by Eric Martin
Make no mistake about it, the same factions that were advocating for war with Iran before the presidential election late last week will use the dubious results as a pretense to augment the volume and urgency of their exhortations. The usual suspects, from Netanyahu (no doubt relieved to see the easy-to-demonize Ahmadinejad still atop the dais) to American neocons (ditto), will argue that the sham election is proof that Iran's regime is dangerous, unpredictable and, to use the preferred term, "irrational." Ahmadinejad's victory will be spun as conclusive evidence that any attempt at engagement or negotiation would be futile - and if negotiation cannot bring an end to Iran's nuclear program, then war would be the only choice given the "irrationality" and "vicious, lunacy" of the regime. From FT:
In thinly veiled criticism of Barack Obama, the US president, Silvan Shalom, Israel’s vice-prime minister, said the result was a “slap in the face of those who believed Iran was built for real dialogue with the free world and would halt its nuclear programme”.
Why this conclusion about the pointlessness of negotiations must logically flow from events surrounding the election is unclear. Assuming (as I do) that Khamenei and certain powerful factions of the Iranian government/clerical establishment: (1) grew uneasy with the size and potency of the popular backlash against Ahmadinejad and the political establishment's record of rule (such that even an old establishment hand such as Mousavi was able to seize the mantle of change-bringing reformer and increase voter turnout by prodigious amounts); and (2) were beating back a power play by his old sparring pal Hashemi Rafsanjani, why would this political calculus render the prospects for engagement dead on arrival?
Khamenei's actions were entirely rational, based not on Iran's position vis-a-vis America, Israel or on the future of its nuclear program, but rather on internal Iranian political machinations, and determining the nature of the domestic political system going forward. Vice President Biden's comments regarding the resilience of US interests are as true for Iran as the United States:
Mr Biden underlined a US willingness to begin negotiations. “Talks with Iran are not a reward for good behaviour,” he told NBC...“Our interests are the same before the election as after..."
However, those that want war will be beating the drums with new-found verve, and they will seize on the violent crackdown on Iranian protesters to erect an ersatz edifice with the counterfeit label, "moral high ground." The same people that have been "hop[ing] and pray[ing]" that the US will bomb Iran (almost inevitably leading to tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and likely more if and when the conflict escalates) are now wrapping themselves in the [insert color] flag of solidarity with those same Iranian people (to be killed at a later date) while bemoaning the uncaring nihilism of the "feckless" left. That would be all of us that don't want to turn Iran into a glass parking lot. How callous of us.
While that same love-them-to-death two-step should be familiar to an American people that witnessed how the war in Iraq was sold as a "compassionate, caring war of liberation," it's not entirely clear that the lessons have sunk in. Of interest, in particular, is to what extent the so-called liberal hawks (and conservatives in search of a soul) that were seduced by the "humanitarian" arguments for incinerating hundreds of thousands of Iraqis - but who have since repented, at least ostensibly - will react this time around.
Some of the initial signs are not encouraging. Even though calls for military action have been, thankfully, absent thus far, many of the same Iraq war supporters-cum-detractors are feeding the dangerous brand of rhetoric that war supporters use to sway the populace. While I strongly believe that the Obama administration is too wise to actually attack Iran, Obama could be made to pay a political price for such abstention, and the price will be higher should the liberal hawks join in the pile on giving the coveted bi-partisan quality to the attacks. For example, here is Ezra Klein (Ezra Klein?!?!) making a deeply flawed argument about the, get this, "irrationality" of the Iranian regime:
First, those of us who have long argued for the fundamental rationality of the Iranian regime have seen our case fundamentally weakened. A rational regime might have stolen the election. But they would not have stolen it like this, where there is no doubt of the theft. This is like robbers leaving muddy footprints and a home address. Tehran's evident vote-tampering is tempting both domestic revolution and international isolation. That they appear to fear neither says something very unsettling about the mental state of the regime.
