One might have anticipated that the dismal results of neoconservative foreign policy during the George W. Bush Administration would have discredited neoconservative ideas and their proponents. This has not been the case. Notwithstanding the forthright efforts of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and his son, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), neoconservative narratives (and their authors) continue to dominate foreign policy deliberations in the Republican Party. And there continues to be no shortage of neoconservative “fellow travelers” in the Democratic Party—and even in the Obama Administration.
In the intensifying political climate, Charles Hill, a leading neoconservative intellectual, has issued a vigorous restatement of neoconservative analyses and policy prescriptions regarding the Middle East, in the form of a new monograph entitled Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism (see here for a video interview with Hill on his new work, conducted by David Ignatius of the Washington Post). Hill is, we think it fair to say, one of the most prominent neoconservative thinkers about foreign policy presently before the public. For this reason, it is important to understand, in some detail, his current ideas about Islamism, the Islamic Republic, and America’s place in the world.
By way of background: Hill spent the first part of his career as a U.S. diplomat. He served in a number of senior positions in the State Department, but reached a point in his trajectory as a Foreign Service Officer at which he apparently realized he would have great difficulty winning Senate confirmation for even more senior positions. This was because the independent counsel who investigated the Iran-contra affair concluded that Hill—who, in the early 1980s, was the executive assistant to then-Secretary of State George Shultz—had willfully prepared misleading testimony which Shultz delivered to Congress about the scandal. (Shultz apparently gave real-time read-outs to Hill of all the meetings he attended at the White House about the arms transfers and subsequent diversion of the proceeds therefrom to the Nicaraguan contras—readouts which Hill meticulously recorded. Shultz’s later congressional testimony reportedly differs, on a number of important points, from Hill’s notes, which suggest that Shultz knew far more about the affair before it was leaked than he admitted to Congress.)
Unable to obtain an ambassadorship (or virtually any position that would require Senate confirmation), Hill left the Foreign Service and became a special advisor to United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali during 1992-1996. He then became a public intellectual. He signed several of the letters circulated by the Project for a New American Century advocating regime change in Iraq and, for many years, has helped to teach Yale University’s renowned “grand strategy” seminar, along with John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy. (We also taught international relations at Yale, during 2010-2011, but in a different program from the one with which Hill is affiliated.) In 2008, Hill headed up the team that advised Rudolph Giuliani on foreign policy during Giuliani’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Hill’s new monograph is, as its subtitle conveys, a study of world order and Islamism—two things which, in the neoconservative mind, are inherently incompatible. Hill’s work lays out, in a commendably clear style, the historical origins and intellectual underpinnings of the dominant Western approach to world order embodied in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the religious (Catholic vs. Protestant) wars sparked by the Protestant Reformation. The treaties that formalized the Westphalian settlement ratified the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (literally, “whose region, his religion”)—meaning that the religions of individual sovereigns would determine the Catholic or Protestant identities of European states—and prescribed toleration of sectarian minorities within those states. (Not coincidentally, this also marked the modern nation-state’s emergence as the main organizing unit for international relations.)
Since then, Western politics has evolved to a point where religion is treated largely as a personal matter, confined to individual citizens and their private associations. The modern Western state is constrained from interfering in the operation of religious communities, and religiously-motivated citizens may bring their beliefs into the public square through their electoral choices and policy views. But the state, as an institution, is not defined on the basis of religious principles. As Hill puts it, the Western state stopped being “substantive”, and became, instead, “procedural”; religion was “put on the shelf, diplomatically” speaking.
Through this experience, Westerners came to see secularism and liberal democracy as interrelated requirements for a fully legitimate political order—not just for themselves, but for everyone else, too. This is, of course, part of a broader narrative about the West as the pioneer of progressive modernity, which it has bequeathed, Prometheus-like, to the rest of mankind. As Hill notes, the emergence of procedural states in Europe coincided roughly with what he calls Europeans’ “reconnaissance of the world”, when Westerners realized that there were a lot of different kinds of societies around the globe. But the process of reconnaissance did not prompt Western interest in accommodating the views of non-Western societies. Quite the contrary: Westerners became deeply committed to the universalization of their views about statehood and world order.
For Hill as for other neoconservatives, this is all as it should have been—and should still be. Hill extols, as an “important intellectual point”, what he describes as an ever wider understanding in the international community that real stability can only be achieved through democratization—through the diffusion of “good governance”, which requires governments that are, in some way, “responsive to their people”. In the Cold War, Hill argues, the great powers, as represented in the United Nations Security Council, could not agree on this point; the international civil servants who run the UN system thought that the very idea of democratization was “substantive”, not “procedural”. But, in Hill’s account of the post-Cold War period, the international community has come to see democratization as “procedural” in character—and as a necessary element in dealing with contemporary threats to international peace and security. (Having just come back from China—a country that seems strongly to favor the promotion of stability around the world—we are not sure that foreign policy elites in Beijing would agree with Hill’s assessment.)
