by Bastoche | 12/10/2007 03:01:00 PM
On Monday, 3 December, the combined intelligence agencies of the US released a summary of their National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. The same day at a press briefing, Stephen Hadley, the National Security Advisor to President Bush, commented on the “key judgments” in the Estimate. The Intelligence Community, Hadley said, “has high confidence—high confidence—that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons program that it has never acknowledged and continues to deny.” The intelligence community also reports, with “high confidence,” that this covert program was brought to a deliberate halt in 2003 and, with “moderate confidence,” that it has not been reactivated.

However, though the Iranians halted covert work on nuclear weapons, the Intelligence Community reports “with moderate to high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.” The measure of Iran’s current intent to develop a nuclear weapons capacity must, of course, remain inexact, but the Intelligence Community is moderately confident that “convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult.”

Hadley’s presentation emphasizes two important points. First, as stipulated in the report, “from at least the late 1980s to 2003,” Iran maintained an undeclared and covert program to develop nuclear weapons. Second, although Iran halted its covert weapons program in 2003, it will possibly and even likely resuscitate it at some opportune time in the future. In his press conference of 4 December George Bush emphasized precisely these points. According to the President, “Iran was dangerous, Iran is dangerous, and Iran will be dangerous.” The danger of the Iranian regime has now, by the NIE, been indisputably demonstrated. “Iran had a hidden—a covert nuclear weapons program. That’s what [the NIE] said,” the President insisted. Since it has been shown that Iran had in the past an undeclared, covert program, who can affirm that in the near future “they couldn’t start another covert nuclear weapons program?” And having resuscitated such a program, they could clandestinely pass to it the uranium enriched in their so-called civilian program.

An Iran deliberately seeking a nuclear capacity “would create a danger for the world,” the President said. But that danger, and the international community’s response to it, can be averted if Iran follows the “better way forward” that the UN has made available to it. It must, that is, comply with the UN resolutions (the first, 1696, without sanctions, the subsequent, 1737 and 1747, with sanctions) and suspend all activity related to the enrichment and processing of uranium. Further, it must fully cooperate with the UN watchdog group, the IAEA, and demonstrate that it is conducting no covert and undeclared nuclear weapons program. If, on the other hand, Iran refuses to cooperate with the international community on these matters, it will, as Hadley put it in his briefing, suffer the consequences: “diplomatic isolation, United Nations sanctions, and…other financial pressure.”

1. The Overt and the Covert

It will not, though, suffer military reprisal. Neither Hadley in his briefing nor the President in his conference stated that America is poised to launch air attacks should Iran continue its noncompliance with the UN resolutions. Reaction was swift and predictable. Denied all at once their hope of seeing select portions of Iran reduced to cinders, neocon proponents of war immediately put on flamboyant displays of political pique. Norman Podhoretz, for example, stalking onstage like a distraught and flummoxed Lear, confessed to entertaining dark and "even darker" suspicions of those in the Intelligence Community who produced the Estimate. “For some years now,” according to Podhoretz, the Intelligence Community has been “leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush,” and the NIE is only the latest installment in that ongoing endeavor. The Community’s purpose this time, according to Podhoretz, “is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.” Swayed by the Estimate, the administration, Podhoretz fears, will substitute for the bold application of military force the craven appeasements of diplomacy.

Fortified no doubt by such indications of an incipient backlash, Senate Republicans on Friday announced plans to establish a bipartisan commission that will take a fresh look at the evidence on which the Estimate is based. They want to assess for themselves not only Iran’s nuclear capability but, even more important, Iran’s intent. As the neocons have profusely warned, even if Iran has called a temporary halt to its covert work on a weapons system, its covert motive—regional and even world domination—remains unchanged.

