What You Should Think About Belligerence

December 4, 2007

“There was never a good war or a bad peace.”

–Benjamin Franklin

As the autumn leaves brandished their colors in 2001, I looked forward to the prospect that something good might come out of a Presidency that had been consistently disappointing. Republican talking points were foreshadowing a call for immigration reform. No one fresh from the Texas Governor’s Mansion could side with the hateful rabble on that issue. Alas, I would not get to see the President make an appeal for something vaguely resembling decent public policy until years later.  Osama bin Laden and his associates made sure of that.

Instead, speeches that were initially disturbing for their lack of coherence and appeal gave way to coherent appeals to immanentize the eschaton. “You’re either with us or against us,” revealed that the President and his inner circle viewed the world in very simple terms. All humanity was reduced to black hats and white hats. Concern about a possible shortage of nuance was answered by flaunting a total lack of nuance. Our national leader seemed certain all citizens would look to him for clear answers about who was good and who was evil.

In international relations, messages seldom are so simple and clear as they were when the 2002 State of the Union address introduced “the Axis of Evil” to the pages of history. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were the nations said to threaten national security and pose grave peril to all peace-loving human beings. One of the most overrated minds in the history of politics, belonging to David Frum, forged this powerful rhetorical implement of belligerence.

“Wise men talk when they have something to say; fools talk when they have to say something,” is an aphorism that is attributed to Plato, Benjamin Franklin, and Saul Bellow. Whoever actually wrote it, the sentiment surely applies here. Early in his first Presidential campaign, George W. Bush dismissed questions about recent events abroad by explaining that there was no cable television on his ranch. Both major party candidates in 2000 were clearly focused on a domestic agenda, and the nation itself had only recently shed the weight of the Cold War. Yet there is an enormous difference between being focused chiefly on domestic policy and being oblivious to world news.

Given how long it took overseers of Iraq policy to recognize the significance of the sectarian divide in that nation, it is fair to ask if White House insiders would have been able to find Iraq and Iran on an unlabeled map in early 2001. Though the time between the 9/11 attacks and the Axis of Evil speech was roughly as long as a typical undergraduate semester, whatever studying the President and his foreign policy advisors did during that time was unsatisfactory. Any astute assessment of their work makes this painfully clear.

Among the lessons they failed to learn was that Iran had made tremendous progress toward the restoration of secular rule. Years of relatively benign behavior and rhetoric from the United States robbed fanatics’ fires of fuel. Iranians old enough to remember the time before the revolution longed for a return to sights like women with loose hair in public places or progressive political messages in uncensored print. The original revolutionaries were growing old and tired, and their successors generally lacked the fervor so evident in the years just after the Shah was deposed.

Even in Iran, there was much sympathy for Americans blindsided by terrorism. Having restored authentic autonomy to a nation long dominated by Western puppets, the old guard in Tehran was circumspect about letting their homeland become a diverse and free society. Media censors rarely exercised their powers. Politicians called for an end to the theocratic institutions established during the revolution, and those calls resulted in increased popularity. Left to its own devices, Iran was months away from genuine secular governance.

Then the President of the United States took it upon himself to poke Iran with one very big stick. Suddenly militant Iranian conservatives stopped sounding quite so ridiculous as they railed against “The Great Satan.” The people of Iran felt threatened. This feeling emerged from the fact that they were threatened by the world’s only remaining superpower! Suddenly the work of censoring progressive media seemed much more important to Iranian officials. As the election approached, reinvigorated theocrats disqualified reform candidates and detained the most vocal protesters.

Yet even if old revolutionaries had not awakened police powers that had lain dormant for years, the people of Iran may have voted against reform. It is hard to be reasonable and thoughtful in a climate of fear. Much like Americans in 2002 and 2004, Iranians have suffered from a recent trend toward visceral politics. In both nations, the perception of a worldshaking menace threatening voters’ way of life mattered more than real issues and worthwhile ideas.

Enter Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jubilantly pandering to Iranian jingoism, he was able to muster a strong level of popular support. In fact, it is a fair question to ask if he really is just pandering. Even today, American insiders seem unsure to what extent the Bush-Cheney team is intent on war with Iran. If you can get past the cyborg heart and secret underground lair, Dick Cheney is scary in ways unrelated to the archvillain stereotype. An Iranian firebrand could tell tall tales, but a sensible analyst may also raise alarms simply by focusing on what our Vice President has said and done.

