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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

oedipus jr. and the paper tigers!

The dustup between Christopher Hitchens and Juan Cole would be worth commenting on if Hitchens were still worth commenting on. At one time, LI was fascinated with him as, at least, the most articulate of the belligerents. But now he is taking his stylistic cues from old Evans and Novak columns. Style to Hitchens is what Dorien Gray’s portrait was to Dorian Gray – it is where the damage shows up.

But – there is a bit in Cole’s defense upon which I’d like to hook this post.

“As for the matter at issue, Ahmadinejad is a non-entity. The Iranian "president" is mostly powerless. The commander of the armed forces is the Supreme Jurisprudent, Ali Khamenei. Worrying about Ahmadinejad's antics is like worrying that the US military will act on the orders of the secretary of the interior. Ahmadinejad cannot declare war on anyone, or mobilize a military. So it doesn't matter what speeches he gives.”

I wonder whether that isn’t a huge underestimation of Ahmadinejad. I wonder because of the article in this Spring’s National Interest by Ray Takeyh: “Being Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

The National Interest used to be a beehive of neo-conservatives, so it is interesting, now that the Nixonian realists have cleaned them out – with much clucking all around – that the Spring issue practically coos. The consensus among the authors of four articles about Iran is that the U.S. is fucked. And being fucked, the sensible thing is to initiate détente – although the word isn’t thrown out there. Takeyh’s article, however, made me think that things are going to get worse between the U.S. and Iran because Ahmadinejad is not only not a non-entity, but represents a certain recognizable current in Iran. The same rightwing current that emerged in the U.S. when the Vietnam vets started taking political office – the Top Gun boys, the Duke Cunninghams:

“AFTER 27 years, the complexion of the Iranian regime is changing. An ascetic "war generation" is assuming power with a determination to rekindle revolutionary fires long extinguished.

For Ahmadinejad and his allies, the 1980-88 war with Iraq defined their experiences, and it conditions their political assumptions. The Iran-Iraq War was unusual in many respects, as it was not merely an interstate conflict designed to achieve specific territorial or even political objectives. This was a war waged for the triumph of ideas, with Ba'athi secular pan-Arabism contesting Iran's Islamic fundamentalism. As such, for those who went to the front, the war came to embody their revolutionary identity. Themes of solidarity, sacrifice, self-reliance and commitment not only allowed the regime to consolidate its power, they also made the defeat of Saddam the ultimate test of theocratic legitimacy. War and revolution had somehow fused in the clerical cosmology. To wage a determined war was to validate one's revolutionary ardor and spiritual fidelity--the notions of compromise and a "ceasefire" were anathema to this point of view.

Suddenly, in August 1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared the conflict to be over. After eight years of brutal struggle and clerical exhortations of the inevitability of the triumph of the armies of God, the war ended without achieving any of its pledged objectives. For veterans like Ahmadinejad, not unlike post-World War I German veterans, there was a ready explanation for this turn of events. It was not the inadequacy of Iran's military planning or the miscalculations of its commanders, but the West's machinations and its tolerance of Saddam's use of chemical weapons that had turned the tide of the battle.”

Whether this analysis is true or not, it is certainly true that Iran lies under the shadow of a war that killed 500 thousand to a million people. It is not that long ago that missiles were coming down in Teheran. And surely memories of that experience are being prodded by all of those heavy handed American threats.
Happily, Takeyh’s tack is not to keep up the World War I analogy, but to point out that, after thirty years of having no relations with the U.S., people in Ahmadinejad’s circle don’t really see the need. In fact, they dismiss the U.S. as an irrelevance.

“For the aging mullahs such as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the more pragmatic head of the Expediency Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani, America remained the dominant actor in Iran's melodrama. For those hardliners, the United States was the source of all of Iran's problems, while for the older generation of more pragmatist conservatives it was the solution to the theocracy's mounting dilemmas. In either depiction, America was central to Iran's affairs. Given that this cohort came into political maturity during the reign of the shah and his close alliance with the United States, was engaged in a revolutionary struggle that was defined by its opposition to America, and then led a state often in conflict with Washington, it was natural that they were obsessed with the United States.