Of this the neocons have no doubt: the desire to dominate and oppress is still covertly at work behind Iran’s overt façade of cooperation. They feel justified in making such a judgment because in their view the world is split into two strictly delimited moral and political sectors. In one sector stand those nations—America, the European Union, Japan, Australia, etc.—committed to freedom and democracy. In the other stand those nations committed to tyranny, oppression, and, in our time, terror. As Robert Kagan argues in the book I am examining in this series, Of Paradise and Power, the Europeans have constructed in the sector of democracy a Kantian paradise of perpetual peace based on reason and rules. Outside that paradise of freedom and peace, however, is a world of anarchy and terror, a Hobbesian realm in which autocratic nations like Iran dispense with reason and rules and employ in their stead deceit and force. On the border between the two stands the indispensable nation, America. Like Europe, America is a nation committed to reason and rules. Unlike Europe, however, America is a nation committed also to the maintenance and use of military power. America, therefore, according to Kagan, is the one nation that can assume the role of the world’s Sheriff, committing itself to the protection of the world’s peaceful nations from the autocratic outlaws committed to the destruction of democracy and the eradication of freedom.

Iran, for neocons like Podhoretz, is one such outlaw. Its regime is a radical Islamic theocracy that repudiates accountability and transparency. The extremists in Tehran, led by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, use the standard methods of the autocrat, deceit and force, in order to oppress their own people and to spread terror throughout not only the region but the world. Autocrats, the neocons know, are never satisfied with a power that is limited. Driven by their irrational desire to oppress, they seek to expand their regime of tyranny and terror. With hardened autocrats such as those in Tehran, who brazenly use deceit to wheedle the naïve and dupe the unwary, diplomacy is useless. They may say that they want nuclear power for peaceful purposes only, and in the short term they may even be willing to abandon their quest for a nuclear weapon. But behind their façade of reasonable behavior, their long-term goal remains unmodified: to develop a nuclear capacity and to use it in order to subjugate every nation in the region to their radical Islamic agenda. Since they cannot be reasoned out of their quest for regional and world domination, only one option remains to those nations who seek to preserve peace in the region and in the world: the regime in Tehran must be subjected to a swift and overwhelming application of military force.

One neocon, though, believes that the Iranians can be talked to and reasoned with. In his most recent Washington Post column, “Time to Talk to Iran,” Robert Kagan claims that, as a consequence of the NIE report, Bush has been deprived not only of his military option, air strikes, but also of his economic option, sanctions. Only one option remains available to him, an option that he has not up to this point considered using—diplomacy. He must talk to Iran.

As I said in a previous post, Robert Kagan seems to be evolving. In a Washington Post column with Ivo Daalder he has called for a Concert of Democracies, a formal group of democratic nations that would meet on a regular basis to discuss and seek solutions to international crises. Akin to Kant’s Federation of Peace, this Concert of Democracies appears to signal a movement in Kagan’s political thinking away from rigid neocon ideas and toward a more flexible, even liberal approach to foreign policy and international affairs.

Appearances, though, can be deceiving. I’ll discuss Kagan’s “Talk to Iran” column in more detail next time. First, though, I want to return to the philosopher whose name Kagan repeatedly invokes in Of Paradise and Power, Immanuel Kant, and to his central moral idea, the categorical imperative. Like Kant, Kagan sees that politics and morality are inseparable. His vision of America as history’s “Dangerous Nation” is grounded in a moral ideal: freedom. America’s mission in history, as Kagan sees it, is not only to preserve freedom from the attacks of tyrants but also to topple tyrannical regimes and establish in their place democracy and freedom. During the Twentieth Century America became a nation with sufficient power to engage fully in its mission. For half a century it was balked in its quest by its great competitor, the Soviet Union. But after the total collapse of Communist tyranny, it stood forth alone as militarily the most powerful nation on earth, and for the foreseeable future it will retain that preeminence.

But America is also a nation committed to reason and rules, and it will never misuse its power and become that which it has been born to fight: the autocrat and imperialist. With complete confidence, therefore, one can declare that America is not only the preeminent military power in the world but also the preeminent moral power. Indeed, America is the preeminent moral power in history. America was conceived in freedom and its destiny is to universalize the great moral value out of which it was born. And by extending the great moral value of freedom until it has become universal, America will also bring to birth the great Kantian ideal: perpetual peace.

