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The Race for Iran

Can the United States Think Strategically About Iran, China, and the Deepening Ties Between the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia?

One of the many satisfying aspects of Flynt’s appointment as a professor of international affairs and law at Penn State is his service on the faculty editorial board for the new Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, published jointly by Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law (DSL) and School of International Affairs (SIA).  As its name suggests, the Journal focuses on subjects that lie at the intersection of law (international or national) and international relations.  In keeping with the traditional law review model, Flynt’s wonderful colleague, Executive Editor (and assistant dean at DSL and SIA) Amy Gaudion oversees a talented batch of student editors from both schools who produce each issue.

The newest (second) issue of the Journal (vol. 1, no. 2) is out, see here.  It includes our most recent article, “The Balance of Power, Public Goods, and the Lost Art of Grand Strategy:  American Policy Toward the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia in the 21st Century”; for a pdf version, click here.  It also includes pieces by (among others) Harold James, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ronald Deibert, and P.J. Crowley.  The issue grew out of a series of presentations that the Journal sponsored over the course of the last academic year around the theme of America’s emerging national security narrative.

Our article seeks to explore the roots of the worsening crisis in American foreign policy, of which America’s dysfunctional policy toward Iran is an especially salient manifestation.  As we write,

While no single factor explains the relative decline of American standing and influence in world affairs, one of the most important is the failure of American political and policy elites to define clear, reality-based goals and to relate the diplomatic, economic, and military means at Washington’s disposal to realizing them soberly and efficaciously.  Defining such ends and relating the full range of foreign policy tools to their achievement is the essence of what is known among students of international relations and national security practitioners as ‘grand strategy.’  Questions of grand strategy are becoming an increasingly important element in America’s emerging national security narrative—because of accumulating policy failures, relative economic decline, and the rise of new power centers in various regional and international arenas.”

To explore what is wrong with contemporary American grand strategy and what it would take to put that strategy on a sounder course, our article evaluates “Washington’s posture toward two regions where the effectiveness of American policy will largely determine the United States’ standing as a great power in the 21st century:  the Middle East (with a focus on the Persian Gulf) and rising Asia (with a focus on China).”  As we explain,

Fundamental flaws in America’s stance vis-à-vis these critical areas have contributed much to the erosion of the United States’ strategic standingOver time, deficiencies in policy toward each of them have become synergistic with deficiencies in policy toward the otherRecovering a capacity for sound grand strategy will require a thoroughgoing recasting of American policy toward both—and a more nuanced appreciation of the interrelationship between these vital parts of the world for U.S. interests.”

We have come more and more to appreciate that recasting American policy in this way must necessarily be preceded by a kind of “cultural revolution” in the United States.  Since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has been increasingly driven by a grand strategic model—we call it the “transformation model” in our article—in which “the United States seeks not to manage distributions of power but to transcend them by becoming a hegemon, in key regions of the world and globally.”  Such a commitment to hegemony—an assertion of military, economic, and ideological dominance that aims to micromanage political outcomes in far-flung parts of the world and to remake, or at least to subordinate, vital regions in accordance with American preferences—is deeply problematic, strategically as well as morally.

Strategically, the transformation model rejects a lesson that balance of power theorists, foreign policy realists, and astute students of international history all know:

“While hegemony seems nice in theory, in the real world it is unattainable; not even a state as powerful as the United States coming out of the Cold War can achieve it.  Pursuing hegemony is not just quixotic; it is counter-productive for a great power’s strategic position, dissipating resources…and sparking resistance from others.  Pursuing hegemony ends up making you weaker.  This is the critical factor that has undermined the effectiveness of American foreign policy over the last 20 years or so.”

Notwithstanding such a dismal record, the commitment to hegemony remains deeply rooted in American strategic and political culture.  It is grounded in venerated notions of American exceptionalism and of the United States as “the indispensable nation.”  It is driven by a teleological view of history reflecting a culturally-conditioned belief in “progress”—the inevitable triumph of liberal, secular modernism over other ways of looking at human and social existence—and a conviction that, ultimately, everyone wants to be “just like us.”

Of course, one can argue that there are resources available in American political culture to push back against the embrace of hegemonic foreign policy.  For all that the United States has come, over the course of its history, to embody an ideology of liberal universalism, many of its founders (e.g., James Madison) and early leaders could well be described as hard-core “republican (small ‘r’) realists,” who understood that imperial ambitions are bound to undermine liberty at home and national strength abroad.  But, for a long time, the relative balance of cultural resources has been tilted ever more in favor of liberal hegemony as the reigning paradigm for American foreign policy.