This view of world order strongly influences Hill’s approach to the Middle East. Over the last several centuries, he says, the West has had to put down a series of challenges to its concept of world order; today, he says the most serious challenge is posed by Islam—or, as Hill distinguishes, “Islamism”. Indeed, Hill argues that the late Samuel Huntington’s analysis of “the clash of civilizations” only really applies to Islamic culture and its confrontation with the West.
Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the Middle East and the broader Muslim world have become, in Hill’s words, “increasingly dysfunctional, increasingly poisonous”—a reality that came crashing in on Americans and their Western allies on September 11, 2001. From these premises, Hill remains steadfast in his defense of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. (Even Ignatius, an inveterate cheerleader for Saddam’s overthrow, is politely incredulous at the degree of Hill’s ongoing “enthusiasm” for the war.) Taking on the claim—advanced by no less than General David Petraeus, among many others—that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, Hill argues that military victory is key to America’s success there and in the broader struggle against Islamism.
Likewise, Hill lauds President George W. Bush’s January 2005 second inaugural address—“an amazing speech”, in Hill’s estimation—as “almost an Emancipation Proclamation for the world”. The only problem with Bush’s vision, according to Hill, is that it was laid out at a time when America’s political class and public were too stressed by the difficulties the United States was facing at the time in Iraq to embrace and fully implement Bush’s “freedom agenda” for the greater Middle East. But, in Hill’s mind, there is no doubt that this was—and is—the right agenda for America’s Middle East policy. The dictators, he argues, need to go. Remarkably, though, Hill denies—in response to a direct question from Ignatius—that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a dictator. If Mubarak were a dictator, Hill says, “he would still be in power”. (We suppose this statement is marginally more defensible, analytically speaking, than Vice President Biden’s claim that Mubarak was not a dictator because he was a friend of Israel.)
This brings us to Hill’s views on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hill acknowledges that the Iranian revolution, “in terms of its consequences and the scale of it, or the intellectual power behind it, is in the category of the great modern revolutions.” But, he says, it is a revolution that is “going in the wrong direction.” In Hill’s account, the Iranian revolution—which amounted to an Islamist “takeover of a state that was already in the international state system”—was a deeply negative watershed event. Among other things, it had the effect of “inspiriting” Islamists across the Middle East and the Muslim world—a development which has, according to Hill, bolstered the Islamist challenge to the reigning Western conception of world order.
Hill seems to believe that only states which have “put religion on the shelf” and become entirely “procedural” in character can be integrated into the Western model of world order. (Doesn’t that make “proceduralism”, in itself, a kind of “substance”, with respect to which the contemporary West remains rather intolerant toward other “substances”?) Hill does not shy away from the politically incorrect question, “Can Islamic societies come to terms with the (Western defined) modern world”? His quintessentially neoconservative answer is, “No, not in their present form.”
On this issue, Hill cites, with approval, the Iraqi writer ‘Ali Allawi, who argues that Muslim societies today face a choice between two very different paths: either shrink Islam to a point where it resembles, in functional terms, the non-established Christian churches of the modern West, or create “an alternative modernity”. Hill clearly favors the first path. We would argue that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the outstanding example of a Muslim society striving to navigate the second path.
This means, for Hill as for virtually every other neoconservative whose ideas are known to us, that the Islamic Republic, as it is presently constituted, should not—indeed, cannot—be integrated into the prevailing international order. There can be no “Nixon-to-China” rapprochement, in which the United States would recognize the Islamic Republic as Iran’s legitimate political order, with legitimate national security and foreign policy interests that need to be accommodated.
What, we wonder, does Hill make of the Nixon-Kissinger opening to the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s? Surely the People’s Republic was not, by Hill’s criteria, a “procedural” state in 1972. Would he argue that it is one today? If not, what does that say about Nixon and Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts? It seems to us that the U.S. opening to China is the paradigmatic example of how to integrate a non-procedural state into the post-Westphalian international order, in a way that allows the state in question to preserve, by its own standards, the full measure of its national independence and effective sovereignty.
Of course, we believe this is precisely what the United States should be trying to do today with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran. But Hill is having none of that. From a neoconservative perspective, regime change is the only Iran policy that makes sense for the United States and other Western countries. In Hill’s view, only a “post-revolutionary” (read “post-Islamic Republic”) Iran can be integrated into a procedurally-grounded (read “U.S.-dominated”) international order.
In this regard, Hill extols the Green movement—which he calls the “Green revolution”—as an “early indicator” of the possibilities for bringing Iran to heel. But, here, he makes two inter-related arguments about Iranian politics—which other neoconservatives make as well—that, in our judgment, run obliviously against reality.
First, picking up on his continuing “enthusiasm” for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hill argues that Iranians look at post-Saddam Iraq and wonder why they can’t have a political order like that for themselves in place of the current “theocratic” system (sic; look at the video if you do not believe that Hill or any other knowledgeable and obviously well-read person could possibly say such a thing). There is not a shred of evidence supporting this claim, and a considerable amount of evidence to the contrary. But Hill and other neoconservatives remain stalwart in their attachment to it.
