As the US continues on the increasingly destructive foreign policy route of isolating Iran and Turkey, it is not only cutting ties with the two most democratic nations in the Middle East, but also ignoring the next big geopolitical trend – the rise of the middle powers – at its own peril, according to former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer, who calls for an adjustment of American foreign policy away from rash “emotional responses” and toward an acceptance of the new reality.
Seated in front of a wall, bare but for two framed posters, Kinzer, wearing a button-down shirt with a tie and his short salt-and-pepper hair swept to the left, participated last week in one of the new breed of accessible, online, intellectual forums – a virtual brown bag hosted by Just Foreign Policy, an organization working to reform US foreign policy. The talk by Kinzer, which included viewers sending in questions by chat, introduced the audience to his attempt to “break American foreign policy out of its rot” as detailed in his new book, “Reset.”
“The security threat to the United States as well as the new security opportunity have changed dramatically, but our policy hasn’t changed. There is a tremendous tendency in the foreign policy establishment to stick to established ideas and stick with old paradigms,” Kinzer said, characterizing the spectrum of political conversation as stretching from A to B. “Anyone outside that spectrum is stigmatized as a wacko who needs to be kept outside the room whenever serious matter are discussed.”
For Kinzer, who has worked as a foreign correspondent in more than 50 countries, the quintessential approach to foreign policy can be exemplified in the way American administrations “tend to be emotional in our making of foreign policy, but sometimes years or even decades later we look back and see that ‘feel-good’ faded away very quickly and undermined our national security.”
He gives the example of the situation in the Middle East, which is “not even a crisis, its more like a series of interlocking crises none of which can really be resolved without the others.” The poisonous and unequal status of the Middle East today can be traced to America’s close ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia, which were used as proxies for American military operations and were given aid in exchange, Kinzer said, therefore, considering their interests above those of all other nations in the region.
The recent escalation of the nuclear conflict with Iran, and the renewed focus of international attention on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict following the raid on the Gaza flotilla has brought into focus two powers that Kinzer said will be essential to future peace and security in the region – Turkey and Iran.
Turkey’s recent appearance in headlines – both as the main sponsor of the aid flotilla and, along with Brazil, a trader of nuclear fuel with Iran – has heralded “the rise of the middle powers.” With “Turkey trying to push the curve of history” for its own national interest, it is also working as a peaceful force in creating “a stable neighborhood.”
When Turkey announced its nuclear deal with Iran, “everyone in Turkey was thrilled,” said Kinzer, who was the New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul from 1996 to 2000. “People thought finally this confrontation in a neighboring country has been diffused.”
However, we have yet to embrace this, Kinzer said. America’s view of the Turkish administration as “stupid, naive schoolboys who got fooled by those ever crafty Iranians” undermined what may have been the saving grace of America’s status in the region – allowing powers such as Turkey, South Africa and Iran to move us to a more nuanced foreign policy and away from trying to “hold on to the back end of history, when we ruled.”
The status of Turkey and Iran as nations with a deeply embedded history of democracy – one that was not brought from the outside at the point of a gun, but developed organically – makes them the most democratic nations in the Muslim world, Kinzer said, and are, therefore, our natural negotiating partners. It is essential to recognize the difference between the popular will of a society and the current regime, he continued, in order to “look for partners whose societies share the values of our societies … Iran and Turkey share our long-term goals.”
“Iran has a huge ability to influence Iraq, many of the Iraqi leaders were living in Iran for years,” he continued, and “has a great ability to calm Afghanistan.” It also has a great national interest in doing so.
In the matters of the conflict with both Israel and Iran, the best thing for the us to do, according to Kinzer, is “acting more like the Turks want us to act … A lot of people would like to punish Israel and/or Iran, and that’s emotion at work. What’s really good for us in the Middle East, and for Israel in the Middle East, is a calm neighborhood.”
A chance meeting Kinzer had a couple of years back with Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the Iranian president, put the long-reaching effects of American foreign policy into stark relief.
During Ahmedinejad’s visit, Kinzer was invited to a dinner in his honor. During the meal, the Iranian president went around the table and offered everyone the chance to ask him a question, to which he, after carefully noting down their name, replied.
“When it came time for me to ask my question I was thinking, I want to ask something unusual, something original,” said Kinzer, who was determined to avoid the usual queries on nuclear issues and the contested Iranian election. “So just based on my own prior interest I came up with this question: I said “Mr. President, many of us in the United States have heard the name of Mohammed Mossadegh, who was the prime minister of Iran who was overthrown by the CIA in 1953. So, could you please tell us what you think about Prime Minister Mossadegh and his overthrow?”
For Kinzer, who considers historical understanding one of the most lacking aspects of the frighteningly undernuanced American foreign policy, the cleverness of Ahmedinejad’s response was right on target.
“Dr. Mossadegh was a popular prime minister who unfortunately was overthrown. But we don’t want to devote too much effort to thinking about and recalling that episode – because, if we did, we’d never want to talk to the United States.”