Why Libya? Why now?

Many people have been asking, why intervene in Libya when there are other people who are struggling against their tyrannical governments who also need support? There is more than one answer. I do not purport to have them all–someone in my position could not, as we do not know what backroom deals have been arrived at, nor how and with whom, to approve this mission in the UN Security Council. (Where is Wikileaks when you need it?)

One reason is probably that Libya seems to be the only state whose resistance has a leadership structure states can deal with on their own terms, as distinct from an amorphous mass of protesters. France recognised the rebel group as Libya’s new government two weeks ago, and all other governments involved are under pressure to follow suit.

The idea of oil interests is of course also floated as a possibility. Libya’s daily oil production runs somewhere between that of Angola and Algeria, constituting about 2% of world supply. If the US, Canada and so on are perceived as entering Libya to steal its oil, their reputations worldwide will drop to levels of unpopularity that would impress the colonel himself. A larger share of 2% of the world’s oil is not enough to motivate the powerful states to take such a big risk. While of course Big Oil would like to get its tentacles on that oil, especially at today’s prices, I do not think oil alone would provide the political support this mission needs, nor explain why Libya is the target.

Here is why Libya is the target. What is the name of the guy killing people in Libya? Muammar Gaddafi, of course. What else do we know about him? He is a crazy dictator. What are the names of the bad guys in Bahrain, Algeria and Yemen? How many Americans, British, Canadians and French can name them? Never mind them; we have the epitome of evil to take care of. In the US and Canada in particular, people are raised on a diet of super heroes and super villains. The Joker, Cobra Commander, Megatron and Skeletor, the villains I grew up with, wanted nothing but power, and commanded bands of evil mercenaries to kill innocent people. Muammar, like Saddam, fits this image perfectly: a one-dimensional, insane and funny-dressing dictator, massacring innocent people.

Moreover, the Libyan diaspora has no love for Gaddafi, and has been demanding his downfall in all the countries in question. (See this protest in London, for instance; some 20 Libyans were even yelling anti-Gaddafi slogans on the steps of the BC parliament.) The voters generally accept or encourage the decapitation of Libya. Along with the acquiescence of the Arab League and the United Nations, these facts explain why an intervention in Libya is politically possible.

A better comparison might even be made with Slobodan Milošević, the Butcher of Belgrade, who became the target of the 1999 NATO mission to protect Kosovo from Serbia, and grant it independence. The invasion was by no means an unqualified success. Despite every measure taken to target military infrastructure and minimise civilian casualties (which, by law, is necessary in war), hundreds of non-combatants were killed. Innocent Libyans will die in this “no-fly zone”.

The violence in Libya seems to occupy far more news media space than Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. According to polls, Americans are watching news about Libya, approve (60-70%) of intervention and generally agree that the comic book villain Lord of Libya should be removed from power. (That said, Europeans are less enthusiastic.) Barack has stated he will not send in ground troops, which means none of the invading states will. The ideal for the intervening governments is a quick victory and end to the conflict, and quick elections to remake Libya in the image of the West. Foreign casualties will be minimal, as they were in Kosovo (after all, how are Gaddafi’s forces supposed to hit submarines launching cruise missiles?). The heads of state ordering this mission will look like heroes and their approval ratings will rise at home. (Always watch the election cycle–Canadians may soon be heading to the polls.) That is, until things go wrong.

In fact, I see little reason to expect that everything will go as planned. The governments involved in Libya have consistently shown they have no plan for the countries they send their militaries to, and that their ad hoc planning rarely results in progress. Humanitarian interventions require long-term campaigns involving nation-building at the bottom and state-building at the top. Publics in these countries, who need to approve of such controversial commitments if their states are going to see them through, have short attention spans and low tolerance of casualties. If the violence in Libya ends when Gaddafi’s regime falls, like in Kosovo, the country can begin to rebuild. If not, it will be Iraq all over again.

Karzai’s Compromises

Hamid Karzai is quite the shrewd politician. He realises that his foreign friends with the big guns could be leaving Afghanistan soon, and is expending considerable effort to ensure that he remains in power after they leave.

