Every so often I visit the family crypt of the Wittelsbacher dynasty in
Munich's Frauenkirche, to make sure that the former kings of Bavaria are still
there. They give every appearance of being dead, but deceased undesirables have
a way of showing up at inconvenient moments - for example, former US secretary
of state James Baker III. Like King Saul conjuring the spirit of the prophet
Samuel, President George W Bush has conjured the undead of his father's
administration, namely the Baker-Hamilton "Iraq Study Group". Samuel's ghost
told Saul in effect (I Samuel 28), "You're
toast," and the unfortunate president will hear the same message from his new
defense secretary, Robert M Gates, and the rest of his fellow spooks.
The sina qua non of a ghost is that it is condemned for eternity to
reenact the delinquencies of its past life. That is just what we should expect
from Robert Gates. As chief of the Central Intelligence Agency's Soviet desk
during the early 1980s, Gates shared the consensus academic view that the
Soviet economy was strong and stable. A prosperous Russia, he reckoned, would
respond rationally to management by carrot and stick. Fortunately for the
United States, then-CIA director William Casey recruited outsiders such as
journalist Herbert E Meyer, and listened to them rather than to Gates. 
If the Soviet economy was crumbling, some leftist commentators object, what
justified the Reagan administration's military buildup of the 1980s? The answer
is that a failing empire is far more likely to undertake dangerous adventures
than a successful one. That was true of the Soviet Union, whose 1979 invasion
of Afghanistan threatened US power at the moment of its greatest vulnerability.
It is equally true today of Iran, which faces demographic implosion and
economic ruin during the next generation.
Baker, Gates and their Iraq Study Group will report to President Bush next
week. Judging from press leaks and the public record, they will propose a
ghastly misevaluation of Iran, identical in character to their misevaluation of
the Soviet Union a generation ago. As widely reported, they will propose to
"engage Iran"; but for what object should Iran be engaged?
Iran can be persuaded to abandon nuclear-weapons development if it feels secure
against external threats, according to a Council on Foreign Relations study
that Gates co-authored in 2004 with former president Jimmy Carter's national
security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. 
Never mind that Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the only country to threaten Iran's
borders in a generation, has been neutralized. Gates and Brzezinski insist,
"Given its history and its turbulent neighborhood, Iran's nuclear ambitions do
not reflect a wholly irrational set of strategic calculations." The clerical
regime believes it requires nuclear weapons, Gates-Brzezinski insist, because
of the threat from the United States. Here is the key paragraph of the 2004
The elimination of Saddam Hussein's regime has unequivocally
mitigated one of Iran's most serious security concerns. Yet regime change in
Iraq has left Tehran with potential chaos along its vulnerable western borders,
as well as with an ever more proximate US capability for projecting power in
the region. By contributing to heightened tensions between the Bush
administration and Iran, the elimination of Saddam's rule has not yet generated
substantial strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with US
statements on regime change, rogue states, and preemptive action, recent
changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced the potential
deterrent value of a "strategic weapon". 
In other words,
the Bush administration's threats against Tehran are not a response to Iran's
nuclear ambitions, but rather the cause of Iran's nuclear ambitions, according
to the sages of the Carter and the Bush Sr administrations. It is a peculiarly
self-referential argument, but not a new one, for that is just how the
"realists" viewed the Soviet Union in 1981.
It is true that Iranian policy is rational. It is silly to allege that Iranian
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad makes policy on the premise that the imminent
reappearance of the 12th Imam will bring about the end of the world as we know
it. Iran's policy is quite rational, but in a very different way than Gates and
Brzezinski imagine: facing prospective ruin, it wants to conquer the entire oil
belt of the Middle East, from Azerbaijan to the northwest coast of Saudi
Arabia. I explained why in
Demographics and Iran's imperial design (September
As noted, the Soviet section of the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence failed
miserably in its mission during the Cold War when Gates was in charge. Why the
man ever had another job offer speaks volumes about the character of
bureaucracies. The Soviet Empire of 1979-82 was all the more dangerous for its
infirmity. If Russia had succeeded in breaking Europe's political will and
harnessing European industry to its own decrepit industrial machine, the
communist economy might have managed its problems quite well. That was the
thrust of Russian policy, which sought to intimidate the Germans into the
status of vassal state.
Few who were not participants know how close the United States came to losing
the Cold War. The point-spread for victory in the Cold War strongly favored the
Soviet Union in European salons. President Ronald Reagan's core group of
advisers - Alexander Haig, William Casey, Richard Allen and William Clark -
believed that one side or another would achieve victory during the 1980s.
Either the Soviet Union would intimidate America's allies in the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization and emerge stronger, or the Soviet Union would collapse by
the end of the decade. Ultimately America's ability to mount a huge military
buildup while the civilian economy prospered was the decisive fact.
The 1980s presented an unstable world in which the illusionary equilibrium of
the Cold War would come to a crashing end. But that is not how Gates saw it.
The US academic consensus, as well as the Foreign Service and intelligence
community, could not imagine such a grand rupture of stability. They projected
their own desire for stability - the stability of career and social status - on
to the world around them, with potentially disastrous results. They swam in the
fishbowl of incremental change and petty tradeoffs. Confronted with evidence
that great events and challenges lay before the United States, they could not
read the writing on the wall, and refused to believe it once the characters
were interpreted for them.
Why can't the "realists" make sense of reality, even when it clamps its jaws
firmly upon their posteriors? Why is it that the king's magicians never seem to
be able to read the fiery script on the wall? Belshazzar's magi could not read
the words "Mene, mene, tekel, uparsin"; the king of Babylon had to call
in an outside consultant, namely Daniel. By then it was too late.
The answer to the conundrum is that knowledge is existential. That is, we
cannot easily imagine a world in which we will not exist because the world has
no use for us. Self-styled power brokers of the James Baker ilk have no place
in the world when power asserts itself in its naked form and there is nothing
more to broker. The realists fancy themselves the general managers in a world
of hierarchy, status and security. Replace these with insecurity and chaos, and
there no longer is any need for such people.
Reading the confidential correspondence of Europe's leaders just before World
War I, one observes that Franz Joseph of Austria, Wilhelm II of Germany, and
Nicholas II of Russia could not conceive of the calamity about to befall them.
On the eve of mobilization, they remained blind and deaf to the dangers at
their doorstep (Why
war comes when no one wants it, May 1, 2006). They evinced
not stupidity - for they were clever and cultured men - but rather hysteria.
The world shortly was to have no use for them, and it was beyond their capacity
to imagine a world in which they did not exist. Rene Descartes was misguided to
write, "I think, therefore I am." Most of us do not require a logical proof of
our own existence; those who do require it have little interest in logic. More
relevant is the converse: "I am, therefore I am willing to think." Past the
limits of our potential existence, thought will not carry us.
The ghosts of defunct European monarchies mingle with the shades of failed
policy in Washington. Who you gonna call? Not the neo-conservatives, whose
effort to turn the sow's ear of Middle Eastern politics into the silk purse of
democracy has not a shred of credibility remaining. The Reagan administration
did not win the Cold War by proposing regime change in Moscow, but by
humiliating Russian power to the point that its will to fight evaporated. There
is no one to interpret the fiery letters on the wall. For the past five years I
have counseled the United States to learn to live with the chaos that it can do
nothing to prevent. No matter: Americans will learn, late and at cost, the way
they always do.