Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Mouldy Persian Rug

Ross, one of the young upstarts holding the fort at Andrew Sullivan's site (I predict it's going to end in some sort of The Shining scenario...) takes issue with the AEI's Michael Ledeen on a number of fronts, most recently including this piece over at the National Review Corner.

I give Ledeen points for optimism, but I'd be more convinced that "a bit of guidance in the methods of non-violent resistance, a bit of communications gear, and many words of encouragement" will bring down the mullahs in Iran if there were a single example of a successful democratic revolution anywhere in the Arab world that Ledeen could cite. I'd be more convinced of the aptness of the Ukrainian parallel if there was any similarity at all between a struggling parliamentary democracy like Ukraine and a five-decades old tyranny like North Korea. And I'd be more convinced of the reality of "revolutionary forces" that we "can't always see" because they're inside "oppressive countries" if I hadn't spent months listening to, and at times believing, the same argument about WMDs. (Sometimes we can't see them because they aren't there, it turns out.)

Finally, and not to get too old-fashioned-realist here, but . . . the Iranians are not "our people." Neither are the Syrians, the Saudis, the Chinese, or the North Koreans. And they do not become "our people" just by believing in democracy, or even by establishing democratic self-government. An Iranian democracy would be a good thing in countless ways -- but it would also probably be just as hell-bent as the current regime on acquiring nuclear weapons, flexing its muscles in Iraq, and perhaps even sponsoring anti-Israeli terrorism. As such, it would be our strategic rival, not our brother nation, even were its constitution copied word-for-word from ours.

Ironically, in terms of tone I think the NRO Corner post was one of the better things Ledeen has produced. It was relatively measured and obviously quite heartfelt. However, I think Ross raises a string of important points.

Lock of the Month

First of all, the groupthink on this issue is that in Iran the alternative political narrative to wacky-funster Mullahocracy is liberal democracy. One would hope that this is indeed the case. However, it is every bit as possible that the alternative is, in fact, Persian Nationalism. This is almost certainly preferable to the status quo in Tehran, but it ain't necessarily a cast iron guarentee that a newly free Iran is going to march in lock-step with the USA. I am also deeply, deeply sceptical that a democratic Iran would abandon the quest for nuclear weapons, any more than a democratic China would suddenly become conciliatory towards Taiwan - in each case the government involved is actually employing a popular nationalist initiative in order to lend a veneer of legitimacy to what is to all intents and purposes an illegitimate regime. It also has to be said that meddling in the affairs of its Arab neighbours has always been a characteristic of Iranian policy, regardless of the kidney of the government in power. I see little reason to believe that a strongly nationalist, secular regime in Tehran would be any different. In his excellent book Bad Elements, Ian Buruma discusses various matters with Chinese dissidents, many of whom are now based in the West (including leaders of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations). These are instructive - virtually to a man, liberal democratic Chinese dissidents backed the Chinese regime passionately and angrily over both Taiwan and the bombing of the Chinese embassy during the Kosovo conflict. In the case of Iran, where badly handled diplomatic interventions by America have coincided with dips in support for reformists and a rise in support for the reactionaries who run the show, we may be seeing a similar phenomenon in action.

Of course, many of the most strident boosters of the notion of a "democratic revolution" (the idea of revolutions tends to instinctively cause any conservative's gag reflex to kick in) are lapsed Marxists. While I don't doubt the good intentions of (most) of the people in this camp, I do think there's a danger of making the same mistake the Russian communists made during the Great War - namely to tie ourselves to a modern day version of the assumption held dear by the Bolshies and Trots that "the workers" of one state would be more inclined to solidarity with "the workers" of another state than they would be to solidarity with the middle and aristocratic classes of their own countries. They were proven wrong on an epic scale. Only time will tell whether democrats will be inclined to solidarity with foreign democrats in preference to their own national interests and pride. But I'm sceptical.

Shoe-in of the Week

There is another issue about which I am somewhat wary. Most of the Western contacts with Iranian opposition movements seem to revolve around student groups operating out of the West. Michael Ledeen alleges extensive contacts within Iran itself but these friends of his are almost always anonymous and therefore pretty much impossible to either verify or discredit. This is understandable and unavoidable on a number of levels because presumably if they're all they're cracked up to be and he names them they'll end up locked in a basement somewhere with their goolies wired up to a car battery, but it's fairly unhelpful because Ledeen effectively has to be taken on trust. Or not. Given that there are alarming similarities between some of the stuff that's going on between well meaning activists and Iranian dissidents and the stuff that went on between well meaning activists (often the same people) and Iraqi opposition groups prior to the Iraq War and given that the promises, guarentees and info provided by the Iraqi opposition groups and backed up by their Western boosters turned out to range from misguided and unrealistic to, to put it mildly, complete and utter horseshit, trust is in rather short supply at this point.

All this said, I feel that good liberals within regimes such as Iran deserve our support. I am strongly of the view that a decade or two down the line, Britain's role in all this will be seen to have been insufficiently supportive of the aspirations of ordinary Iranians. More could be done and should be done - perhaps along the lines suggested by Mark Palmer (a man I consider to be not mad, though others whose opinions I respect highly disagree) in his Breaking the Real Axis of Evil (rubbish title, good book). However, it seems to me that after the experience of Iraq and given the situation as it stands it is simply not responsible to try to build a serious strategy around the presumption that the Iranians are going to suddenly turn into Canada. The similarities to the now thoroughly discredited tearoom fantasies that surrounded too much of the planning for Iraq (remember how Ahmed Chalabi was going to be an Iraqi version of Charles de Gaulle? Or how a democratic Iraq would suddenly be pro-Israeli?) are too apparent and the salesmen are largely the same people. Maybe it will prove a tragedy for the world and for the people of the Middle East that people like Michael Ledeen have more or less used up all their credit, but used it up they have (A recurring theme at Defense and the National Interest has been the idea that those Americans who most enthusiastically boost the idea of an American Empire paradoxically tend to be those Americans most unsuited to actually running one. Unfortunately, this arithmetic could increasingly be applied to some of the noisiest democracy-promoters).

Oh, Roger Simon has a rebuttal to the piece from Andrew Sullivan's site. The man's golden. Golden. Ceasar's wife. But wrong I fear.

UPDATE: There's a rebuttal to Roger Simon's rebuttal up now. Basically it says everything I've said in the above piece of writing - only in a significantly more lucid manner. Bugger.


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