Renewed efforts to shore up local Afghani defense forces are meeting with the approval of Karzai and General David Petraeus, who knows as well as Karzai that the US and its allies are on the way out. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a hilarious political euphemism, once called the groups they are trying to form “community defense initiatives“. Such local forces are, in effect, militias or paramilitary units that are supposed to fight the Taliban or keep it at bay (or, to the truly deluded, dismantle and destroy it). But there are a couple of reasons why that might not happen.

First, it is unlikely that these local forces feel much loyalty to Hamid Karzai or his government, which is seen by many Afghans as a puppet of foreign occupiers. Even if Karzai were seen as legitimate, ordinary Afghans are not likely to respect a government that forces them to pay large portions of their income in bribes for public services. They may even join the other side. There is no reason to think they would be less loyal to the Taliban than anyone else who might pay their salaries. These bands of fighters will not protect Afghanistan but only their friends and family. If there is a more effective route to doing so, for instance getting paid better by income from poppy farming, which might come from anyone, they could take it.

Second, Karzai is making deals with the Taliban, too. The consummate pragmatist, Hamid Karzai realises that the Taliban is strong, stronger than he, and without thousands of ISAF troops behind him, his future is uncertain. The US government has blacklisted many Taliban leaders by name, which means placing them on a UN list presumably so that they are not allowed to fly or talk to officials anywhere the US or UN have enough influence to stop them. Hamid Karzai asked the UN to remove as many as 50 of the names from the blacklist so that he could talk to them. Besides the fact that they are not all terrorists (whatever American authorities say), Karzai is reaching out to those who will want to wrench power from him when he is weak.

Hillary will visit Kabul soon for an international conference on Afghanistan after her present trip to Islamabad. (Her visit and its urgency were heralded by a suicide bombing in Kabul yesterday, not far from the US embassy.) She will likely discuss the US’s plans for reintegrating low level Taliban, the militias, anti-corruption efforts and aid, all of which are meaningless if there is no strong commitment to them for the next ten or twenty years. But we do not have ten or twenty years. The Barack administration plans to begin, carefully, to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011, a year before an election. 2011 and 12 could be interesting years for the short term future of Afghanistan; however, its medium and long terms are in the hands of Afghanis. A British withdrawal is scheduled for 2014; however, if British forces suffer inordinate casualties due to increased pressure from Afghan fighters, the curtain may fall before then. Karzai will attempt to make it look as if he was the strong leader who demanded that the foreign troops leave. The real reason ISAF troops are leaving, however, is because the citizens they answer to are no longer convinced it is in their interest to shore up another corrupt dictator of a failed state.

If all these deals and olive branches and community defense initiatives work, it could mean that the US government claim that Afghanistan will fall apart if it leaves might turn out false. Again, Karzai is a shrewd politician, which means he is a power broker, and his remaining in power for now might mean an end to the decades of conflict Afghanis have had to endure. Either way, Karzai’s actions are a clear indication that relying on the ISAF to always be there would be foolish.

Iran is Nazi Germany and other fairy tales

Benny Morris is one of Israel’s so-called “new historians”, a group of relative misfits in Israeli academia who dared, in the 1980s, to contradict the traditional narratives about the birth of Israel. He was one of the first to shatter the once widely accepted belief in Israel that hundreds of thousands Palestinians had left their homes in 1948 (the Nakba) because invading Arab armies told them to (when in fact, it was because of Zionist violence). He has written several books since then and generally stuck to the facts. He has been considered pro-Palestinian and left-wing (refusing to serve in the West Bank during the first Intifada), but for the past decade or so he has become more of an ideologue, showing his true nationalist credentials.

Most recently, Morris wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times called “When Armageddon lives next door“. In it, he argues that President Barack is turning his back on Israel at a time when it is in mortal danger from Iran. Because Iran’s president has announced publicly that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and because Iran seems to be building a nuclear bomb, Morris concludes that the US and Israel must attack Iran.

As with many like-minded people, Morris likens Iran with Nazi Germany. He reminds us that the international community did not take Hitler’s threats seriously until it was too late. Barack is too busy “obsessing over the fate of the ever-aggrieved Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip” and not spending enough time threatening Iran with military force. He says that Iran’s primary goal with its nuclear weapon is to destroy Israel. Engagement with Iran has failed and the US must either attack Iran itself or at least give Israel the green light to do so. “[T]he clock,” Morris warns us, “is ticking.”