Today, this is most urgently felt with regard to U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Pushing back against that is our primary task for the coming year—first and foremost, through our forthcoming book, Going to Tehran:  Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, which will be published just eight days into 2013.

Best wishes to all for a Happy New Year.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


47 Responses to “Can the United States Think Strategically About Iran, China, and the Deepening Ties Between the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia?”

  1. James Canning says:

    Good luck with the new book and the new name for this important site.

  2. James Canning says:

    The Economist asked a question (Dec. 15th): “Would Mr Obama consider squeezing Israel toward negoiations [with the Palestinians], by instance by penalising it for settlement-building that contravenes international law?”

    Not likely, sadly.

  3. James Canning says:


    Are you still claiming the US had “nothing” to do with the Egypt-Israel peace deal during the Carter administration?

  4. James Canning says:

    Bussed-In Basiji,

    FYI is well aware that Episcopalians (Anglicans) and Presbyerians to a large degree controlled the making of US foreign policy in the Middle East decades ago. Those Protestants have largely been displaced by Jews. This is one reason American policy in the Middle East is so muddled.

  5. James Canning says:


    Barney Frank should be ashamed of himself. He thinks the risk of having a warmonger as SecDef is worth it, if blocking Hagel somehow can be seen as promoting “gay rights”?

    Is the deeper story Frank is being a willing stooge of the ISRAEL LOBBY?

  6. James Canning says:

    The US has of course encouraged China to buy as much oil as possible from Saudi Arabia.

  7. Kathleen says:

    Huffington Post moderators did not allow the petition to support Hagel’s nomination to go up on their comments section under Barney Franks piece knocking Hagel’s nomination. Telling

  8. Sineva says:

    Persian Gulf says:
    January 1, 2013 at 3:25 pm
    I could not agree more,her and medeline albright both

  9. Kathleen says:

    Hope folks here at Race for Iran will sign this petition in support of the possible nominatin of Former Republican Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Hope you will sign and share with others

  10. truthteller says:

    A US plane made an emergency landing in Iran 3 weeks ago, at the airport of the city of Ahvaz, 3 passengers were rescued.


  11. Persian Gulf says:

    I wish her a very long life with a dysfunctional body!


  12. James Canning says:

    Bussed-In Basiji,

    What “colonies” are available for the US to control, in order to enhance the wealth and power of the US in your view?

    Surely the huge expense incurred by the US in the Persian Gulf is doing little to enhance the wealth and power of the American people.

    Opec revenues 2012: well over $1 trillion.

  13. James Canning says:

    R S Hack,

    Obama’s policy decision re: Afghanistan (to treble US military presence) owed a great deal to advice tendered by Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton. Hagel instead of Gates at Defense might have caused the decision to be very different. Joe Biden opposed the “surge”.

    Fanatical “supporters” of Israel in Washington do not like Hagel.

  14. James Canning says:

    R S Hack,

    Max Ajl in the piece you linked claims the US and its allies are concerned Iran would use oil revenues to improve health care and education in Iran, and that this is the real reason for sanctions against Iran’s energy exports. Astounding rubbish!

    Pat Buchanan is right: the War Party in the US wants to block Hagel’s nomination because Hagel sees Israel/Palestine as the primary problem.

  15. Bussed-in Basiji says:

    kooshy and others

    BiB wrote in the previous thread:

    “I recommended this book when the forum began. It supports fyi’s argument that US/UK identity and behavior is essentially religious/Protestant, even if sometimes coached in secular language such as “exceptionalism” or “indispensable nation”.”

    Well it seems 4 years of blogging have not been in vain.

    It’s more than “cultural”, it’s “identity” and that only changes with a war or revolution.

    Also more importantly than balance of power arguments against trying to be a global (liberal) hegemon- trying to be a hegemon also eventually means domestic fiscal bankrupcty, beyond the issues of being “republican realists” or “liberal hegemonists”. It just isn’t financially sustainable unless who acquire new real property a la colonialism.

    The only solution to this “cultural/identity” problem is getting rid of the current federal system and the union in it’s current form- peacefully and through the revitalization of the sovereignty of individual states and local governments.

