at length about this selectivity in an op-ed published by the “Daily Star” of Lebanon in 2004 and don’t have the time to update it now, but, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has said from time to time, when neo-conservatives talk about promoting democracy abroad, they often mean promoting destabilization. Given his own past, Ledeen’s pose as a “democratic revolutionary” has always been especially unconvincing. However, the minute he declares his unconditional support for national self-determination — a fundamental democratic principle, at least since Woodrow Wilson — for the Palestinian people on territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war (with the possibility of equitable and mutually agreed land swaps along the Green Line), I’ll definitely take another look.

Finally, I take everything Ledeen says or writes about the domestic situation Iran with multiple grains of salt. His repeated — and invariably unfulfilled — predictions over the past decade about the imminent collapse of the Islamic Republic — not to mention his repeated reports over the last four years the imminent or actual death of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — should frankly shame any serious political or intelligence analyst into at least a little humility, if not life-long silence on the matter. But, like many other neo-cons, particularly one of his mentors, Richard Perle, Ledeen is shameless. And, while I agree with him that the regime’s fate has been more uncertain over the past year than at any time since the early days of the Revolution, his forecasting percentages are such that I’d prefer to rely more on sources who have actually spent some time in Iran, have some grasp of its history, read and speak Farsi, and remain in regular personal contact with a broad range of people living there. So far as I know, Ledeen fails on all four counts.

But on the point of whether he has based his opposition to attacking Iran on fear that the population would rally behind the regime, I — and presumably Bret Stephens — stand corrected.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Thank you for making the distinction between neoconservatives and conservatives. They truly are separate animals. The word “conservative” has been drained of virtually all meaning since the election of 2000. Candidate G.W. Bush ran as a conservative, but instituted policies that eventually came to be termed “big government conservatism” by the likes of Fred Barnes. Yet the terms “conservative” and “big government” are either irreconcilable, or the former ceases to have meaning. I used to call myself a libertarian conservative, but since Bush came in I’ve had to find a new label — libertarian pragmatist is the best I’ve been able to come up with.

    Bush also enunciated conservative foreign policy principles (no nation-building, etc.) on the campaign trail, only to adopt neoconservative policies once in office. Like Nixon, he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, calling himself a conservative while following anti-conservative policies. Nixon, who once said “we are all Keynesians now,” completed the New Deal-Great Society agenda domestically, while pursuing JFK’s detente policy (formulated after the Cuban missile crisis — see the American University speech of June 1963, for example) abroad. (It was to JFK’s credit that he sought detente with the USSR, and moreover at time when we could initiate such a policy from a position of strength. Nixon pursued detente because the geopolitical scales had tipped against us, thanks to LBJ’s misadventure in Vietnam.)

    Bush extended big government (Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind) while pursuing an activist, neocon foreign policy. The worst of both worlds, in other words. As such he represents a key figure in the decline (and fall?) of the United States, more harmful than any other single man, Lyndon Johnson excepted. Must be something in the water in Texas.

    Like you I support the Greens in Iran, to the extent at least that I understand them. My own belief is that the best way to destroy their effectiveness is to give them overt or covert support, which can only bring the regime down on their heads. Nor can one sensibly think that an American (or Israeli) attack on Iran will help them. As far as anyone on the outside (including Iran experts) can tell, an attack would either cause the Greens to rally to the support of their country (a natural reaction) or cause the regime to destroy them as an act of self-preservation. Indeed, the best way to pursue regime change in Iran is to engage the present regime. This would allow Western ideas to infiltrate the Iranian body politic, while preserving the Greens as the kernal of a new politics in the country. Look at the example of China. Engagement almost brought the regime down in 1989. Had the Berlin Wall fallen a year earlier than it did, the Chinese Communist regime might have collapsed too. In any case, the mullahs in Iran sit far less securely in power than do the Chinese Communists. Engagement and not bombs is the way to achieve regime change in Iran.

    As to the Ledeen snafu that propmpted your piece, these things happen to all of us who write for publication. All one can do is correct the record (as you’ve done here) and move on.

  2. Jim, you wrote, “the minute he declares his unconditional support for national self-determination — a fundamental democratic principle, at least since Woodrow Wilson —”

    Wilson was as committed to this principle as he was to keeping us out of WW1. Wilson was a virulent racist, as was most of the Western educated world. It was widely disseminated that Teutonic people possessed a bug, or a gene that made the uniquely capable of self governance. Brown, yellow and other colored people were not so privileged.

    Wilson used the quote you’ve attributed to him is a very selective self serving manner. Shocking, I know.

  3. Just note of thanks for Lobelog. A voice of reason amidst the cacophony.

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