Unfortunately, Benny Morris has been spending too much time reading Israeli newspapers and not enough time studying Iran. Morris’s article was written not by a historian but by an ideologue attempting to scare Americans into favouring war on Iran. His first mistake is his belief that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the power to fire nuclear weapons at Israel. As Reza Aslan, who does study Iran, asserts, the president of Iran is effectively powerless. It is not the president but the mullahs who will decide on the use of Iran’s nuclear weapons, or any weapons. The president talks tough about Israel, but given the menacing climate among the Israeli press, Israeli public opinion and Israeli government statements, he would look cowardly not to. Iranians presumably voted for him (at least the first time) because hardliners are the choice of people who feel under threat of war. Moreover, Morris has committed the Poli Sci 101 fallacy in believing that, because a politician says something he is bound to put it into action.

Second, comparing Iran with Nazi Germany is slimy, populist rhetoric with no basis in fact. Nazi Germany was a racist regime that continuously fed its people with anti-Jewish, anti-communist, anti-everyone propaganda. Iran is multicultural, and has no record of turning on its ethnic minorities. There are over 10,000 Jews in Iran, and they are allocated one seat in the Iranian parliament. Nazi Germany was, at its height, one of the major military powers of the world. Iran will probably never be one. It is relatively small, a middle-income country, a third-rate military power that has never expressed irredentist territorial ambitions. It is rife with internal dissent and any major actions that would lead to war would be unpopular enough at least to unseat the government.

Third, Morris claims that Barack’s attempts at engagement with Iran have failed. However, the Barack administration has not tried to appeal to Iran. Barack has generally kept Iran in a headlock and called it reaching out. I think we can forgive Iranians for not taking, say, a flurry of effort to impose sanctions on Iran as engagement. Real diplomacy is not all sticks.

Fourth, Iran is trying to position itself as a protector of Muslims in the Middle East. Given that 16% of Israeli citizens are Muslims, and that a nuclear bomb would almost inevitably strike Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest city, how could Iran attack Israel with indiscriminate weapons and continue to hope for support from coreligionists?

Finally, as I have said repeatedly, Iran poses little military threat to Israel. All the people worrying about one or two bombs that could be fired at Israel ignore the fact that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, most of which is likely aimed at various Iranian hotspots. Israel has one of the best trained and equipped militaries in the world. And it is close partners with the preeminent military superpower of our time. A nuclear strike on Israel would be justification enough for the US to join in Israel in attacking Iran, which would soon be reduced to rubble.

Alarmist rhetoric like Morris’s shows that he has strayed from a critically thinking and sober historian to a media hack that advocates the worst policies for Israel and the world. One thing he does know, however, is that fear is a powerful lever under the feet of those unacquainted with the facts.

Public Opinion: Afghanistan and Vietnam

Currently, my greatest interest is in how public opinion legitimises war. There is considerable evidence that, although military decisions are made behind closed doors by small groups, wars would not get fought if the people were vehemently opposed to them. Public approval, disapproval, demonstration for and against, discourse and apathy all factor into political calculations in a democracy (and to an extent in other forms of regime as well), and wars have major political consequences. Far from being inherently peaceful, democracies are sometimes more violent against non-democracies, turning wars into crusades against evil. The Cold War is one example: the Western public was convinced of its justifications for fighting the godless communists and their evil empire. World War Two was perhaps an even clearer example. The mythology of those quests remains to this day, continuing to influence culture.

The Leader of the Free World’s most destructive war since WW2 was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started and escalated with strategic decisions but ended with a public decision. The American people had had enough. Approval for the Vietnam War among American voters was highest in 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide electoral victory. It fell nearly every year after that. Although American soldiers usually defeated the Vietcong, the American government did not defeat the antiwar movement at home. Why did support drop?

One obvious reason is that Vietnamese and Americans were dying in the thousands. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 US troops and some two million Vietnamese people died. The people could not see why American soldiers should be drafted just to die. Coffins with flags on them are a major cause of war weariness.

Another is some of the spectacular embarrassments the US war effort incurred. 1968 was particularly bad. In January was the Tet Offensive. Though a tactical victory for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, it was a propaganda victory for Ho Chi Minh. A spectacular surprise attack by the communists, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war that reversed US escalation in Vietnam. Soon after the Tet Offensive came the massacre at My Lai. The US Army brutally killed some 400 or 500 Vietnamese villagers, all civilians and mostly women, children and elderly. When the news of My Lai came out, Vietnam war protests increased, as more moderates became vocal objectors.

By 1973, the US was out. Thirty years later, it was back in; except this time, it found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack is pulling most troops from Iraq but he is placing more in Afghanistan. The American public’s attention has largely refocused on what the president likes to call a war of necessity. The US public initially agreed with a US invasion of Afghanistan, but it could be waning.

There are differences between the two wars, but here we are concerned with public opinion. Americans are lukewarm on Afghanistan, about half approving of their country’s presence there. 60% of Canadians would choose not to extend the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2011, even though there is no reason to believe a mere one more year will stabilise the country. About two-thirds of Germans want to bring the troops home. 64% of Britons polled think that the war is unwinnable, and 69% that the government has not done all it can to support its soldiers. With an election coming up, these figures are crucial.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and even Iraq have not died in nearly the same numbers as in Vietnam. But we are of a different generation. We are living in a time of fast food, high speed internet, immediate results and easy victories. If the Western allies who are again fighting an opponent they do not entirely understand do not show markedly improved results soon, governments will fall and the war in Afghanistan will end.

How long will the public approve of this war? Will they care enough about its stated goals to continue to support it? Is there any chance public opinion on the war will rise in the US, UK, Germany or Canada, even with some tactical victories? History suggests that, if there is an Afghan Tet Offensive or a Pakistani My Lai, the West will suffer another humiliating defeat in another faraway land.

Another perspective on drone attacks

In my last post, I argued that the US government’s crocodile tears at the execution of an Iranian protester were hypocritical in light of its accidental killing of civilians in drone attacks in Pakistan. I was attempting to provide perspective that the US government did not have. However, perhaps I was in need of perspective.

According to Pakistan’s Daily Times, civilians in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas should and do support such drone attacks. Farhat Taj says that, having discussed the matter with hundreds of residents of Waziristan, the people “see the US drone attacks as their liberators from the clutches of the terrorists” (the Taliban and al Qaeda). She also says that the civilian casualty figures commonly quoted, six to seven hundred, are misleading. Her whole report is an eye-opener.

An earlier article in the same paper describes the Awami National Party, the ruling party of Northeast Pakistan, as highly supportive of drone attacks and American involvement to oust the Taliban et al. (although that may be because the latter are a threat to its power). Another party, the Pakistan Muslim League, was opposed to drone attacks but nonetheless encouraged the US to help revive the economy. So continued American involvement is not all bad for anyone but the Taliban.

For more perspective on why the Taliban are so unpleasant, one might start with Robert Fisk. In his book The Great War for Civilisation, Fisk explains that the Taliban imposed the kind of state they knew. They grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan, terribly poor, their mothers and sisters reduced to servitude, with no education or entertainment or hope but the Quran. It is no wonder they turned to a particularly brutal and purist form of Islam when they took over Afghanistan. They are still imposing it where they are today.

Is assassination by drone the best way to end their rule and bring peace to Central Asia? If combined with the right political and economic strategy, it may be.

Drone attacks outweigh the death of a protester

The US government is making very public its opposition to the death sentencing of an Iranian student protester. It also called for the release of all Iranian political prisoners. As much as I agree with its stance, the Barack administration is hardly the best group to adopt it.

The day after the US’s tearful solidarity speech, the New America Foundation released a report that estimated that 32% of those killed in American drone attacks in Pakistan were civilians. The report details the casualties of each attack since the beginning of 2010, calling this the Year of the Drone.

Drones are unmanned airplanes that launch missiles at ground targets of assassination. If there is a good chance soldiers will be killed, the US (and Israeli) military sends in a drone. Scholars are divided over the legality of their use. The Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University issued a manual with the applicable rules, for instance that all targets must be combatants, or “civilians directly participating in hostilities” (Rule 10). Accidentally killing civilians is probably not legal, and of course it throws open the moral questions of using drones at all. But it happens in almost every strike.

So as bad as Iran’s government is, US government criticism for it is at best hypocritical. Let us say they both need to change.

Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity

Toying with history is a dangerous game

This post is largely based on Dangerous Games: the Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret Macmillan.

The recent history of history

During the Cold War, history was not considered as interesting as it is now. The capitalist and communist systems were about building a new world, not looking back; and old rivalries, such as Croats vs. Serbs, were supposed to have been lost in the swirling mists of time.

The 1990s therefore surprised everyone by ushering in a more complicated, international order. The ethnic conflicts that had so characterised the pre Cold War world had not perished but simply frozen, just under the surface. But an equally inaccurate reading of history led some to think that the new fighting was based on age-old conflicts, rather than, to go back to the example of Yugoslavia, on Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tuđman’s ambitious opportunism in carving up Bosnia between themselves. A merely superficial understanding of history meant that whether to intervene to end the war in Yugoslavia was a question that cost thousands of lives to answer.

Bad history hides answers

There is a mass of bad history out there, sometimes recognisable by its sweeping generalisations. It is conventional wisdom that the Treaty of Versailles led directly to World War Two. However, this account overlooks the fact that treatment was not as severe as many Germans claimed at the time. Germany only paid a fraction of the bill, and Hitler cancelled it outright. The Weimar Republic government’s mismanagement of its economy was far more damaging. Germany also had bad leaders, who thought they could control Hitler once he got into power. Hitler’s ambition and fierce nationalism were much more influential on the outbreak of the second war.

The manipulation of history is increasingly pervasive in our world. Many governments have departments devoted to commemorating history or “heritage”. They vet history text books to ensure their compliance with the approved version of the story. They believe the past should be used as a tool to create patriotic citizens.We hear one-sided or false histories employed to justify anything in the present. Though history, like the present, is very complicated, painting very blurred lines between good and evil, the abuse of history reduces the complicated to a simple pattern of our good deeds and their criminality. History can thus be an escape to a simple, innocent world from a Norman Rockwell painting. (A romantic past is also good for tourism.)

The descendants of the allies of World War Two believe it was the last clearly, unambiguously good war–even though they were allied with one of the most murderous regimes in history. In North America, Churchill is remembered as the hero who soldiered on alone against Hitler, rather than the author of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of World War One. And the romantic past can remind citizens who do not know history very well why they should support current leaders. George Bush compared himself to Churchill (the great commander, not the Gallipoli guy) and Truman (the unpopular one whom history has vindicated nonetheless); Stalin compared himself to Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, the iron-fisted rulers who made Russia strong; Saddam Hussein compared himself to Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria who fought crusaders; and Mao Zedong liked to draw parallels between himself and the Qin Emperor who united China after the Three Kingdoms Period. Analogies draw pretty pictures of ugly faces.

History and collectivism

Publishers and TV stations profit from idealised versions of history because they make us feel good about ourselves and our ancestors. Our approach to history strongly affects our collective self-image. Most people are collectivists: they feel they belong to a group that is bigger than they are, and that everyone else does too. They look to history books to provide not the truth but meaning. We tell and retell stories about ourselves and our groups, and since we do not want to feel bad about anything we associate ourselves with, our stories inevitably make us look good and feel proud.

That leads us to ask, what is history for? Is it to know the truth? To learn lessons for our lives? To create a community? To create patriots? To legitimise current government policy? Or to understand how we got here?

Why is truth important in history? Because only then can we understand the present, understand ourselves and most importantly, understand others. That means a) why our group is no more moral than any other group, b) why others are angry with us, c) what we should do to make things right. If we do not learn, or at least seek out, the truth in history, we will write off everyone else’s anger as irrational. We have given you so much and this is how you repay us? Without truth, or at least a consensus on what the truth is, we have only yelling.

Army regiments have official histories because they are unifying, but they are usually one sided or simplistic. Organisations and ethnic groups have their own heroes. We like heroes and we want our heroes to be pure, so we take inspiration in their good deeds, sometimes exaggerating or even inventing them to create a role model, and ignoring or painting out their faults. The public, and thus politicians, suggest huge honours for soldiers alive and dead, even though the veterans themselves are often non committal. Commemorating soldiers can be good for unity around values that politicians like: nationalism, war, duty, and so on.

History has taken the place of religion as our source of myth. Our group came before and will outlast us, and in a time where fewer believe in an afterlife, our group is a source of immortality. But if the essential features of history, context and causality, are absent, we can see history as an inevitable progression toward a glorious present or future for our group, when in truth it is much less clear. Please also see my book for a discussion of the futility of chasing our identity.

Whose fault is it?

Politicians are quick to make apologies: the pope apologised for the Crusades, for instance; Bill Clinton for slavery; Tony Blair for the Irish potato famine. Apologies are easy. But how do any of them help things? Dwelling on past events like slavery and the Holocaust can make it harder for us to deal with the here and now.

We usually see history through the lens of the present. After the imperialist Suez campaign of 1956, WW2 became seen as the time when all British came together and fought off evil. They felt nostalgia and pride. Churchill’s account of WW2 suggested that the war cabinet was unanimous that Britain must fight on alone. However, the historical account shows that there were long debates in the cabinet, sometimes exploring how to avoid war. A similar debate went on in the American administration over dropping the atom bomb on Japan. When historians began to show that the allies were not always united, and made some morally questionable moves, they were attacked in the press. The US Air Force itself even took offence. Many critics, some who never even read the books they were attacking, said that the historians could not possibly know what happened because they were not there. Margaret Macmillan was even told that, as a woman, what could she know about military affairs anyway?

“Being there does not necessarily give greater insight into events,” writes Macmillan; “indeed, sometimes the opposite is true.” Memory is highly flawed. We think we remember but our memory is often very inaccurate. It is selective and malleable, not set in stone, not recoverable. As Primo Levy, a prominent scholar of the Holocaust, said with a sigh after interviewing Holocaust victims, when a memory is evoked too often, it becomes set in stone, stereotyped, adorned and embellished. And collective memory is stronger because it lasts longer, adorned and embellished over generations. Some nations date their nationhood, or their great win that unified them and expanded their land, or their great defeat since when they have always struggled to regain their land, back hundreds or thousands of years.

The danger of nationalist myth

Israelis and Palestinians dispute every aspect of their history. Both sides tell and retell their own official histories. Since history lies at the heart of their identity and claim to the land, it is impossible for ideologues and hardliners on either side to agree on anything. They seem to believe that proving the length of their claims to the land would be a title deed to it. Fortunately, there are moderates on both sides working together to correct the mistakes and write fairer versions of history books for students to learn about each other, rather than the grievances of their own side and the evils of the other. Unfortunately, few teachers are using them.

Archaeology has assumed a central role in the land debate. But real scientists are not ideologues. Israeli archaeologists have found no evidence at all that Moses or Abraham ever existed, that either the Kingdom of Solomon and David or the Jerusalem of old were anything more than a town, and that there were any Jews in Egypt. Science threw the whole Old Testament into question. In fact, the Old Testament had never been meant as historical record. It was only in the past two hundred years or so, with the wide acceptance of science as a means of discovering the truth, that anyone tried to link religion with science. Nonetheless, Jews, Christians and Muslims repudiated everything the archaeologists found. The truth is a threat to identity.

Israel was founded by creating myths. The fathers of Israel looked back into Jewish history to sculpt their new country. They found Masada–the great defeat and martyrdom of Jewish zealots. But Masada was never particularly important in Jewish history until the modern era. Now, it has become a symbol for Israeli unity in the face of hostility: never again shall Masada fall. In practice, this has meant that no amount of brutality is too much to protect Israeli lives.

But Israelis are only newcomers to the idea of nationalism. Until the past few centuries, and in many cases until WW2, Europeans did not consider themselves part of a “nation” but part of a religion, or guild, or clan. Yet, nationalist historians claimed to have found evidence that there have been discernible German, French, Polish and other nations within recognisable borders for hundreds of years, ignoring the migration and intermarriage between groups. While some myth might make us feel good, we need only look at the nearly one hundred million people who died in the two World Wars, along with Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Tibet, Chechnya, Turkey and Sudan to see nationalist myth in its purest form.

History painfully challenges the assumptions of sensitive people, but to accept the truth is a sign of maturity. In the pre Civil War South of the United States, history books used to show a very simple and beautiful history. Life was easy, polite, cordial, even between slaves and their owners. Textbooks in the South played down slavery and made Africans seem fortunate to have been given the chance to come to America, though they were clearly not clever enough to rule themselves. After desegregation, museums, monuments and textbooks, embarrassed, rescinded most of their mistakes. In France, debate continues about the implications of the French Revolution, Napoleon’s conquests and France’s involvement in Algeria. French historians have tried to make people understand that Napoleon was more a racist dictator than a national hero; others want to erase the prior downplay of the brutality of the Algerian War of Independence; still more dispel the untruth that all French were united in resistance to the Nazis in World War Two. However, in the United States and France, like everywhere else, not everyone appreciates an even view of the past.

Nationalists use dreams of a Golden Age, a time when our nation was great, to motivate people to violence. Mussolini led Italians to believe in a new Roman empire, which led them to disaster in World War Two. Religious fundamentalists are much the same, wanting to restore the Golden Age when all the faithful lived in harmony, until pagans arrived to end it. In the hands of populists, history becomes prophecy. Each nation has a creation myth. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, used the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge to promote a more militaristic view of history–pride in Canada’s military accomplishments, rather than a critical look at them. China’s government is very selective about history. It cannot repudiate Mao completely because his legacy is their party, and thus their legitimacy rests on his memory. They order “patriotic education”, emphasising how patriotic all Chinese people have always been. They morphed socialism, which the Chinese no longer believe in, into patriotism by calling it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The past few hundred years of Chinese history is one long line of humiliation that is entirely the fault of foreigners, and conclude that the humiliation will never end until Taiwan is permanently reunited with the mainland. But stories of past glories or wrongs come at the cost of abusing history.

The rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1990s saw the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya by Hindu nationalists who claimed it had been built on the birthplace of the god Rama. More than 2000 people were killed in subsequent riots around the country. In part of a drive to peg India as a strictly Hindu nation, whose worthwhile accomplishments were all made by Hindus, those who destroyed the mosque declared they would destroy more Muslim buildings around India. Of course, believing that one’s civilisation could ever be one pure religion, ethnicity or culture is nonsense: civilisations, societies, cultures and nations are very fluid constructs, as any balanced reading of history can tell us. But the communal violence India has suffered since Ayodhya is testament to the power of historic myth.

Playing the game

One factor that made the Cold War so dangerous was that neither side understood the other. Cold War policymakers paid little attention to the lessons they could learn from history about the other sides. US governments took the USSR’s threats and revolutionary utterances at face value, and the Soviet and Chinese communists believed that the capitalists were willing to go to war in their imperialist quest for wealth. American experts on China predicted the Sino-Soviet Split but were drowned out by Soviet-watchers and hardliners, who said that Mao was under Stalin’s control even after 1961. Russian and Chinese governments believed (and still do) that Western talk of human rights is a mere excuse to meddle in those countries’ internal affairs. “If you do not know the history of another people, you will not understand their values, their fears, and their hopes, or how they are likely to react to something you do.

“There is another way of getting things wrong,” continues Macmillan, “and that is to assume that other peoples are just like you.” Robert Macnamara worked hard after retiring from the US State Department to understand what went wrong in Vietnam. He believed that Americans pasted a portrait of themselves on Vietnam, believing they saw a thirst for freedom akin to the American experience. American officials also thought they could escalate the bombing campaign and raise the pain on the North Vietnamese to force them into a cost benefit analysis that would lead them to conclude it was time to throw in the towel. If they had looked more carefully at the war the Vietnamese fought against the French, they may have realised the determination of the Vietnamese independence movement. They failed to understand the culture and the politics of Vietnam and the personalities of its leaders. The US government has still not learned history very well, as evidenced in George Bush’s uses of the word “crusade” to refer to his manichean foreign policy, his lumping together of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and his administration’s belief that Iraqis would welcome the foreign powers as liberators.

History can show us who made different, better decisions. President Barack is in a similar situation to that of Nixon contemplating the war in Vietnam. Nixon opened relations with America’s enemy, China, which helped him manage Vietnam and the USSR. Barack might be wise to do the same with his Maoist China, Iran. Cooperation with Iran could mean help in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than hindrance of America’s efforts. (Please see my post on why Iran is the bad guy.) Ah, but of course, we should be learning not from Nixon in Nam but from Munich and the foolish Neville Chamberlain.

Talk of appeasement and Munich is bandied about as if to mean one should never talk to one’s enemies. Disregarding the fact that it was not at all clear what else Chamberlain should have done in 1938, the assumption behind allusions to Munich seems to be that everyone other than us knows only the language of force. It is necessary to treat the claims made in history’s name with skepticism, or leaders will use it to bolster claims about the present. Saddam was likened to Adolf, and we all know how to deal with Adolf. George Bush and American neoconservatives have invoked Munich as a clear signal that we should not talk to but isolate or even attack Iran and Syria. But are Iran and Syria Nazi Germany? Is talking to their leaders a sign of weakness? The Munich analogy has been applied liberally since World War Two: Anthony Eden used it to justify a disastrous episode of gunboat diplomacy in 1956, for example.

