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  • Permanent War, Elusive Peace:The Evolution of America's Compellence Policy Towards Iran
  • Nader Entessar (bio)

"Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."1

I'm thinking of hitting [Lt. General Qassem] Soleimani."2


In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq, a new fluid strategy has been emerging to guide American foreign policy well into the twenty-first century. This strategy has been largely the product of a group of influential neoconservative hawks, or, in the words of James Mann, the "Vulcans" inside and outside of the U.S. government.3 With their emphasis on regime change, the neoconservatives have continuously drafted grandiose plans to redraw the geostrategic map of the Middle East to Washington's liking. For example, [End Page 95] the "Vulcans" in George W. Bush's administration replaced Europe and East Asia with the Middle East as the "fulcrum of geopolitics, the zone wherein the shape of world order will be forged. Remaking the Middle East, above all by bringing democracy to the Arab and Islamic nations of the region, therefore, must be America's overriding mission, since it is only by remaking these societies that the United States can be secure."4 Although such neoconservatives as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were known for their advocacy of muscular foreign policy and valued unilateralism, the developments on the ground in the post-invasion Iraq and elsewhere in the region compelled the Bush administration to ultimately abandon its pretensions as an international social engineer in the Middle East in favor of a more traditional "realist" approach to foreign policy decision-making.

Realpolitik soon gave way to a new "grand strategy" whose foundations, as John Lewis Gaddis noted, lie in the nineteenth-century American tradition of hegemony and unilateralism.5 But unlike its nineteenth-century variation, the twenty-first century American "grand strategy" of robust interventionism is meant to be global in scope. The term neoconservatism was first coined by Michael Harrington to refer to a philosophy espoused by such anti-Soviet liberal democrats as Humbert Humphrey, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Henry "Scoop" Jackson. Many of these early American neoconservatives referred to themselves as "paleoliberals" to distinguish themselves from economic conservatives. As Michael Lind, himself a prominent former neocon has aptly noted, today's neocons are a "shrunken remnant of the original broad neocon coalition."6

In terms of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, the neocons charted a new course for America's regional policy in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War and the failed Shi'a uprising against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In 1992, Paul Wolfowitz, then Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and later the Deputy Secretary of Defense and a leading proponent of the Iraq war took the lead in drafting a set of military guidelines called the "Defense Planning Guidance," which are normally prepared every few years by the Pentagon. Wolfowitz's draft argued for a revolutionary military and political strategy in the Post-Cold War era by rejecting the utility of containment as a relic of the Cold War. Most importantly, the report called for the [End Page 96] adoption of a new strategy of preemption to replace containment and to be prepared to act alone when military action becomes necessary. Thus, Wolfowitz challenged the primacy of both containment and multilateralism in favor of compellence in advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives in the broader Middle East. By the same token, the neocon promoters of the compellence strategy denigrated the rule of law and international norms if they conflicted with the broader goals of compellence. In this vein, John Bolton, an influential neocon official who held numerous high-level positions in the U.S. government, including a stint as the national security advisor in the Trump administration, stated: "It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so—because over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want...


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