[Second of a series in which I stare into the pit of global politics, circa January 2016, and write down, without euphemisms, the horrible things I see.]
Sometime last week I came upon a disturbing image. US Navy sailors, hunched and on their knees, groveled before gun-toting Iranians. I wondered what it might mean. Were we at war with Iran?
The Iranians certainly behaved as if they were at war with us. They had captured two Navy patrol boats, claiming these trespassed on their territorial waters. They humiliated the crews and took videos of the humiliation, then forced the commander of the unit to apologize on Iranian TV. All of this was an egregious violation of the laws of war, but hey – it’s great propaganda. They looked strong. We looked pathetically weak.
Our response was even more disturbing than the incident itself. Did we warn about a possible act of war against the United States? No. We did not. Did we at least voice outrage because American servicemen had been ill-treated? Just the opposite. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “gratitude” to Iran, because the captives were “well taken care of” and returned after one day.
In fact, Kerry tried to brag on the episode. He said it showed “the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.” In the world according to the Obama administration, having US sailors attacked, detained, and paraded on TV was a propaganda point on our side.
America’s allies in the region must have gazed on this strange spectacle with a horror scarcely diluted by disbelief.
In The Revolt of the Public I described Iran’s system of government in the following way:
In theory, the Iranian regime is a Platonic republic, with wise guardians protecting the moral and material welfare of all. In practice, it resembles a sterile hybrid begot on the mafia by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The men in charge of the system are ungainly creatures: half revolutionaries, half gangsters. For both sides of their divided selves, however, “Death to America” is a supreme necessity, not least to their survival.
As revolutionaries, they wish to overthrow the present order of the world, which they believe, with good reason, to rest on American principles backed by American power. As gangsters, they wish to enjoy their regional vendettas and their big mansions without having to look over their shoulder at the global cop, Uncle Sam.
It doesn’t help that all are fanatical Shia, consumed by a sense of cosmic injustice presently focused on that Great Satan – us.
Nothing is forever in world politics, but the Islamic Republic’s conflict with the US is existential, part of its genetic endowment, so it’s hard to imagine peace breaking out without political change in Iran. The patrol boat aggression took place during supposedly sensitive negotiations with the US. The Iranians were making a point: those negotiations were more important to us than to them. From their side, the war continues.
As for our side – it isn’t. We reject the reality of the conflict. Our strength (as Bob Dylan sang) is not to fight. Washington today abides on a higher plane of being, and the official view here is that affairs between nations are trending to happy. Progress on this front is irreversible and beyond the possibility of debate. Why so? Because President Obama and the clever people of his administration, like John Kerry, desperately desire it to be so – and the charming eccentricity of our age is to confuse the wish for the thing.
The president, as might be imagined, holds definite views about the causes of Iranian hostility. These hark back to a bunch of dead white guys. They are irrelevant to the present. So all he has to do is demonstrate that he, Barack Obama, represents a radical break with everything and everybody that came before, to make Iran’s bearded rulers smile and bring US-Iranian relations into his peaceable kingdom.
“The question now is not what Iran is against,” he told the gangster-revolutionaries of Tehran, who are passionate, as we now say, about being against a great many things, “but what future it wants to build.”
Accordingly, at the earliest opportunity – his January 2008 inaugural address – President Obama offered to “extend a hand” to these hard men if in return they would “unclench your fist.” Here was an apt metaphor for the new approach. Like the awkward boy at the party, the president has kept extending his hand, only to be met with the clenched fists and trash talk of the ayatollahs.
Policy, for Barack Obama, is never a question of trial and error, but of squeezing empirical reality into the framework of his desires. At times he must perform acrobatic maneuvers around hard obstacles – like facts – but this is something he’s very good at.
He wants to deal with the hard-liners. For all I know he believes in the justice of their anger, but he certainly wishes to prove that his new method, based on US generosity, can soften their hearts. When massive pro-democracy protests erupted in Iran over disputed elections, President Obama refused to dignify them with even rhetorical support. It was “up to the Iranians” to decide “who Iran’s leaders will be,” he shrugged, leaving it for the world to guess just how, under a system of clerical despotism, that was to happen.
The protesters were mowed down with fire and force. Whether any hand extended toward the Islamic Republic happened to be stained in their blood, we have not been told.