In terms of their international perspective, Ahmadinejad's generation of conservatives does not share its elders' preoccupation with America. Their insularity and their ideology-laden assumptions about America as a pernicious, imperial power lessen their enthusiasm for coming to terms with a country long depicted as the "Great Satan." Even a cursory examination of the younger hardliners' speeches reveals much about their view of international relations: that power in the international system is flowing eastward. As Ali Larijani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council, noted, "There are certain big states in the Eastern Hemisphere such as Russia, China and India. These states can play a balancing role in today's world." In a similar vein, another stalwart of the new conservatives, the current mayor of Tehran, Muhammad Qalibaf, declared, "In the current international arena we see the emergence of South Asia. And if we do not take advantage of that, we will lose." From the perspective of the new Right, globalization does not imply capitulating to the United States but cultivating relations with emerging power centers on the global landscape. It is hoped that such an "eastern orientation" might just obviate the need to come to terms with the United States.”

That is a terrible delusion, but an understandable one. As LI has been saying over and over again, there is a price for being a paper tiger. American irrelevance in Iraq, combined with the apparent carelessness about Al Qaeda, (so reminiscent of the aborted Carter era rescue of the hostages) combine to make American power seem not only defiable, but on a downhill slope. The Iranians can see every day who pays and who gains in Iraq. The Americans can loot the place, but they can’t even repair the fucking oil pipelines. And while the American papers always like to trumpet comments from their favorite Iraqi leaders that are anti-Iranian, that is window dressing. Oddly enough, Americans believe their own bullshit on these kinds of issues. Infinite are the paths of gullibility. In any case, instead of using Europe as the proxy for talking with Iran, we should surely be using China. Alas, Bush’s rude and frankly stupid behavior during the visit of the guy who has been paying our bills, the Chinese president Hu Jintao is a bad sign. It is always a bad sign when the neo-con agenda (China is the rising enemy!) converges with Bush’s bad Oedipal problems (Dad liked China!). Our royal nonesuch has a tendency to act out, then, when rationally, he should be heavily medicated and stored in a hangar somewhere at -10 degrees fahrenheit.


Paul craddick said...


Forgive me - this comment doesn't engage the substance of your post, but it's tough for me to resist an opportunity to get in a potshot at Cole.

Whatever his merits as a scholar of Middle Eastern language(s) and culture, he's one of the poorest reasoners that 'anti-war' folks have latched onto. The inclusion in his post of the gory photos, with the kumbaya-style sloganeering, is pretty lame.

Arkady said...

Paul, being a critic of the state can be difficult. I tend to hold grudges (they keep me young), so I can easily recall the "foil hat" snarking and abuse the people who dared to criticize the Great Pain Feeler's handling of Waco, Oklahoma City and Kosovo received. They got a lot of hate mail and under pressure, developed styles of address that appear close to groan-inducing solecism. I think the problem is that all the institutional support for vigorous dissent tends to adopt the same structures as that which is opposed.

I take most of what Cole writes seriously, though I can't see how he reconciles his knowledge with support, however grudging, for Democrats.

Roger Gathmann said...

Paul, I like Cole's information, and his willingness to endlessly dish it out. As for his ability to analyze, nah, I'm not real impressed. And while I thought Hitchens's piece was amazingly ridiculous, starting with a beginning in which, with heavy sarcasm, he assures us that Cole is a non-entity, and then proceeds to fill up a page with minute criticism of his unpublished work -- a rankly amateur contradiction between rhetoric and intent that is surprising, really - I thought Cole's alcohol alcohol alcohol reply was too dumb, too.
More generally -- I think the thing that you don't like about blogging, Paul, is that the demand for daily opinion leads to sophistry. To have an opinion about everything - that is the sign of a life ill spent. Luckily, on LI, we make a conscious effort not to have opinions on many, many things.

Roger Gathmann said...

PS - and don't ask us what those things are, or we will have to form an opinion about them!

Paul craddick said...


This was particularly well put:
"I think the problem is that all the institutional support for vigorous dissent tends to adopt the same structures as that which is opposed."

That strikes me as especially true of those who self-identify as Leftists. After all, they can't logically oppose state or "institutional" power per se (their worldview aims at its aggrandizement), but rather specific, alleged abuses by current potentates.

To me, Cole represents a wider problem: a mis-attribution of "authority" (think of the ad verecundiam fallacy). His expertise concerns what? - languages, history, culture? Yet such illicitly bestows a halo of authority on his political pronouncements, which strike me as rather shopworn, to say the least.


In an uncanny way, you've hit the nail on the head about what annoys me about "insta-opinions." And I'd like to have minted this aphorism:

"To have an opinion about everything - that is the sign of a life ill spent."