    The Leveretts are doing what people of conscience have to do when they realize something is fundamentally wrong in their society. Their efforts are laudable.

  16. Richard Steven Hack says:

    Rd: Thanks for the link to the “Coming Isolation of the US Dollar” article. Relates to my prediction that the US WILL eventually become a Third World nation economically.

    Especially like this quote which I could have said:

    “The US system will remain broken until it collapses, never to be corrected until after its collapse.”

    This is why I view the Leveretts as Don Quixote, tilting at windmills – although their enemies are not imaginary like Quixote’s but real and far too powerful for them to ever defeat. Being “correct” is the best they can achieve – and that does have personal value.

    Like the guy on The Lone Gunmen pilot episode: “I know you’re fighting for the American Dream. Just don’t expect to win.”

  17. Richard Steven Hack says:

    I agree with this to the extent that I think Chuck Hagel being SecDef will have ZERO impact on whether there is an Iran war in the next couple years.

    Why Chuck Hagel Is Irrelevant

  18. James Canning says:

    Interviewing Obama on US TV, David Gregory tried to create or amplify the false impression the opposition to Hagel for Defence is a matter of “gay rights”. Rubbish.

  19. James Canning says:

    Philip Weiss has a great piece today: “David Gregory covers up for the Israel lobby (even as he fingers the NRA)”


  20. James Canning says:

    Stephen Kinzer writes on the effort of the anti-Iran warmongers to block the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Defence ministry:


  21. James Canning says:


    You claim the US had “nothing” to do with bringing about a deal between Israel and Egypt. You are forgetting that Israel wanted to keep control of the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. (Sharm el-Sheik). Carter forced Israel to get out entirely. ISRAEL LOBBY punished Carter in the 1980 presidential election.

  22. James Canning says:


    Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon worried that the USSR would gain too much prestige if the US backed the Soviet Union’s request that the US force Israel to get out of the Sinai. Kissinger’s blunder brought on the 1973 war and very nearly with it a confrontation in the Sinai between the US and the USSR.

    And let’s remember the gigantic transfer of wealth from the US and Europe, to the Persian Gulf countries, that was a direct byproduct of the 1973 war.

  23. James Canning says:

    I think only a fool believes that squandering trillions of dollars on unnecessary weapons, foreign troop deployments, ill-considered military advbentures in the greater Middle East, etc etc, helps the US to maintain long-term “liberal hegemony”.

    Shorter-term, foolish US policy helps Israel to continue its oppression of the Palestinians. And this is a concealed objective of many US leaders.

  24. James Canning says:

    Patrick Buchanan: “If Obama does not want that war [with Iran], he is going to have to defeat the war party.” Very true. Bachanan says Obama should nominate Hagel and get on wwith the battle.

  25. fyi says:

    Karl… says:

    December 31, 2012 at 6:39 am

    You are correct, US has no power over Israel.

    Prior to the 1973 War, the late President Sadat tried multiple times to interest US in his interest in concluding peace with Israel.

    He worked even through USSR to communicate with Americans; Americans were not interested largely because Israel was not.

    The Egyptians therefore were forced into initiating a limited war to get the attention of the United States.

    But what concluded the Peace Treaty with Israel was that Israelis wanted to conclude peace with Egypt.

    US had nothing to do with it causing that peace treaty.

    [Israelis had correctly estimated that peace with Egypt will remove the ability of Arab states to wage collective war against them.

    They used that peace, encouraged by the United States, to wage war against Lebanon; trying to alter the geopolitical environment to their advantage.]

    The State of Israel has become part and parcel of the non-revelatory religions of Axis States – one must understand this.

  26. fyi says:

    Rd. says:

    December 31, 2012 at 9:27 am

    Wishful thinking.

  27. James Canning says:

    I think a good part of the promotion of “liberal hegemony” in the US, as a philosophy or programme of American foeign policy, obviously has much to do with “protecting” Israel even if this means in effect promoting Israel’s insane colonisation scheme in the West Bank.

    American politicians do not like to say they favor oppression of non-Jews by Jews in the West Bank. Even if they in effect do favor such oppression.

  28. James Canning says:


    Do you think the US actually worries very much about Iranian influence in Latin America? Or is the supposed concern really just another way to discredit Iran in the eyes of the American people?

  29. James Canning says:


    I take your comment to mean that American “Indians” were no in a postion to challenge the possession of large portions of North America by the US, or Canada (Great Britain), or Mexico (Spain).