We have known for some time that the Iranians are looking to develop nuclear weapons. It makes strategic sense from their perspective: the bomb will place them eyeball to eyeball with the satanic superpower they insist is oppressing the world. That appeals to their revolutionary instincts. No doubt the prospect of nuclear blackmail brings a gleam to the eyes of the more thuggish types in the regime.
For the ruling clique, a nuclear Iran would be a grand thing all around.
The US has responded by applying sanctions and engaging in negotiations. Predictably, the negotiations, conducted in Vienna, have gone round and round for years. We would like the Iranians to disarm. The Iranians want us to go sleep with the fishes, and have rejected basic conditions – ending uranium enrichment, revealing the extent of their nuclear program – even the maniacal Muammar Qaddafi tolerated in his day.
On this dialogue of the damned, Barack Obama has imposed his dream of universal salvation. At every step, he has treated Iranian truculence as a test of American inclusiveness and generosity. Rather than hold fast to our positions, we have learned to live with rejection. We have taken no for an answer.
Ronald Reagan once said that he negotiated with the Soviet Union on the basis of “trust but verify.” The Obama method towards Iran might be characterized as “hug and hope”: act extra nice to the other side, and accept whatever follows as proof that niceness has had the intended effect. Even the Islamic Republic’s seizure of US patrol boats and bullying of American sailors, on this scheme, turns out to be proof of its good intentions.
The agreement that emerged from the Vienna talks lacks a mechanism to achieve its objectives, and may turn out to be the greatest foreign policy disaster of an era notable for many failures. Kerry has defended the outcome, arguing that “there isn’t a better deal to be got” out of the obdurate Iranians. That’s probably true so far as it goes – but in the present context, “better” looks pretty terrible. The US traded strategic security in exchange for warm feelings among our elites. The Iranians got the sweetest of all possible deals. They can have their treaty, along with a $150 billion check for the end of sanctions – and they can build their bomb too.
We have bartered away even the pretense of surprise when they do so.
Kerry also said that the agreement was an assertion of US leadership and a first step to “a more humane world.” But our strongest allies in the Middle East feel forsaken rather than led, and the effect has been an increase in turbulence and bloodshed in the short time since the deal was struck.
The princes of the House of Saud, flabby but mega-rich, defenders of the Sunni, in a panic of abandonment have assumed an unusual posture of aggression and bluster. They have broken all diplomatic relations with the Shia bastion, Iran. They have taken to bombing the Shia rebels of Yemen, to bad effect. Certain that the Iranians will get the bomb, the Saudis now talk out loud about obtaining their own nuclear arsenal. They can afford the price. Mutually assured destruction in the Middle East, in a quite literal sense, may be a feature of our more humane world.
The Israelis, our stoutest friends in the region, also believe that Iran has been given a free pass to go nuclear. They are aware that the bloody-minded anti-Semites who run the show in Tehran have pledged to “annihilate” them. The Israelis already have their bomb: if they strike before the Iranians get theirs, who can blame them?
The geopolitical structure of the Middle East continues to fly apart with appalling speed. Syria, Iraq, and Libya are gone. Egypt teeters on the brink. Saudi Arabia and the mini-monarchies of the Gulf, so far protected by their oil wealth, may well be next. Even in a time of cheap oil, the trauma to the global economy if that happens will make 2008 look like a walk in the park.
Where are we in all this? We are stuck in a wonderland that very much resembles the inside of President Obama’s head. While our enemies prosper and our friends strike out on their own, we see history trending to happy, and we preen about our leadership and the triumph of humane principles. Bad actors, for us, are trials of our virtue. Unreformed hostility is a challenge to our story-telling capacities. All roads lead to inaction.
Reality is sometimes ugly, disheartening, unkind. Here’s reality: the United States, as a large object absorbing everyone’s attention, has acted as a dampener to the explosive local frictions of the Middle East. This meant dealing with unpleasant regimes like Saudi Arabia’s. It meant managing headstrong allies like Israel. The result was near-universal criticism of our actions: with great power comes great animosity.
The fatal fantasy of the present administration has been to take this criticism at face value, and to assume that peace and tranquility in the region will follow if only we tiptoe away. In reality, the opposite has happened. Chaos has swept in behind us. Meanwhile the president and his advisors have punted terrible decisions, like what to do about a potentially nuclear Iran, to the next political crew that takes over Washington DC.
They will need all the good luck we can wish on them.