No, no, no, no, no. Also, no. Assuming Klein's premise for the sake of argument, the Iranian regime handled this clumsily - in rushing to announce the results ahead of schedule, and claiming a tally for millions of paper ballots within a mere three hours of polls closing, etc. - but clumsy is not irrational. And based on what, exactly, does Ezra determine that the Iranian regime doesn't fear domestic revolution or international isolation? Quite the contrary, the regime likely acted to head off a surprisingly strong domestic movement that was motivated more by the chance for political change than the love of the candidate himself (so fear domestic political upheaval they did).
That the Iranian regime decided on such a wide margin of victory was also, at least arguably, a rational decision. The regime wanted to crush the dissent movement (and the Rafsanjani insurrection), not give it any hope that its prospects for victory going forward were realistic (an election loss of a point or two might encourage activists to push for what would be well within reach next go around). A large margin of victory would, on the other hand, deal a crushing blow to the spirits of the change movement, pushing them to the same resigned apathy that had led so many Iranians to abstain from the political process for decades. This gambit might just backfire, as rational plans frequently do, but that does not mean the strategy is irrational.
And really, Ezra should know better. The people that have "long argued for the fundamental rationality of the Iranian regime" have done so in the context of rebutting the argument that we must launch (yet another) war to prevent Iran from some day obtaining nuclear weapon-building capability because the regime is so irrational that it is undeterrable (unlike, apparently, the USSR and China during the Cold War - whose regimes never acted irrationally, not even under Klein's tenuous definition, natch). Ezra's argument, weak as it is, will be used for one purpose, and one purpose alone: selling war.
Similarly, two Iraq war champions that have supposedly found religion, George Packer and Andrew Sullivan, have been urging President Obama to do more - that is, to make hollow symbolic gestures and speak out in favor of the protesters. According to Packer and Sullivan, Obama should insert the United States in the middle of an indigenous Iranian electoral dispute in a way that would only hurt the intended beneficiaries and galvanize support for Ahmadinejad and his faction. In other words, the exact wrong thing to do.
And for what gain, ultimately? This belief in the potency of rhetoric is of a kind with the claims that Bush's bluster about Ahmadinejad, the Axis of Evil and his reluctance to "negotiate with evil" somehow would be an effective means to weaken Iran's hardliners and the North Korean regime. How'd that work out for us?
Yet such entreaties from Packer and Sullivan for Obama to "do something more" nurture the emerging right wing narrative that Obama is a weak, feckless, appeasing liberal incapable of standing up to tyranny (it really is an old saw, but it's being custom fitted). Just as Obama is likely smart enough to realize that military confrontation with Iran would be an enormous blunder, so too has he shrewdly remained aloof of the Iranian election drama despite the misguided pleas of certain pundits. In that sense, it is a great relief to have some semblance of sanity in the White House after eight years of Bush, and a dodged bullet named McCain/Palin.
But those pundits urging for some vague form of action (not action really, just meaningless posturing and self-satisfying words) are making it so that the cartoonish critique of Obama as weak and ineffectual will gain in strength and acceptance and very well could, eventually, cost him and the left politically (redounding to the benefit of the neoconservative crowd whose colossal mess we're struggling to dig out of already - sold, in part, under the cloak of the same liberal hawks).
While I have been more than willing to treat mea culpas from former Iraq war supporters as sincere, and do not believe in permanent excommunication or any other such drastic measures, the proof of conversion is in the follow through. Part of the process should include a recognition that, not only is preventive war a catastrophic policy when put in action, but also that our adversaries are not presumptively "irrational" and lunatic, and that any and all manner of intervention by the United States does not always lead to positive outcomes.
Obama realizes that. Why don't we cut him some slack?
[UPDATE: In fairness to Andrew Sullivan, since the post in which he urged Obama to wear green in solidarity with the protesters in Iran, he has praised Obama's approach - and all along agreed that Obama should not speak out too forcefully (though, like Larison, I think the green tie approach would be a mistake). I agree with Sullivan in this, but was reacting to that earlier post (that's the blog I was reading). I am more than happy to acknowledge that my criticism of him was too harsh given his subsequent clarifications - and consistent position on speaking out. He's a valuable voice to have on the right side, and I appreciate his effort in this regard.]