Monday, May 19, 2008

Have You No Sense of History, Sir?

Now that the initial furor over President Bush's recent 'appeasement' remarks in Israel has died down a bit, perhaps a rational spin can be put on it. Accepting President Bush's remarks as accurate for a moment, it becomes necessary to map out an alternative to talking with Iran which will elicit the desired results. It is easy to bluster about the folly of conversation, but is inevitably hollow without a suitable plan with which to substitute it.

One alternative, and the one on which the administration seems most keen, is regime change by force. One need not gaze too far back into the abyss of history to imagine how that scenario might play out. In fact, only as far as the present day. It would be quite a feat for anyone to offer compelling evidence why any future conditions in Iran after invasion would vary substantially from those of present-day Iraq. Especially if Iran is seen as the main purveyor of unrest in Iraq. The validity of the previous sentence is immaterial to the point, since those that would invade Iran believe it fully, and, as such, must apply it to their reasoning.

Another alternative, offered by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, is the tried-and-true method of economic sanctions and forced isolation. Again, Iraq need be the only model here. Economic sanctions there surely hampered Saddam's military capacity, but also deprived the general population of much more. The thought that if faced with a slighter influx of cash, a despotic regime will allow itself to be deprived in equal proportion with its subjects is farcical.

But what Morris and McGann see is not a slow bleed, but a regime change from within:

Without subsidies, the Iranian people, half of whom are under 30 and only 40 percent of whom are ethnically Farsi, will become restive and resentful. Already, many complain that Ahmadinejad’s policies have led to global isolation of Iran and stymied economic growth and social upward mobility. While opinion surveys in Iran indicate that the people support the nuclear aspirations of the regime, they are not willing to pay a price of international isolation.

If a President Obama were to meet with President Ahmadinejad, it would send a signal to the Iranian people that they are not isolated but that the rest of the world has come to respect them and to have to deal with them. The leading argument for toppling the current regime will have been fatally undermined.

The authors seem here to be engaging in willful ignorance both of the mechanics of tyranny and the datum of history. Sanctions and isolation surely bred resentment in Saddam's Iraq, but part was surely directed outward (UN/US), and that which was directed inward was ineffectual (such is the case in tyranny). 12 years of wishing for regime change and starving (with the help of a corrupt dictator, to be sure) Iraqi children through sanctions didn't effect the end sought in Iraq. Why should it be any different in Iran?

Morris and McGann make two other common mistakes: First, they assign to the Iranian population all the traits of Ahmadinejad, and treat them as one in the same. Second, they assume that the power to lead Iran lies with Ahmadinejad when, in fact, it lies with the Supreme Ayatollah, Ali Khamenei.

The West's fight with Ahmadinejad is not a battle with a Hitler or Stalin, both of whom held absolute power and control of a sizable military apparatus. Ahmadinejad is more like the bully's scrawny friend who gets to taunt the bully's prey only while in his orbit. Ahmadinejad, apart from not being the supreme lawmaker of Iran, is not even the commander-in-chief of the Iranian forces.

But it is because of his provocative remarks, like denying the Holocaust and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, that the United States and Europe have never known quite how to handle the firebrand president, say politicians, officials and experts in Iran.

In demonizing Ahmadinejad, they say, the West has served him well, elevating his status at home and across the region at a time when he is increasingly isolated politically because of his go-it-alone style and ineffective economic policies.

Like Hugo Chavez, Ahmadinejad has been propelled to cult status precisely because of, and not in spite of, the West's constant denunciations and focus. I am not suggesting for a moment that the man is anything less than a buffoon, but some perspective is needed on his real place within Iran's power structure.

One can debate whether to talk with leaders like the Iranian charlatan or give them the cold shoulder. What is irrational and illogical, though, is to suppose--as Morris and McGann have--that the history of but 5 years ago will not serve as a guide.

The lesson of history can be taken in the first. Or it can be learned upon repetition. The US seems to be aiming at the latter.

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