Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

The Middle East: The Case for Not Doing

June 1, 2015

A previous post critiqued Andrew Bacevich’s “limits of power” take on world affairs. He derided what he saw as vain attempts to control history, which can’t be done – so don’t even try. It’s true that do-gooder efforts may, for numerous reasons, fail. But I prefer a proactive approach to life rather than a passive fatalism, hence trying to make the world better. And people, throughout the ages, have succeeded at it.

UnknownYet regarding today’s Middle East – I throw up my hands (and my lunch).

The conventional wisdom now is that America’s 2003 Iraq venture upended a hornets’ nest, causing today’s tsuris, and we should have left well enough alone. A seeming vindication of Bacevich. Well, maybe; but I’m reminded of when Chou En-lai was asked to evaluate the French Revolution. “Too soon to tell,” he replied.

(We did not invade Iraq based on “lies” or manipulated intelligence. All major intelligence services believed Saddam likely had weapons of mass destruction – he was trying hard to make it seem so. The true issue was: did we dare risk that he had them? Yet, to the “knowing what you know now” question, I’d say don’t invade – knowing now how botched it would be, particularly in disbanding the Iraqi army.)

Cartoon by Danziger

Cartoon by Danziger

Bush 43’s real Iraq sin was willing the ends but not the means – imagining it could be done cheaply and easily. I still think Bacevich is wrong, and we could have succeeded; but if you do aim to alter history, please be prepared for some heavy lifting.

images-1Of course, President Obama, who forswore repeating Bush’s Iraq mistake, is now doing exactly that – willing the ends but not the means – declaring that we will destroy ISIS (or is it now just containment?) but without actually going to war. As if some cheap airstrikes will do the trick. The results so far add yet more color to the picture of feckless American impotence Obama has painted.

My instincts are hawkish. However, the problem with Obama’s ISIS strategy is not just that it’s ineffectual but it isn’t a strategy at all, more like striking out blindly. ISIS is horrible, yes, but we must weigh the ramifications of battling it. images-3We’re relying on Shiite militias, almost as nasty (at least one is actually on our official list of terrorist organizations), and likely to exacerbate sectarian hostilities. And this war puts us in bed with the Iranians, and even with Bashar Assad*, not to mention Lebanon’s Hezbollah terrorists also fighting ISIS for Assad’s sake. Be careful what you wish for — is the triumph of all those forces really desirable?

Maybe we don’t have a dog in this fight, and should just let all these bad guys beat each other to exhaustion, which probably now has to happen, before some halfway sane alternative can possibly, eventually emerge in that afflicted terrain. As columnist Thomas Friedman suggests, we cannot impose a resolution absent a stupendous commitment that isn’t going to happen; Middle Easterners must work this out for themselves, bloody though that may be. Meantime, Iraq’s nationhood is now a lost cause; the Kurds deserve their own state anyway. We should fight only for something that is really worthy of defending, and is defensible – e.g., Kurdistan, or Jordan, if threatened. It was different at the start of Syria’s conflict when we could have gained real strategic advantage by backing the good guys. But Obama funked it, and now there aren’t any good guys.

images-2Let’s understand what’s really going on with ISIS. This is not mainly about religion or theology (nor some sort of arguably legitimate “grievances”). The violence itself attracts certain people; while the normal well-adjusted human being is decidedly not violent (contrary to cynical stereotypes), some alas don’t meet that description. There are always enough young men to staff the ranks of storm troopers or beheaders or whatever. But – more broadly – for its recruits and loyalists, ISIS is mainly about personal identity. The transition to modernity can leave people unmoored from traditional cultural sources of identity and personal meaning (“who am I?”) – the “loneliness of the crowd.” Today’s Middle East is so messed up that it’s natural to cling desperately to whatever sources of seeming identity (and security) people can. In some societies this hunger for identity and meaning may manifest itself in nationalism; but the Middle East lacks nation states to which intense feelings can attach. So, instead, that hook is provided by tribalism, Islam, and jihad. This also attracts young people from outside the region with similar personal voids and cravings.

A recent PBS Frontline program showed that ISIS really started flourishing to fill the vacuum in Syria, defending civilians against Assad, once it became clear that America would not. Local people who support it aren’t crazy. For all these reasons ISIS is a powerful force that won’t melt away with some aerial bombardment. If anything, being under attack by their fetishized enemy feeds their narrative and intensifies loyalty – another reason why our half-baked military campaign seems worse than useless.

Unknown-1Then we have the Iran nuclear negotiations. Getting whatever promises we can out of Iran might sound good, inasmuch as the military option, no matter how much Obama pretends otherwise, is unthinkable. Delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons capability also may seem desirable, hoping the landscape might change in a decade. However, the very fact of a deal with America would be a big boost to Iran’s international stature, and sanctions relief would be a big economic boost, all of which would serve to further entrench Iran’s mullahs in power, and to strengthen a country that will still fundamentally be our geopolitical competitor and enemy. On the other hand, if Iran did get the bomb, what could they do with it that wouldn’t be suicidal? So here too I lean more and more to the desirability of doing nothing. I’d rather see Iran with unusable nukes left stewing in its shit-hole than an Iran without nukes but empowered in ways that really matter.

