Steve Kinzer’s ‘Reset’ Roles for Turkey and Iran

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Stephen Kinzer. (44 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Stephen Kinzer is a journalist of a certain cheeky fearlessnes and exquisite timing. In his new book he’s ahead of the game again.

The ink was barely dry on Kinzer’s Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, when events conspired late in May to demonstrate his logic in action. It was the sort of crack in the hegemonic eggshell that had to show up sooner or later, when leaders of rising powers — from that restless tier of less-than-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, or what Parag Khanna calls The Second World — would announce themselves on the main stage with an idea that Uncle Sam and NATO hadn’t thought of first. And suddenly, out of a hat, there they were together in Tehran: President Lula of Brazil and Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey and President Ahmedinejad, their host, with an agreement to off-load Iranian uranium and avert a nuclear-proliferation crisis with Iran and a sanctions campaign at the United Nations. The seriousness of the diplomatic initiative seemed to be certified by Hillary Clinton’s hauteur in dismissing it — then further by Tom Friedman’s ugly trashing of it. But PM Erdogan held his ground: “This is the moment to discuss if we believe in the supremacy of law or in the law of the supremes and superiors,” he said. And the example stands. Mariano Aguirre writes on the indispensable openDemocracy site: “it is a watershed in the configuration of a new multipolar world.”

Steve Kinzer’s Reset is a bold exercise in reimagining the United States’ big links in the Middle East. His essential question is: what if Turkey and Iran, of all nations, are to be our critical partners in stabilizing the region — not Saudi Arabia and Israel? Not the least of my questions is: how dare an ex-New York Times reporter try to shape history, after writing so much of it? I asked him whether Washington’s objection to the Brazil-Turkey-Iran triangle was perhaps less to their nuclear-fuel deal than to their presumption in advancing it:

I think there’s still a residue of anger at Turkey for its refusal to let American troops through to invade Iraq in 2003. That might be the beginning of this whole process. There are still some people in Washington who are angry at Turkey for not doing that, and in fact at one point Turkey was even being blamed by senior Bush Administration officials for helping to cause the crisis in Iraq because they didn’t allow us to launch that kind of invasion.

I also think there’s a mindset that tells people in Washington: when we decide something, the NATO allies and everybody else that considers themselves our friends have to go along. The idea that another group of countries in the world is going to suggest, “We live here, we know this neighborhood, and we have a different idea,” is something the US is still very uncomfortable with. The mindset says we need to hold onto the kind of power that we’re used to having, and this to me is one of the biggest problems that my book and others are trying to address…

There is such an inertia in the foreign policy-making process that any original thinking is crushed immediately as the germ of some terrible plague… So although I like to think I’ve come up with an interesting approach to the Middle East… what I really would like to get across as a bigger message is: let’s think big. Let’s come up with some new ideas. The century changed. The Cold War is over. But our policies, particularly in the Middle East, have not changed… Keeping yourself stuck in the same rut is going to intensify these interlocking crises…

Stephen Kinzer in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 8, 2010.

Steve Kinzer — once the Times’ man in Central America, then Berlin, Istanbul and Tehran — reminds you what a newspaperman’s virtues are good for, all the better when freed from his newspaper chains.

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