Kagan, as Kant would put it, is a political moralist. He has unified politics and morality in one comprehensive vision, a grand historical narrative in which America extends freedom throughout the world until it has established, under its benign auspices, a reign of prosperity and perpetual peace. Kant, though, as I have mentioned, distinguishes between the political moralist and the moral politician, a distinction based on the supreme moral rule that he calls the categorical imperative. And it is not the political moralist, according to Kant, who adheres to and follows the supreme moral rule but the moral politician.

2. The Imperative and its Implications : Freedom, Equality, Solidarity

In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant gives the imperative no fewer than five different, though related, formulations. The one most pertinent to our present discussion is the following:

So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means. (Gregor, 38)

According to Kant, it is morally imperative that one person not use another solely as a means to satisfy a material or emotional or psychological need. To use a person solely as a means to gratify a need is to reduce that person to the status of an instrument. That part of the imperative is clear enough. However, the other part of the imperative, that one person must always treat another as an end in himself, is more difficult to understand and needs a bit of unpacking.

In Kant’s view, as I explained in the previous post in this series, when a person is impelled by an impulse or inclination to achieve an end (eating breakfast, learning how to play the piano, invading and occupying a Middle East country), he deploys his ordinary practical reason to devise appropriate means and then, as Kant puts it, wills the end, that is, enacts the means he has devised to achieve his end.

Pure practical reason, on the other hand, unlike ordinary practical reason, is not roused to action by an impulse or need. Pure practical reason acts spontaneously, out of its own inherent energy, to legislate one overriding moral rule: the categorical imperative. That imperative guides the person in his specific moral choices (Kant calls them maxims), and when his moral choices conform to the imperative—to treat all others as ends in themselves—the person is acting morally: he is acting with a good will.

Put this way, though, something is lacking in Kant’s description of the categorical imperative. A person impelled by his inclinations seeks a specific end. With that end in mind he devises means to achieve it and then wills the end, that is, puts into practice those specific means. However, when acting in accordance with the categorical imperative, he does not seem to have a specific end or goal in mind other than conformity to the imperative itself: he must treat others as ends in themselves and not merely as instruments to gratify his self-interest and self-love. The imperative, therefore, seems purely negative, a constraint on his action, a duty he must perform for its own sake and with no other end in mind. As such, it seems to offer him nothing positive in his relation to the others towards whom he directs his will.

Kant, though, does supply an end towards which the will, when it acts in accord with the imperative, directs itself, and that end is something which for Kant inheres in every rational being as an absolute value: freedom. For Kant, that which gives absolute value to every human being is the free, autonomous, unconditioned will. That is, the absolute value of a person is enacted and affirmed when he freely chooses his own goals and legislates his own moral principles uncoerced by any internal or external force.

Conversely, the absolute value of a human being is violated and diminished when his will suffers coercion. Such coercion proceeds from two sources, an internal source and an external source. The internal source that can coerce a person’s will and diminish his humanity is his repertoire of inclinations. As Kant recognizes, a person’s will is continually and quite naturally conditioned by his inclinations, by his physical and emotional needs and desires. All too often, however, those inclinations impel him to use another person solely as a means to gain sexual satisfaction, wealth, status, power, etc. When coerced by his inclinations the person’s will is no longer free, no longer a good will, and he diminishes himself by acting immorally, that is, by using others as instruments to gratify his self-interest and his self-love.

Another person, however, retains her freedom. She too is impelled by her inclinations to use others solely as instruments to satisfy her material and emotional needs. But listening to the imperative announced by her reason and consenting to it, she resists the coercive force of her inclinations, becomes not subject to them but master of them, and treats others not solely as means to gratify her desires but with dignity and respect as ends in themselves, that is, as rational agents as capable as she is of adhering to the imperative and achieving freedom. And by assenting to the imperative and mastering her inclinations, she achieves not just a free will but a good will, a will that affirms the inherent dignity and value of others as free rational beings and that refuses to use them merely as instruments to gratify her self-interest and self-love.

For Kant, though, this is not all that is implied by pure practical reason and its imperative. The person of good will knows that every person is a rational being capable of following the imperative that emerges from pure practical reason. Every human being, that is, is capable of self-mastery and free moral action. In the realm of morality and pure practical reason there are no divisions based on class or religion or national origin. Those who belong to one class or one nation or one sect are no more capable of self-mastery and freedom than those who belong to any other. In his cosmopolitan vision, Kant affirms that all are capable of authentic moral action, capable, that is, of living as free men and women who treat one another with dignity and respect and not as mere instruments to satisfy the impulses of self-love.

In the realm of morality and pure practical reason, then, equality coexists with freedom. But even that is not all. For the person of good will, knowing that all are as capable of self-mastery and freedom as she is, strives to create the conditions—material, cultural, and political—in which they too can achieve the freedom of self-mastery. Unfortunately, all too often people live in conditions that militate against their achievement of freedom. One such condition is ignorance, another is poverty, and yet another is the violence that attends war. The person of good will seeks to eradicate the conditions that militate against the achievement of self-mastery and to promote the conditions that nurture it, specifically, knowledge and prosperity and peace. The end of the good will, then, its final purpose and goal, is not just the freedom of one but the freedom of all. The person of good will lives in solidarity with her fellows, affirming their dignity and absolute value as rational beings and striving to promote the conditions that nurture their inherent capacity to achieve self-mastery and freedom.

3. The Overt and the Covert: Reprise

If such are the implications of the categorical imperative, then we must, it seems, judge the neocons ideal Kantians. Like Kant, they hold freedom to be an absolute value and are committed to its worldwide promotion. It is certainly true that the neocons are intent on expanding the reach of America’s political and economic dominance. But at the basis of the neocon agenda, its driving force and essential motive, is the expansion of the American ideal of freedom. They envision America as the nation destined in history to bring into existence an international imperium of freedom and perpetual peace. And they are intent on amplifying America’s military power as the means to achieve its destined end. In their equal emphasis on freedom and on power, then, the neocons have brought into an ideal unity both morality and politics.

One could therefore never accuse the neocons of being actuated by a will-to-power and of harboring covert impulses to hegemony and domination. They themselves, of course, having high confidence in their good will and purity of motive, would refuse to acknowledge such an accusation or sneeringly deny it. Kant, however, recognizes that when a person scrutinizes the “incentives” driving his behavior, he will almost always unearth only motives that are worthy and good. Nonetheless, he says,

from this it cannot be inferred with certainty that no covert impulse of self-love…was not actually the real determining cause of the will; for we like to flatter ourselves by falsely attributing to ourselves a nobler motive, whereas in fact we can never, even by the most strenuous self-examination, get entirely behind our covert incentives, since, when moral worth is at issue, what counts is not actions, which one sees, but those inner principles of actions that one does not see. (Gregor, 19-20)

What counts, as the neocons claim, is intent. Neocons such as Podhoretz are quick to expose the covert intent of the Iranians: they are autocrats determined to subjugate and oppress. If Podhoretz were inclined to put it in Kantian terms, he might say that the Iranians are intent on reducing the nations in their region to mere instruments of their own fanatic self-interest. He might also say, if he were so moved, that the “incentives” of the neocons are honorable and fully transparent: to rescue those nations threatened by Iranian tyranny and to bestow on them the benefits of American freedom. In other words, the neocons have no covert motives that clash with their overt espousals. They have been, are now, and always will be, transparently and indisputably, the embodiment of the American ideal, supporting freedom and democracy in its ongoing and never-ending struggle with the anti-ideal of tyranny and terror.

As I would put it, though, the neocons are, in Kant’s terms, political moralists, and Kant knew full well that such moralists have covert motives that do not accord with the façade they present to the world. In order to elucidate those motives, though, we must go beyond both Hobbes and Kant. As useful and as suggestive as their concepts of honor and power, self-interest and self-love are, they are pre-Marx, pre-Nietzsche (whose genealogy of morals is very different from Kant’s), pre-Freud and the whole psychoanalytic tradition, and it is to these modern critics that we must go in order to understand the relation between the overt acts and declarations of the neocons and their covert motives and agendas.

