Richard Haass Burns his Realist Card

President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, has a long history both inside and outside of government as a respected realist.  But comments made by him on Fareed Zakaria GPS on Monday highlight the shift to the ideological right that this self-proclaimed “card carrying realist” has undergone when it comes to shaping US policy towards Iran.

Haass most publicly announced his shift in a Newsweek article on February 1st where he argued that, “regime change is the only way to stop Iran,’’ in effect saying that negotiations, while a useful exercise to have undergone, are not where the Obama administration should be focusing their efforts now.

In his interview with Fareed Zakaria on February 14th,  Haass repeats what could only be seen as neoconservative fear-mongering by suggesting that a nuclear Iran, and the regional proliferation of nuclear weapons which would accompany that, would lead to the use of a nuclear weapon.

(The section with Haass starts at 12:25)

(A transcript can be found here.)

Haass goes so far as to assert the oft repeated neocon claim that if we don’t attack Iran then we are simply letting Israel do the US’ dirty work and that an Israeli strike is inevitable if Iran continues with their nuclear program.

‘’ We have to be serious. And I don’t think we should necessarily just hide behind Israel’s skirts. If this strategically makes sense — let’s just say, if it does — then it’s something the United States should consider doing, rather than simply hiding behind Israel. We have greater capacities than the Israelis…’’

(Bret Stephens, who was on the show with Haass, floated this idea back in September.)

But Haass makes some questionable claims about proliferation which casts serious doubt on what remain of his realist credentials.

ZAKARIA: What is the Iranian threat to the United States that would justify an American military attack?

HAASS: What is an Iranian threat? Well, the idea of a Middle East in which not simply Iran, but other countries would then likely follow suit and have nuclear weapons. The idea that that would dramatically increase the likelihood that nuclear weapons would not only be introduced in the physical sense, but used, goes up tremendously with all that means for that part of the world, access to oil and the rest.

Two commonly held assumptions of political realism are that: A.) States are rational unitary actors working towards their national interest and that, B.) The dominant national interests of all states are national security and survival.

Working under these assumptions it’s far from clear that a nuclear weapon possessing Iran, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons by countries in the region, would necessarily lead to an increased likelihood of the use of a nuclear weapon.   Stephen Walt–a well established realist academic–elaborated on this last October.

While nuclear disarmament has many attractive qualities and proliferation can bring increased tensions, which can at times be violent, there is no historical basis to suggest that nuclear weapons are more likely to be used if proliferation occurs.

Historically, the only time nuclear weapons were actually used was when only one state possessed them.

Haass’ argument requires either a belief that Iran and its leadership do not value survival or security (a belief that the repression of the Green Movement and the state of unrest since the June elections would contradict) or a fundamental misreading of history since 1945.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Unfortunately, during Zakaria’s interview with Haas, the former did not follow up his question “What is the Iranian threat to the United States . . . ?” after Haas gave a somewhat incoherent reply centered on proliferation. Zakaria could have really put Haas on the spot, but refrained. Really pinning Haas down on national TV would have been a true public service.

    The realist position on the nuclear issue was elucidated quite well by Zbig B. and the now deceased General Odom in a Washington Post op-ed of May 27, 2008.

    Haas coming out as hawk represents another straw in the wind that began to blow with that NYT op-ed last Christmas Eve. Still, I don’t see the Obama administration attacking Iran. Israel is probably going to have to do its own dirty work. I’ve predicted it will happen in 2010 or 2011. But after I said that we discovered that the Iranian program has been having problems. This possibly buys more time for something short of war to be worked out.

  2. “Historically, the only time nuclear weapons were actually used was when only one state possessed them.”

    I believe we dropped bombs solely as a message and deterrent for the Soviets. I hope Israel doesn’t seek some similar statement.

    I believe the Saudis have nukes. The have the absolute leverage to acquire them, and after all the Saudi regime has been a steadfast ally of both the US and Israel. They are a dictatorship and tyrants to their own people.

    Iran is not an impetuous or messianic country, though one might consider the VERY country implied by messianic–ISRAEL. This is yet another of the Orwellian hypocrisies staring the American people in the face, yet we don’t see it.

    We’ve become a Faulknerian dystopia. No one is allowed to discuss the falsity of everything. War is necessary for peace, defense invades countries literally on the other side of the world, cloistered in far away mountains where we’re fighting our own ghosts, shadows and blowback. We’re in a Chinese finger trap the more we exert the more resistance we get.

  3. Are people like Haass aware of any inconsitencies, weak aspects inside their own theories or propositions?
    Or are they just 100% partisan: 100% convinced, with zero doubt, no concessions, no idea that there may be any possibility of reasonable counter-argument?

    That is one of the things that surprise me again and again: How sure everybody is that he or she is right.

    It is difficult to debate anything when one side is (or both sides are) absolutely convinced that they are absolutely right and the other side is absolutely wrong.

    In politics, in the end you have to decide. With this moment you will leave your doubts aside (that does not mean that you dismiss or forget them) – you focus on your action.
    But before and after decision and action, there must be some time and opportunity to reflect, and that requires doubt.

    I miss this sphere of pondering, of open reflection. Where does THAT happen in the USA?

    From Munich, Germany

    PS: I tend to agree with the views the authors of lobelog display. I’d like to read some pro & contra inside of this frame.

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