“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


LI has been reading The Crisis, David Harris’ book about the fall of the Shah and the Hostage Crisis. It is not a great or startling account – Harris is much too brief about the Shah, and his viewpoint is shaped, to a certain extent, by his access to his informants – thus Bani-Sadr comes off as a much better figure in this book than I believe he should. Harris is an ex American radical who is now utilizing his reputation and network to create these kinds of books, but one doesn’t feel he is informed enough to work against his sources’ biases.

Looking past the author’s deficiencies, however, the hopelessness that emanates from this story has to do with the peculiarities of the American relationship with the Middle East. The inability to learn anything from past experience; the shaping of policy to meet the needs of the governing elite, even when those needs clearly conflict with national interest; and the insufficiencies of taking a colonialist point of view to nations that aren’t colonies (which results in an evil pattern: Americans continually become the captives of their proxies) converged to make the Hostage crisis America’s classical theatrical moment.

Harris’ account points a finger at the malign influence of Carter’s foreign policy advisor, Brzezinski, who fully shared the governing elite’s infatuation with the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and at the same time believed that he could order the Shah about like the manager of a McDonald’s directing a slow high school hire. It was Brzezinski who believed that the Shah simply had to bloody the streets of Teheran up just a little more in order to restore the status quo ante. At one point , the Iranian ambassador to America conferred with the Chilean ambassador about instituting the Pinochet solution: stadiums to be used as prisons, salutary executions of ten to twenty thousand. This was the type of thinking encouraged by an administration that put on the public face of being concerned with “Human Rights.”

However, the same government elite that could gameplan killing thousands of Iranians couldn’t bear to keep the Shah out of the U.S. when he was making his long, pointless pilgrimage around the world, seeking shelter. Brzezinski, Kissinger and David Rockefeller essentially overruled the best interests of the U.S. to let in their pal. Carter, before the Shah was admitted to the U.S., made a bitter joke about hostages – these people knew what was coming.

Today I read the review of Robert Fiske’s book by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the NYT. Wheatcroft’s review has a nice, I like the taste of blood in my mouth graf about Iran:

“Nor does he [Fiske] allow for historical context. He denounces, for example, the 1953 coup in Iran, engineered by Kermit Roosevelt of the C.I.A. and his British buddies to oust the government of Mohammed Mossadegh and install the shah. As it happens, one of the conspirators is a neighbor of mine, a charming and courteous old gentleman who was a wartime hero before he swapped a Royal Navy uniform for the cloak and dagger of MI6, and to this day he is impenitent about that power play in the cold war.
He and his fellow plotters didn't delude themselves that they were trying to bring good government to the Persian people, nor did they "call too loud on Freedom / To cloak your weariness," as Kipling had it. The object of the exercise wasn't to "democratize the Middle East" but to keep the Soviets from reaching the Indian Ocean, and it succeeded. If anything, I have more sympathy with that kind of realpolitik than for the weird mixture of ideology and deception we get from the present administration.”

Courteous old gentleman indeed. One could imagine the same being said about Osama bin Laden’s crew. They didn’t delude themselves that they were trying to bring good government to the Americans, but felt the object of the exercise was to wake up their fellow Arabians. All in good fun.

What a bunch of complete and utter shits. Statements like that make one actually sympathetic to the students who took the American embassy personnel hostage.


Paul craddick said...

Yeah! What a trivial, ignoble end - preventing the sovietization of the Middle East (including Iran). On second thought, it's probably better not to mention the Soviets, since then we can't blame the UK and US (and "little Satan") for everything in that accursed region.

It's becoming clearer to me why political operatives are usually dishonest, as candor seems to provoke something akin to moral hysteria.

Brian Miller said...

Well...but if we act as badly as our enemies, how can we protest so vehemently when the blowback is as bad or even worse? The hypocrisy is pretty amazing, isn't it? Is the only reason for American patriotism because we ourselves are Americans? Is there no underlying moral reasoning, or only the craven power grabbing of our commercial elites?

You're right, Mr. Craddick. All the little peoples of the world have only one role-to be pawns in our geopolitical games.

roger said...

Paul, you are conceding what I am not: that the little old gentleman (the true hysteric in this case) was correct that the threat to nationalize Iranian oil was the prelude to Soviet annexation of Iran. Myself, I think the hysteria is all on the other foot -- does hysteria have feet?

So, are you arguing a, that Kermit Roosevelt was right, and that b., the only alternative was to plunge 30 million people into dictatorship in order to c., stop the Soviet menace? Because I think a, the threat to multinational corporate profits is not synonymous with Soviet takeovers, b, plunging a nation into a dictatorship, even if one finds justification for it, should be worn as a badge of shame by those who did it, and c., Soviet moves on Iran would have aroused such nationalist feeling in the Middle East that the U.S. would have been the sure winner.

roger said...

ps -- A question, Paul. Given your notion that national interest can't be managed with too much finickyness -- which I am not in total disagreement with -- surely you must find the decision not to turn over the Shah, or at least make a good faith effort to find Pahlavi money -- to have been a disastrous mistake, an instance in which the interests of the elite club trumped national interest.

Paul craddick said...

Brian, you may address me as "Paul" - though if your use of "Mr" implies that you would like to be addressed that way in the future, then I shall oblige.

As you might expect, I emphatically deny that our actions vis-a-vis Iran entail that we "act as badly as our enemies." More to the point, I don't believe the essentials of the American approach to the Cold War - sc., realpolitik to arrest the metastasis of Sovietization - are reducible to "geopolitical games." There was nothing playful about the overriding American aim - and while the tactics employed often seemed unsporting, that's no argument against their general necessity.