    The various khanates etc in Central Asia were not able to stop the takeover of their lands by Russia, during the same period.

  30. James Canning says:


    Would it not be more accurate to say the US has a great deal of power, that could be employed to force Israel out of the West Bank etc etc, but the ISRAEL LOBBY compromises that power?

    Eisenhower forced Israel out of the Sinai in 1956-57. Jimmy Carter forced Israel out of the Sinai in the late 1970s.

  31. James Canning says:


    You are simply dead wrong that Chuck Hagel is a “smokescreen” for Zionist warmongers.

  32. James Canning says:


    David Gardner, writing in the Financial Times Dec. 28th: “If Israel holds to its red line of no enrichment, war looks inevitable.” This appears to be your viewpoint too.

  33. James Canning says:

    The Financial Times in Dec. 29th leader (“Obama’s challenge, Iran’s nuclear plans”): “The outlines of a deal are clear to most analysts. Iran should cease the production of more highly enriched uranium. It should convert its existing stockpile of that uranium to reactor fuel that cannot be used for a bomb.”

    FT says the west should offer Iran more than it did this past year in three P5+1 meetings.

  34. Rd. says:

    ““Fundamental flaws in America’s stance vis-à-vis these critical areas have contributed much to the erosion of the United States’ strategic standing”

    Following is a good example of such fundamental flaw’s in US strategy;

    Mayor Juliani and his support for the terrorist camp.


  35. Rehmat says:

    Zionist president Shimon Peres and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold totally opposite views when it comes to dealing with Palestinians or Iran. However, both are considered war criminals by many independent commentators. For example, Israel-born Jewish author and Jazz-player, Gilad Atzmon wrote on October 4, 2009: “Truth must be said, I do admire fierce President Ahmadinejad almost as much as I despise war criminal Shimon Peres“.


  36. Don Bacon says:

    I hate when somebody types it’s for its. Sorry.

  37. Don Bacon says:

    **It is grounded in venerated notions of American exceptionalism and of the United States as “the indispensable nation.”**

    You’re on the right track, but the root of the problem is not national but personal. It’s not enough to look at the national side of it. Also required is a psychological analysis of American Exceptionalism (capital E), which indicates that since Americans were wise enough to be born in America they should rule the world ‘cuz Americans are better don’t you know. And Americans can prove they’re better by bombing any third world country back to the stone age.

    It’s wrongful thinking about us as individuals versus them as people that drives the national politics. Make it personal, because all foreign policy is personal at it’s roots.

  38. Rd. says:

    The Iranian sanctions put forth by the USGovt and adopted by the EuroZone
    nations have contributed more to unwinding the USDollar trade system than
    any event in decades. It sounded the death knell for the USDollar. It
    hastened numerous nations to seek a US$ alternative. It provided a fertile
    environment to fashion new trade settlement mechanisms. It pushed Turkey
    into acting as a gold bullion intermediary role in the provision of gold for
    usage in trade settlement. See their role with India and Iran, fully
    described in the December Hat Trick Letter. When an independent highly
    reliable gold trader source was asked to confirm the role of Turkey as a
    test case in developing gold based trade settlement, he gave a tacit
    confirmation. He has mentioned Turkey in past conversations over the last
    couple years frequently. Just as Turkey was a swing nation in the NATO
    alliance against the Soviet Union, Turkey will serve in my view as a
    critical swing nation in the movement to create a non-US$ trade settlement
    system. The new system will be decentralized, meaning not funneled through
    the major banks, not passing through the USFed as clearing house. Turkey
    will be essential in the formation of the Eurasia trade zone. First comes
    the Asian trade zone (the US excluded), and next comes the hand shake
    between the Asians and Europeans to create Eurasia. Some folks have
    expressed doubt toward the arrival of a vast trans-continental trade region.
    They seem painfully unaware of an incredible network of railway lines
    connecting Russia to Germany and China, and of a incredible network of
    liquified natural gas lines connecting Russia with all of Europe and Central
    Asia. Across the new trade zone and its diverse commerce, the USDollar will
    not be at the center. It is in fact being isolated, since it is a toxic
    agent. Everything US$-based is crumbling, from currencies to bonds to banks
    to credit lines to economies.