There is no sane justification for the extent to which Americans have already changed our way of life out of fear. Though international terrorism provides a little core for this dark emotion, it has been built up to monumental proportions by the rhetoric of our own leaders. By contrast, no hyperbole is needed to make the threat of attack from the United States armed forces seem monumental. Peering across the border into Iraq provides a reality to generate that perception from a truly Iranian perspective.

This morning, President Bush took a number of questions from reporters, some clearly not planted there by his own administration. A recent National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Iran has ceased work on military applications for nuclear technology was characterized as an opportunity to raise awareness about the “threat” posed by Iran. The President called for additional international pressure to isolate Iran. To Iranian observers, it must have seemed a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” moment.

Assuming the President and his foreign policy advisors are not all mental defectives, we can infer from the garbage coming out of their mouths that there must be a great deal of garbage going into their ears. One might be able to make the case that Iran is troublesome because the government has some sympathy for Palestinian terrorists and may have some slight links to the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in making that case Saudi Arabia must be judged much more troublesome on both counts.

Perhaps the standard is that nuclear technology should be kept out of the hands of regimes that do not practice real democracy. How does this standard apply to China? Did Pakistan recently cross the line? Is Russia on track to “be against us” eventually? It seems as if U.S. policy toward a foreign government is influenced by no factor quite so much as the degree of personal animus George W. Bush feels for that regime. The problem with Iran is merely that the administration in the White House today is hostile toward the Iranian government. Just how is this the fault of any Iranian?

Okay, so it is fair to point out that President Ahmadinejad is just as quick to rattle a sabre as our own Warmonger-in-Chief. Yet it is vital to point out that the people of Iran are no less inclined than the people of America to seek peace. Outside the halls of power (and certain elements of each nation’s military-industrial complex,) there is widespread consensus in favor of focus of constructive actions by government. The average man, there as here, has no desire to feel foreign blood on his hands. If only the leaders of both nations could behave as well as average men, the world might be a more tranquil place than it seems to be just now.

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What You Should Think About Iran

October 11, 2007

“With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one — but no one at all — can tell you what to read and when and how.”

–Doris Lessing

False narratives thrive on oversimplification. Take the recent debate about Armenian history. The Presidential stance on a formal recognition of genocide in an old Turkish-Armenian conflict amounts to, “this could make the war more complicated, so we need to avoid it in order to support the troops.” Really?!? Supporting American soldiers in the field means denying genocide? If polled, would the men and women presently in harm’s way over there affirm that they wish genocide to be denied on their behalf?

Of course, the real irony here is that this relentless obsession with Iraq has placed the White House in the position of emulating the behavior of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps the American administration has not disputed the numbers or context of wholesale slaughter perpetrated against the Armenian people. Then again, Ahmadinejad’s own “Holocaust denial” was also less a dispute of historical facts and more a semantic ploy. Neither denial deserves praise, yet both seem only to strengthen their perpetrators’ popularity within their own increasingly narrow base of support.

What is real, and what people really say, often is not reflected accurately in public perception. In some instances this is due to quirks of human nature, commercial media, or a particular culture. Yet in some cases it is because political operatives succeed in popularizing misinformation for the express purpose of preventing the public from understanding what is wrong with a particular policy or proclamation. For example, the infamous “Axis of Evil” speech told a tale of Iran from the late 1970s. For quite some time up until that speech was given, Iran was a much different place. Government censors exercised a light touch, principles of secular governance were broadly popular, and a wave of liberal reformers were set to take power in the next election.

Frightened people look to strong authority figures for comfort. The unprovoked outburst of rhetorical hostilities from the world’s lone superpower was cause enough revitalize religious extremists at the core of the last Iranian revolution. A traumatized Iranian citizenry largely acquiesced to a new wave of censorship, the disqualification of many reform candidates from pending elections, and even a resurgence of militant nationalism. Deep down, an overwhelming majority of Iranians long for the liberty and prosperity of a non-theocratic republic. Yet when warnings about the Great Satan are validated by actual threats of wrath and ruin delivered courtesy of Uncle Sam, it is hard for Iranian progressives to motivate any sort of actual progress.

