- Debating Detente in the Twenty-first Century
"Turkey and Iran are the only Muslim countries in the Middle East where democracy is deeply rooted. This makes their future bright. It also makes them America's logical partners."1 With this sweeping proclamation, veteran journalist and award-winning author Stephen Kinzer cleans out America's foreign policy closet. He advocates nothing less than a radical rebalancing of United States-Middle East alliances in his latest book Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future.
The United States should tilt away from Israel and Saudi Arabia, toward Turkey and Iran, to improve regional and national security because Cold War-era politics is long dead, argues Kinzer. Kinzer's professional role is that of an expert-outsider to the American foreign policy establishment, having served as bureau chief for the New York Times in multiple continents over the course of two decades. Though not an academic or policymaker, he does not hesitate to put on these hats and deconstruct American strategic thinking.
In Reset, we learn how the masses, and sometimes governments, in Turkey and Iran have strived to see the "American project"—meaning modern notions of liberty and democracy promotion—in a bright light. The two nations' republican founders, Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran, threw off the yoke of the Caliphate and Islam's Shia clergy respectively to radically reform their countries. Their goal was to bring their nation's culture and political climate up to speed with the West, which entailed emancipating women, implementing new legal codes, banning religious garb in public, sending unprecedented numbers of children to school, and giving voice to public opinion, rich and poor. Despite the autocratic ruling styles, these men were quite progressive in implementing most of their policies.
In his fairly straightforward storytelling Kinzer succeeds in explaining these histories, though one does not walk away with a full understanding of what would happen if his grand recommendation—which would amount to a major recalibration of American foreign policy in the Middle East—is implemented. One does however sense the gravity of the political earthquake Kinzer proposes—one ironically designed to solve a Middle East set-up (i.e., U.S.-Iran tensions and the Israel-Palestine conflict) already on shaky ground. The first [End Page 143] part of his argument—that Iran and Turkey are more democratic, modern, and desiring of American support than most Americans realize—is clear and reasonable. But the ease with which he proposes the United States can change its stance overnight is slightly disconcerting. This makes the book tough to put down but also tough to imagine it finding much of an audience among senior U.S. foreign policy leaders. These elites cannot just reverse course without the proper incentives and structures in place to encourage them. And even if the President were to act, who is to say the outcome would be as Kinzer predicts—a new Middle East with a better chance of the solidification of stability and democracy?
Kinzer reminds the reader of the fascinating background of the two emerging powers, Iran and Turkey, but at the expense of glossing over the complexity of the situation. Many journalists, lobbyists, and foreign policy makers are reluctant to dig into Middle Eastern histories. Instead they fall back on tried and true dictates such as, "We can't afford to crack down on Saudi Arabia because they have our oil" and "Israel needs to be supported right or wrong, for their own good as well as ours." For Kinzer, these are distracting arguments.
Kinzer is convinced his plan would be beneficial to almost all players in the long run. Israel's foreign policy is not providing it with long-term security, due in no small part to unconditional U.S. aid. In his view, the biggest favor the American government could do for its closest ally in the region would be to impose peace on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kinzer argues the President should be "determined to twist limbs, squeeze appendages, and not stop when he...