Second, Hill argues that the Islamic Republic is theologically vulnerable to being undermined by the tradition of “quietism” in Shi’a Islam—a tradition that is allegedly more reflective of “real” Shi’ism than what Hill describes as Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s “reworking” of Shi’a political thought to come up with velayat-e faqih. This, too, is an assertion advanced by a number of other neoconservative analysts of the modern Middle East, such as Rueul Gerecht and Michael Rubin.
On this point, it is worth recalling that officials in the George W. Bush Administration argued, as one of their justifications for the invasion of Iraq, that overthrowing Saddam would empower allegedly quietist Iraqi clerics, such as (the Iranian-born) Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani, to assert the primacy of Najaf over Qom as Shi’a Islam’s intellectual center and, more broadly, to challenge the religious standing of the Islamic Republic. Hill himself describes Sistani as “a steady rebuke to the Iranian establishment”.
But this is a polemical misreading of the history of Shi’a thought, aimed at delegitimizing Khomeini’s theory of Islamic government and, by extension, the Islamic Republic itself. In reality, the so-called “quietist” strain in Shi’a Islam is almost entirely a creation of latter-day commentators opposed to the Iranian revolution and Iran’s post-revolutionary political order. These commentators have pulled together a disconnected set of arguments, advanced at widely separate points in Shi’a history as to the posture that Ali’s partisans should assume toward repressively hostile governments, and packaged them as “mainstream” Shi’a political theory.
Against this largely manufactured notion of Shi’a quietism, the earliest authoritative statements of Shi’a doctrine, elaborated over the course of the 10th and 11th centuries by Shi’a Islam’s “church fathers” (we have borrowed the metaphor from a German scholar), held that a government which recognized the true Imam and ruled in his name would be entitled to obedience by the Shi’a community. Such a government, however, would require authorization by the Imam’s representatives. And, in this regard, those statements highlighted the role of the ‘ulama (or, as later transliterated from Farsi, ‘olema), meaning learned clergy and scholars, as de facto stand-ins for the Imams.
Among the ‘ulama, the fuqaha (plural of faqih, meaning a cleric well-schooled in fiqh, or religious jurisprudence) are accorded special esteem in the Shi’a world. And, among the Shi’a fuqaha, mujtāhids (clerical scholars trained in ijtihād) are held in especially high regard. Since the 10th century, by our reading, important Shi’a thinkers have systematically assigned to the fuqaha all of the prerogatives of the imams. These prerogatives include powers that, in modern Western political parlance, clearly belong to the state. In the 16th century, when the Safavid dynasty made Shi’a Islam the official religion of a re-unified Iranian state, eminent scholars even began to describe the faqih’s standing in terms of wilayat al-amma (“universal guardianship”), meaning that all powers of the state were, ultimately, in clerical hands.
Thus, Khomeini did not concoct the idea that the fuqaha were the divinely designated custodians of political authority; he took it straight from longstanding Shi’a doctrine. It is certainly the case that, at various points in Shi’a history, individual thinkers have contested the devolution of specific imami prerogatives to the fuqaha. But to take these individual thinkers as emblematic of “true” Shi’ism—as Hill and other contemporary critics of Khomeini and the Islamic Republic are wont to do—is a politically motivated exercise in historical cherry-picking.
In this context, it is striking that, since the overthrow of Saddam Husayn in 2003, neither Sistani nor any other Iraqi cleric of prominence has challenged the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. Sistani, in fact, has opened a large office in Qom; furthermore, Iranians who have met with Sistani on pilgrimages to Najaf report that he expresses great satisfaction with the way in which Iran has developed as a genuinely independent state since the 1979 revolution. If Sistani has been a “steady rebuke” to anything, it has been the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
A further weakness of Hill’s arguments about the Islamic Republic and its regional position, in our view, is its utter disregard for popular attitudes in the Arab and Islamic world—a common characteristic of neoconservatives analysis, in our experience, but one which seems strange, given neoconservatives’ emphasis on democracy promotion as the key to “fixing” the Middle East. In his discussion with Hill, Ignatius notes that the Islamic Republic and Hizballah have both been “pretty popular among ordinary Arabs”, but Hill is not at all inclined to engage on the point. Rather, he clings to the proposition that (at least before the Arab spring broke out), Arab elites were realizing that the Islamic Republic, especially with an active nuclear program, was a bigger threat to them than Israel. But, as we have previously written, see here, opinion polls indicate that Arab publics, in contrast to Arab elites, have a very different and strongly positive view of the Islamic Republic.
Hill’s monograph underscores just how far the United States is from adjusting its Middle East policy to reality—and how many well-entrenched intellectual actors and powerful social forces still stand in the way of that adjustment.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett