“The Devil We Know” by Robert Baer

by Josua H. Liberatore

When I went to hear ex-CIA operative Robert Baer speak about his new book in 2008, I got a mixed impression of his journalistic offering. On the one hand, his former line of work, his fluency in Arabic and Farsi, his hundreds of contacts in the Middle East, all furnish him with a unique and informed perspective on current affairs in foreign policy. On the other, his manner of presentation bears the marks of encyclopedic fact-gathering and ostentatious insiderism not the fruits of deep learning and analysis. His deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery of even very controversial statements encourages his audience to believe they are now in possession of deep, dark secrets, the proprietary data from a shadowy understory normally unavailable to us nonspies. The dispassionate gaze of a trained field agent – a soldier of a kind – does not accompany compassion, moral deliberation, or even proper recognition of the gravity or problematic nature of his pronouncements. His remarks were brief, he skipped the protocol of reading excerpts from his book, and he answered questions with a smug, somewhat combative, disposition that betrayed a certain pleasure in demythologizing our pedestrian assumptions about Iran and Iraq, our ignorance of what was really happening there.

    All of which made the evening unusually entertaining, if somewhat awkward. I left the bookstore amused, but wondering what Baer’s exact motives are. Does he actually care about the threat he believes Iran poses to American interests or is he just playing the dutiful messenger? Does he care about Iranians and believe they too have valid national goals or is he just miffed by U.S. misunderstanding and myopia regarding Iran’s influence in a part of the world we believe is under imperial control? Is the “devil we know” a devil we must, perforce, be fighting? Is “devil” even an appropriate metaphor for modern Iran? The psuedoreligious terminology of the title – however catchy (Baer’s earlier memoir issued as See No Evil, and he titled another journalistic exposé Sleeping with the Devil) – has more in common with George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” than the actual content of Baer’s book. Even if we accept such Manichean dichotomies, Iran, if anything, is the devil we don’t know.

    In short, on the strength of this first encounter with Baer the speaker, I expected his book, dramatically subtitled “Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower,” to read in a similar vein. And it in large part does, but it’s also remarkably perceptive in driving home several themes wholly off the radars of most intelligent American citizens. First and foremost, Iran is misapprehended as a theocratic, fanatical regime bent on Israel’s destruction and violent confrontation with the West. Iran’s broad sense of history engenders a wide belief that Shia Muslims, long oppressed in the Middle East and deemed untrustworthy by the U.S., can unite and organize to achieve geopolitical victories across the region, in Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria. Baer emphasizes the point that Iran has been more successful at crossing sectarian lines – by engaging Sunni Kurds and Palestinians, for example – than any regime in the region, native or colonial. Although largely unnoticed in the American media, Iran’s 2006 success in fending off the mighty Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon through its proxy Hezbollah was a signal to the Muslim world of precisely what Iran alone could do, that which united Arab armies in 1967 and 1973 could not do. Similarly, although Saddam Hussein’s huge and well-equipped modern army crumbled quickly after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran has made headway, again through local proxies, in defeating Sunni insurgent elements and maintaining order in key Shia cities with an efficiency and nimbleness that the American colossus can’t match, for all its seemingly limitless resources.

    Baer is probably at his most insightful when he lobbies against the fallacious trust the U.S. government has placed in failing Sunni regimes decade after decade, in particular Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. These regimes are corrupt, repressive, and weak outside their own respective elites. Save Israel, Iran is widely acknowledged in the region as the most powerful and stable country around, and in many ways, coming to terms with Iran would be in our mutual interests: energy, political, strategic, and moral. (Israel needs to make its own calculation in this regard, but Baer believes Iran is the only credible guarantor of an enduring resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians.) Far from the stereotype prevalent in American political rhetoric as a raving, violent, medieval power – President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has not helped to dispel it – Iran has proven its mettle as a disciplined, calculating, and smart operator in the Middle East’s most tumultuous and uncertain circumstances. Indeed, Baer believes there is no country more equipped to craft order out of chaos; Iran’s success in quelling sectarian violence in Iraq and Lebanon in the absence of strong central local authority are cases in point.

    On this theme, Baer’s twenty years as a CIA field operative endow him with a unique capacity to make straight-faced qualitative comparisons between different brands of heinous violence. Sunni resistance movements, he argues, have largely limited themselves to employing takfiri suicide bombers, whose only stated goal to “weaken the enemy” is vague and strategically limited. Acting out of blind rage and irrational dualism, militants in the bin Laden and Zawahiri camp only destroy and demoralize; they don’t achieve military successes or build lasting power structures. In contrast, where Iranian influence has directly shaped Shia resistance movements in Lebanon, for example, through funding and equipping Hezbollah, we see strategic victories of wider and clearer recognition. Hezbollah’s successful expulsion of Israeli forces in 2000 and again in 2006 shocked the Muslim world and canceled any remaining doubts that Iran was the only serious hegemon that could pull it off. In Baer’s words, Al Qaida and other Sunni takfiris are about as productive and effective as the Khmer Rouge. Pursuing that analogy a bit, I suppose that the Shia resistance fighters under Iran’s tutelage are the Viet Minh.

    Despite moments where Baer seems to portray Iran as a new global menace on the level that the Soviet Union was for two generations, his discussion ends with a practical program for successful engagement with Iran. Iran is powerful and ruthless in safeguarding its own national and sectarian interests, but it is a much more grounded and reasonable potential partner than we might expect. Baer envisions a scenario where American policymakers shelve their age-old suspicions of Iran, forge a more accurate understanding of its society and political structure, and meet at the table as equals. Although it seems far-fetched, the alternatives that Baer enumerates – containing Iran militarily, bombing Iran, further isolating Iran, etc. – are far less persuasive. Despite thirty years of indirect warfare with and diplomatic alienation from the United States, Iran is not going anywhere, and with each passing year, its regional strength grows. If Baer has his way, we need to deal with the devil we know, but first we have to get to know it properly. His book, for all its mixed tonalities and occasional moral ambivalence, puts us on a firm path toward that goal.

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