Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Listening to Iran

Before discussing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's interview with Brian Williams yesterday, I have to make clear that although I think that Israel has serious problems that are to a good degree their own making, and although I think that both the US and Israel itself would both actually be better off if they were not so closely identified with each other, I think that the anti-Israeli statements by President Ahmadinejad over the past several years are perhaps the most irresponsible and disturbing language coming from any quarter of the contemporary Middle East, and one can only assume that he understands perfectly well that everyone will make the connection between these frankly apocalyptic remarks ("Israel will cease to exist," etc.) and Iran's Uranium-enrichment program, to what end I simply cannot comprehend. I hope for a change to a more liberal, more secular set of political institutions in Iran, as an advocate of religious freedom and human rights.
The Iranian president (OK, Ahmadinejad)is of course playing domestic politics, in both bomb-thrower and conciliator poses. Playing the Great Satan routine has always been a meal ticket for fundamentalist Shia politicians. Now in the March 14th parliamentary elections there were real gains for the "pragmatic conservatives" and the "reformers," and Mahammed Qalibaf, a likely challenger in next year's presidential elections, argues that a "Third Wave" of pragmatic secularism is asserting itself. Ahmadinejad may be back-pedaling to create a less confrontational atmosphere to forestall the rise of more liberal political forces. The Iranians are also no doubt fascinated by their own history of influencing the outcome of US elections. I doubt, though, that they have as good a fix on what sort of outcome they might prefer, and how exactly they might go about influencing American voters, than we might imagine they do.
The reason I'm posting about this today is one really important segment of the interview to which every American really ought to listen. Williams asked Ahmadinejad if Iran might not enjoy more access to "the wider world" if it cooperated with international pressure to suspend or otherwise modify its uranium-enrichment activities. (The link at the top of the post is to the NBC transcript.) Iran, Ahmadinejad said, was "A great country, a great nation with a great economy, a rich culture, thousands of years of history and civilization. And we have very good economic and cultural relations with countries around the world. It would be very good for you to walk our streets and gain a better appreciation of life in this part of the world." Iran, he suggested, did not necessarily need "the services" of any countries in particular.
President Ahmadinejad may or may not survive next year's election and he may or may not be a skilled statesman (points off for blandly asserting that there are no gays in Iran). But his statement is a good example of the way that the ground is shifting under our feet. Eras, like empires, come and go, and they do so in political time, not geologic time. And like fashions, you can tell that something is in decline the moment most people know about it. An American Era, such as it is, was at a high point during the first half of the 1950s, with millions of American forces garrisoned around the world, an American military governor in Japan, American troops dying by the tens of thousands in Korea, and the US the preeminent economic engine and financier of the world, not to mention the biggest petroleum exporter. And the mindset of many Americans, both in government and in ordinary life, is that that era continues to this day and will continue indefinitely into the future (as John McCain, who cannot imagine that we may someday not be stationing military forces in Iraq, let alone Germany and Japan).
Two unexpected things to wake up to someday, and that someday is today: a) we're not the unipolar "hyperpower." We're not even necessarily the most impressive, or even the scariest, hegemonic pole on a stage that includes several (more than two). When did that happen? And 2) the age of American hegemony was a construction of the FDR Democrats. They were the ones who took the US into an international role and integrated the US and world economies. But today it's the Republicans who are still intent on tending the locomotive of empire. The Bush/McCain crowd just isn't getting it. Mahmoud Amadinejad, a political machine back-bencher who doesn't know what planet he's on, looks like Werner Von Braun compared to them. And maybe the biggest domestic story is this: however much the conservative/Republican alliance may be holding up in other areas, on the foreign policy front the split looks to be complete: Republican imperialists like Bush and McCain are literally the opposites of Libertarians and traditional Republican isolationists. On the spectrum of attitudes, the Democrats are located between them.

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