Just over the border is a nation-sized chamber of horrors illustrating why the United States is so damn scary to people in nations like Iran. Against all reason and tradition, American aggression has transformed Iraq into a seething cauldron of raw violence. The idea that the United States might rain down fire upon Iran, or even invade outright, should seem ridiculous to all concerned. Because instead it seems plausible, the usual nonsense that anti-American nationalists around the world always spout is suddenly much more sensible. Supporting theocracy and rapid military growth may not actually be wise choices for Iranian citizens at present, but the threat from the U.S. provides some reasonable ground to support the right wing of Iranian politics.

To truly understand how all this came to be, it is important to look back some distance in Iranian history. Recognizing that foreign nations were extracting tremendous wealth from Iranian oil fields while paying virtually nothing more for the privilege, President Mohammad Mosaddeq plead with the United Nations for an opportunity to renegotiate petrochemical rights. Rather than succeed in connecting the people of Iran in some reasonable way with a share of the proceeds from extraction of their nation’s natural wealth, President Mosaddeq would soon find himself deposed and imprisoned.

His only crime was to do as Hugo Chavez has done more recently — kick out foreign profiteers in order to see to it that the people of his nation could partake meaningfully of the wealth generated by pumping oil from public land. While Chavez merely faces a campaign of demonization in American media, Mosaddeq and the Iranian people saw and end to healthy democracy in that nation. Some might say that the Shah who took command in his place was a truer reflection of what the people wanted. Of course, propaganda like that is flatly contradicted by the end of his reign.

Americans too old to remain in the “young adult” demographic probably have clear memories of the Iranian hostage crisis. Public outrage at the role the United States played in installing the Shah meant that the popular revolution to overthrow him was rife with anti-American hostility. By sheer force of numbers, rebels were able to seize control of the American embassy. Fifty-two workers and guards were taken hostage and held for 444 days. This was not some random burst of outrage or a question of “hating freedom” as the sitting President might contend. Americans were targeted because of overt support for the coup to install the Shah.

Of course, some people became very rich from all this mess. That does not justify it in the least, but it may have justified the act in the minds of those involved with it. The Shah’s government continued to support the depletion of Iranian oil fields with little more than token compensation to the nation or its people. In essence, his position as head of state was one of the largest corporate kickbacks in history — his reward for making this form of economic rape possible.

American manipulation of Iranian government is only one of many complaints fueling anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Funding the Israeli Defense Force without so much as an unkind word for their most brutal operations also generates ill will. That dovetails with a grave miscommunication that convinced Saudi royalty being the U.S. would vote against a UN resolution to place much of inhabited Palestine under the control of the newly formed state of Israel (our ambassador did just the opposite.) We may talk about being in favor of democracy and freedom. Yet in the Middle East our reputation for inflicting unwanted regimes on harmless, and virtually helpless, people results from a track record of doing precisely that.

Even one amazingly successful liberation from tyranny would not offset the installation of so many autocrats. Heck, our government still remains fiercely loyal to the leaders of Saudi Arabia — a 21st century monarchy where crime and punishment is largely a matter of draconian religious law. In order to truly understand Iran, I believe it is best to make some effort to understand how the people of Iran see us. Some do understand America’s core principles and our history of championing freedom in the abstract. Still, most Iranians probably understand better than the average American just how much our government has done to promote oppression in the name of waging the Cold War . . . and sometimes for no better purpose than to increase profits among a few well-connected energy companies.

If we do not become entangled in the misrepresentations espoused by White House foreign policy “experts” who have consistently revealed themselves to be detached from any sort of underlying reality, we can begin to reach for some underlying reality of our own. There we find the people of 21st century Iran well aware of the crossroads at which they stand. Most wish to walk the path of civil liberties with a political process open to all ideologies and organizations. Yet that path remains barred by giant American sabres, rattling with so much sound and fury. It was entirely predictable that our belligerence would instigate and perpetuate the heavy political censorship of newspapers, television, and books inside Iran.

The people of Iran will not surrender to the terror of a threatening superpower anymore than the people of the United states would surrender to the terror of Al Qaeda. However, they would make many choices in harmony with George W. Bush’s stated goal of democratizing the region — if only they were given enough respite from American threats to start voting more out of hope and less out of fear. History reveals with surprising clarity just how much worse outcomes are when the politics of a nation become stuck in panic mode.