  39. Karl... says:

    When it comes to Iran conflict it doesnt matter that much what the US thinks but where the pro-israel lobby and Israel itself want to go. US have literally no power over Israel whetever it is westbank-settlements or Iran.
    If Israel would back off from its hostile warmongering stance against Iran, so would the US, so the future of Iran conflict is wholly dependent on what Israel thinks.

  40. BiBiJon says:

    Hagelslag on toast

    Oh my! Talk about aggressive Zionists spending $100k to push syllogistic equivalence of gay rights with no rights whatsoever for straight or gay Iranians.


    There are conservatives who have figured out the Republican party has been hijacked by neocons. Greenwald is onto the same tricks being played on progressives. In my book the technique, ‘enterism’ was invented by Leon Trotsky — unoriginal, but effective.

    Anyways, Obama said on Sunday he hasn’t made a decision on the secdef position. I assume he cannot show up in a press briefing with a nominee today, having pleaded indecisiveness 24h earlier.

    So, in the next few days, the world is going to watch, read, and understand what passes for US values and polity: Its hagelslag, stupid!

  41. hans says:

    Certainly the name ‘Hagel’ may be cause for some glimmer of hope in the direction to be expected in 2013.

    You mean the anti war Kerry who suddenly found his Israeli roots? Hagel is just a smoke screen tactic used by the Zionists.

  42. Pirouz says:

    My Iranian dad used to refer to it as “the bully mentality”.

    From mom’s Native American side of the family, we recall similar expressions on the matter from Chief Sitting Bull. Of course, back then hegemony was not the name of the game. Then it was a war of annihilation, for which the Germans later patterned their expansionist aims in the east during the early 1940s.

  43. kooshy says:

    “We have come more and more to appreciate that recasting American policy in this way must necessarily be preceded by a kind of “cultural revolution” in the United States.”

    “Notwithstanding such a dismal record, the commitment to hegemony remains deeply rooted in American strategic and political culture. It is grounded in venerated notions of American exceptionalism and of the United States as “the indispensable nation.” It is driven by a teleological view of history reflecting a culturally-conditioned belief in “progress”—the inevitable triumph of liberal, secular modernism over other ways of looking at human and social existence—and a conviction that, ultimately, everyone wants to be “just like us.”

    After 4 years reading and writing on this blog one wonders how is it that Flynt and Hillary just recently realized and or are willing to say that the US foreign policy is based and deep rooted in a nationally inherited exceptionalism, which is very common and visible (specially to outsiders) in every level of American social life. Many of us on this blog including myself have pointed to this phenomenon many times on this blog. The American perception of being exceptional not only exists in foreign policy making elites but rather it is part and parcel of the fabric of this society. Yes it will take a cultural revolution to reverse a national accepted mentality of belonging to the club of the chosen people who know better what is right for the rest. Never less I do have a lot of respect for them saying so and I hope one day Americans can come back to earth.

  44. Richard Steven Hack says:

    “Pushing back against that is our primary task for the coming year”

    Talk about a “quixotic endeavor”.

    Good luck with that.

    As I’ve said here before, NOTHING is going to change the direction of the United States until one or both of two things happens: 1) a real economic collapse that puts the US in the position of a (large) Third World country; and 2) a serious military defeat – by which I mean not one in which the US merely withdraws from another country, but one in which the US actually LOSES a significant portion of its military assets.

    The latter outcome will be difficult, but not impossible, to occur. The former is much more likely to occur. But both are possible over the next, say, 20-30 years or longer. Let us say, by the middle of this century, the US will be “declined”, not just “in decline.”

  45. Neo says:

    “Pushing back against that is our primary task for the coming year”

    I wish the Leveretts and all RFI contributors a very happy and successful 2013.

    Certainly the name ‘Hagel’ may be cause for some glimmer of hope in the direction to be expected in 2013.

  46. Dave McLane says:

    “Notwithstanding such a dismal record, the commitment to hegemony remains deeply rooted in American strategic and political culture.” That’s for sure and, I suspect the outcome will be something along the lines of the Peloponnesian War where Athens (the hegemon) didn’t keep up with changing times.

    While one can hope for some kind of “cultural revolution” in the United States,in my opinion that time was the ’60s and it failed. I took what I thought was a break to have a look at other parts of the world; it was so interesting I didn’t get back to the US until just before 9/11. Thus I think it’s more realistic for people to start thinking about how to live through the coming disaster after which it’s more realistic to think of some kind of “cultural revolution” as the old way of thinking has to die before the new can be borne.