Even so, there is much more to be gleaned from Kant: the formulation of the imperative that stresses autonomous self-legislation and freedom from external coercion; his distinction, based on the imperative, between the political moralist and the moral politician; the relation between the imperative and his concept of the republic; and his cosmopolitan vision of a federation of republics that will sustain perpetual peace.

I’ll go into these ideas in more detail when I examine Kagan and Daalder’s Concert of Democracies, a visionary scheme that they share with Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry, who discuss it in their Princeton Project Report, “Forging a World of Liberty Under Law.” Next time, though, I’ll return, after this long detour into Hobbes and Kant, to Of Paradise and Power itself and to Kagan’s concluding peroration on America’s place in the grand historical march of freedom and democracy.


The Groundwork has gained the reputation of being a difficult text. It has gained that reputation because it is a difficult text. I have found two editions particularly helpful in puzzling out its intricacies: those of Mary Gregor (Cambridge UP) and of Allen W. Wood (Yale UP). Gregor's edition contains a helpful intro, and Wood’s edition contains interpretive essays, including an especially illuminating one by Wood himself.

Crossposted at dailykos

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Anonymous Anonymous on 12/12/2007 3:06 PM:

And what do you think of the very popular view by a leading Israeli analyst Obadiah Shoher? He argues (here, for example, www. ) that the Bush Administration made a deal with Iran: nuclear program in exchange for curtailing the Iranian support for Iraqi terrorists. His story seems plausible, isn't it?


Anonymous Anonymous on 12/13/2007 8:03 AM:

I tend to think that Hegel would make a better comparison than Kant.


Blogger Bastoche on 12/13/2007 7:01 PM:

Alex: An interesting hypothesis, but Shoher’s presentation of it does not seem to me credible. Shoher argues that Tehran and Washington reached a behind-the-scenes deal in which Iran agreed to cut back “its support for Iraqi guerrillas” in return for Washington’s agreement not to bomb its nuclear facilities. But by agreeing to such a trade, the Bush/Cheney regime would be giving away something it prizes and gaining almost nothing in return.

Why almost nothing? Shoher seems to assume that Tehran has some significant influence on the insurgents, but the “Iraqi guerrillas” who form the core of the insurgency—including Salafist jihadis (who consider Shiites apostates) and former Baathists—are Sunni populations, and it’s very unlikely that they are receiving support from Shiite Tehran (look to Saudi Arabia for that). So, since the US is fighting a Sunni insurgency which does not derive support from Tehran, it’s clear that Tehran can do little to help Washington curtail it. Why then would Bush and Cheney deny themselves something that they avidly fantasize about—elimination of Iran’s nuclear capacity and destabilization of its regime—when they would be getting virtually nothing in return?

On the other hand, such a deal might make sense in one scenario. If Bush and Cheney had already decided, before initiating the dealmaking, that they were not going to bomb Iran (knowing, perhaps, that the info in the new Estimate had deprived them of that option), they could then have promised Tehran that they would not attack it if, in return, Tehran helped US forces curtail the influence of a specific Shiite faction in Iraq—the Mahdi army of Muqtada al Sadr. Tehran is likely giving some support to Muqtada and his Army. But it’s safe to assume that Tehran would prefer to see the Baghdad government run by the Dawa or the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Shiite parties with which it has had longstanding ties. Would Tehran, then, in return for assurances that it would not be bombed, cooperate with US forces and the Badr Organization (the military arm of the ISCI) against Muqtada and the Mahdi Army (and especially in Basra)? I suppose that Bush and Cheney could have extended to Tehran such an offer, but, again, only if they had already decided that air strikes against its nuclear facilities were no longer an option.

Speculative? You bet. But any other scenario positing a secret deal between Washington and Tehran does not seem to me well-grounded in the current realities of Iraq.