I am not untroubled by the effects and epiphenomena of American alliances with "friendly tyrants." But given a choice between West-leaning or Soviet-aligned strongmen - which was the basic Cold-war option, in the "third world" at least - cultivating alliances with the former comprised the only rational option.

Relatedly, the notion that Iran was on the cusp of something like "social democracy" but for the machinations of the evil Western imperialists is as risible as the idea that similar social gains were (externally) stymied in Allende's Chile years later. This makes for a nice segue ...

Roger, you've over-read me (and the "little old gentleman," I'd wager): the point wasn't that nationalizationed oil fields indicated an imminent Soviet takeover, but rather that a regime allied to the Soviets might well be in the offing. Soviet satellites - even in weak orbits - signalled creeping "Sovietization."

As for the "shame" of bringing the Shah to power, I do think that there's an element of guilt involved, on the American side, certainly. Contra the Fisks, Chomskys, Pilgers, etc., I deny that this is a fatal concession. As I've often said, I believe that even the best of nations are crushed under a "tragic" aspect, when engaging with the world: it's impossible to operate efficaciously without doing harm. Conflicts, then, are usually not between right and wrong, strictly speaking, but between wrong and greater wrong. On this view the U.S. has been both a force for great good and great harm in the world, though with the balance tipping to the former (unlike, say, the Soviets who were mainly a force for the latter).

I'll have to ponder your question about what should have been done with the Shah - it's not obvious to me that any pressing interest would have been served in offering him up.

roger said...

Paul, first, I gotta thank you for contributing to my points towards the blog with the best vocabulary with "metastasis." I was runner up last year, but this year -- well, man, you might have put me over the top!

Second, I don't believe the story about the Soviet threat for a minute. Neither did Truman, to whom the British came, after Mossadegh nationalized the Anglo-Iranian oil company, with the plan to overthrow the Iranian government. It is pretty odd that the Brits and the Americans seemed to be pretty placid about the Soviet threat to expand into Iran until that nationalization.

This, of course, goes back to the argument that you did not deal with in my post. That argument is that, just as a regulatory agency can be 'captured' by the industry it regulates --Reagan's argument for deregulating the airline industry, for instance, depended on this notion -- so, too, American foreign policy is often captured by elites (military or economic) in its supposedly client states, and the pattern is always the same, and the excuses are always the same (the capture is disguised behind the veil of national security), and the result is always the same. Russian forces actually were stationed in Egypt, but the U.S. never tried to overthrow Nasser. Compare U.S. relations between Iran and Egypt and then tell me that Eisenhower acted wisely by acceding to the stupid British sales campaign.

At the moment, the capture situation is playing out in all its glory in Pakistan, as the U.S. has invested its prestige and strategy in a military dictator who has had no compunction in the past about aiding terrorists in attacking the U.S. and will have no compunction about it in the future.

Paul craddick said...


Actually, I did obliquely touch on your argument about (let's say) "narrower" interests driving alleged "national" ones, in my reply to Brian: I said that I didn't believe that American aims during the Cold War were reducible to games. By putting it that way, I meant to indicate that I acknowledge the perennial role of intrigue and the raw drive for power. But unlike, it seems, yourself, I believe that there was a moral imperative at work which transfigured and elevated those meaner interests - the very real need to stop the Soviet juggernaut. (For this Augustinian atheist, the dynamic at work discloses something akin to a Providential hand).

It seems that you've effected a little argumentative legerdemain, since you now seem to want to battle it out with respect to your claim that there was no merit in fearing a creeping "Sovietization" from Mossadegh's wiles - whereas the original point at issue (to which I initially responded) was whether a fear of Sovietization, eo ipso, could justify a plot to topple a foreign leader.

It might surprise you to learn that I am open to being persuaded that toppling Mossadegh wasn't needful, to fight the Cold War effectively. But chanting the standard Leftist confession to the effect that "installing" pliant regimes is always and everywhere the devil's doing - malum en se - ain't going to convince this infidel.

roger said...

Paul, now you are being frighteningly reasonable. Hmm, what kind of dirty stunt is that!

I don't have an opinion, per se, about "whether a fear of Sovietization, eo ipso, could justify a plot to topple a foreign leader." Rather, given that this is the principle used to topple foreign leaders, my argument is that it became the convenient excuse behind which the governing elite in this country chose to repress those governments that threatened, or were perceived to threaten, their interests, or the interests of elites in the said countries with whom our elite identified, in spasms of misplaced projection. And I'd further contend that these instances led, almost always, to mutual disaster -- for the populations of the target state, for the populations around the target state, and ultimately for the United States.

And me, a leftist? I'm merely a garden variety liberal, as I keep having to remind people. My lefty days are behind me, and my politics now combines Mathew Arnold's sweetness and light with the slogans on the Hallmark card of your choice. Plus just the merest soupcon of class warfare.

Brian Miller said...

Ah, but it's that soupcon that makes you so readable, roger :)

Paul: I have to chime in with roger. While not nearly as well educated as yourself, it appearws that we have a history of making things ultimately worse for ourselves in the interests of expediency-even if that expediency appears to be (or is propagandized to be) necessary at the time.

Uzbekistan, for example. How can this turn out anything but disastrous for us (let alone the boiled alive and machined gunned and starving population), even if we try to excuse it through the pieties of the "War on Terror"?

The libertarian part of me (not my heart-I am a government employee, after all, so maybe its a libertarian gall bladder???) says that part of the problem is the very size of modern states and corporate interests. But then, the tiny principalities of Italy were even more violent, back stabbing, and meddling than the current system, so... who knows.

Kudos to you, though, Paul... You are being disturbingly rational :) :)