* Remember when Obama sought Congressional authorization to bomb Assad’s forces for chemical weapons use? We are now finally bombing in Syria — without Congressional authorization — striking Assad’s enemies. Does this make sense?


Reading Lolita in Tehran

September 8, 2012

Azar Nafisi, an Iranian educated in Oklahoma, taught English literature at Tehran universities. Or tried to. Eventually that became impossible, and devolved into a secret seminar in her apartment, with a selected group of female students meeting weekly to discuss literature free from the regime’s tentacles. Her book is Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Azar Nafisi

We Americans know Iran’s regime is oppressive, especially toward women. Or sort of know. In truth most of us haven’t the faintest idea. So acculturated are we to our version of “normal” human life that we instinctively imagine even a nation like Iran as more similar than different. It isn’t. It’s a totally bizarro inversion of our “normal,” and Nafisi’s book shows this.*

One story concerned a group of girls on a brief seaside vacation together. Relaxing on a verandah, it was literally invaded by one of the “morality police” goon squads. The girls, properly dressed and all, even under Iran’s suffocating rules, were doing nothing “wrong.” Nevertheless, trolling for people to mess with, the goons accused them of acting “Western” and hauled them off to jail, where they remained for forty-eight hours, subjected to repeated virginity exams. After trial, they were each given 25 lashes. But this was actually a comparatively benign outcome. Such stories could end in execution.

Iran’s true believers are obsessed with “morality” – and its supposed lack in the “decadent” West. It’s all about sexual morality. And sexually they are fubar. Male-female relations, compared to ours, are mostly a bitter human desert. They act as though men can’t handle a glimpse of female hair or skin. Of course, they may not have sex with anyone not their wives; but a “temporary marriage” of an hour with a prostitute solves that problem. And supposedly a girl dying a virgin goes straight to Heaven; so they solve that problem too before executing any girl. I guess in such cases even the sham marriage is dispensed with. (Is Allah fooled?)

Khomeini — the real “Great Satan”

This is not sexual morality but perversion, virulent and pervasive.

And of course sex is but a narrow sector of morality; what is conspicuously absent in Iran’s “morality” obsession is any concern for actual human well-being. That is the true alpha and omega of morality and Iran reflects its very antithesis. Nafisi nails it: “Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all others flowed.”

The book also usefully recaps the 1979 events. After the Shah’s fall, there was a window in which Iran’s future was up for grabs. Most people wanted an open, secular, democratic constitution. So how did that majority lose out to Khomeini and his medieval vision? Violence. Sustained, unrestrained, brutal ultra-violence. Many thousands killed. And why not? After all, it was God’s work. That sanctifies any and all horrors. “Lack of empathy” indeed!

Say what you will about America’s religious fundamentalists and their political assertiveness, they don’t even think of shooting opponents, and that’s a very big difference. Non-violent politics is so ingrained in America (and other advanced democracies) that we’re oblivious to how utopian this actually is.


I recently wrote about Pakistan’s being fubar too, again mainly by religious fanaticism. The latest story involves a mentally handicapped Christian girl, Rimsha Misah (said to be 11, her age is disputed), accused of Koran burning. Imprisoned with hardened criminals, she has been granted bail, but still faces the death penalty; her family is in hiding; local Muslims want to burn them all alive. Their imam says he can’t control them. While a Muslim cleric (same guy??) has been charged with planting the burned pages on Rimsha. Meantime the body of a missing Christian boy, Samuel Yaqoob, also 11, has been found showing hideous torture. (You really don’t want to click on that link.) And in Pakistan, most women incarcerated are there for the crime of – get this — being raped.

Western culture is incomparably more moral than Iranian or Pakistani culture.

Reading a book like Nafisi’s always poses the question: why not just leave? But it’s never so simple. Is leaving – and leaving behind all those who can’t leave – a cop-out? In today’s Syria, thousands choose to stand and fight rather than give up and leave. But in Syria at least there is a fight going on. In Nafisi’s Iran, no fight was even possible, and staying literally risked death. Writers and intellectuals are regularly murdered by the regime. Yet she considered it her home, and agonized over the choice.**

In Nafisi’s discussions of literature; of her favorite authors Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Austen, James; the theme of choice looms large. It is through making choices for ourselves that we live our humanity. In the end, Azar Nafisi did make her choice.

Welcome to America.

* She mentions a student who visited abroad and was shocked by the sense of freedom she felt there. In Syria! Everything is relative. (I remember a group of U.S. peace activists, years ago, returned from confabs with Assad and Iranian officials, burbling how decent they seemed. What fools, I thought.)

** My grandfather similarly took his family out of 1930s Germany; but for them, the fortunate ability to leave was hardly a choice at all.