Learning history is important. We can learn about the world, learn about how to be successful and how to fail, how we should act and how others might react. But manipulating history for political purposes, or ignoring inconvenient parts of history, do not help make better decisions or forge a better future. We must learn to be thorough and think critically about history, to avoid believing the lies about history and its lessons, or we will be doomed to repeat it.

Sanctions on Iran? Let’s be Daoist about it

The Menso Guide to War’s good friend President Barack is proposing sanctions on Iran. Actually, he is proposing further sanctions on Iran. The history of US sanctions on Iran goes back to the deposing of the shah and the hostage crisis of 1979. Barack thinks more sanctions would be a good way to get what he wants in the Middle East, and many Americans support him. I am afraid, however, he is wading in over his head.

The proposed bill targets Iran’s dependence on imports for gasoline. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions condemning Iran’s enrichment of uranium, because it could use uranium to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, it may already have a nuclear weapon. More resolutions express more accepted condemnation and as such give measures like sanctions (or military action, depending what the resolutions say) more legitimacy. Iran has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So sanctions are justified to make it stop enriching uranium, right?

Not so fast. Why does Barack want sanctions on Iran? Is it a punishment? My homegirl Hillary has said that, if the sanctions could just target the “relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran”, they could serve the US’s goals. True, it may weaken the regime financially but it would also hurt the people, as sanctions often do–think of the deepening of poverty in Iraq during the 1990s. For instance, the $2b in Citibank belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that the US government froze in 2008 will likely be made up from other assets the Guard own in Iran. Someone always ends up paying, and it is rarely the elites. The people would be pushed into the hands of the hardliners, as I argue they already have been for years since the demonisation of Iran began under Bill Clinton and got no better under George Bush. This outside push on Iran is why a fool like Ahmadinejad can get elected there in the first place. If history is any guide, the people will not turn on their government if threatened or impoverished but run to it for protection.

Will tougher sanctions force a change in policy? Do Iranians even have a right to nuclear technology? For years now, the Iranian government has made it quite clear that it will enrich uranium whether the outside world likes it or not. And why should it? It has become part of the status quo that India, Israel and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, and though they (along with North Korea) are the only four states not party to the non proliferation treaty, they are allies of the US. Israel gets into wars all the time: in the 62 years since 1948, Israel has fought 7 wars and 2 intifadas. India and Pakistan are continually at odds with one another, and though I disagree with him on Iran, Christopher Hitchens believes the India-Pakistan conflict is the most likely of the world to turn nuclear. Meanwhile, the US is trying to isolate Iran in the kind of double standard that makes international politics the confusing mess it is. If anyone tries to force Iran to give up nuclear capability of any kind, they will look like bullies and hypocrites.

Barack is using a sizeable amount of his political capital in the Security Council drumming up support for sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the US government talks about how much it would like to talk to Iran and gently persuade it to do the right thing, but the ayatollahs just won’t cooperate. American politicians claim to be wide open to talking to Iran but wide open to bombing it to rubble as well. These arguments play well to the same voters as believe the mindless cliche that our enemies only understand the language of force. Aside from the fact that the claim that the US government is trying to engage Iran is doubtful, how do Hillary and Barack expect the Iranians to open up when they have been pushed away for two decades? You cannot push others away with one hand and expect them to shake your other one.

There seems to be surprisingly little discussion in Washington at the moment about the consequences of putting away all sanctions on Iran. If only American political culture were less impulsive and more Daoist. Daoism considers peace first. It favours non-action, which would be a propitious innovation for a culture that feels the need to move quickly forward in any direction. Daoists remain open minded and flexible, not committed to a single way of thinking, especially after that way has failed. And it believes in relativism, that what path might be right for one may not be right for all.

Perhaps that is why the Chinese government has said that more sanctions on Iran may not be necessary right now, and that it may be prudent to wait. (In truth, I believe Chinese government ideology is pragmatism, not Daoism, but Daoism is a good way to contrast the foreign affairs of the US and China.) It has declared its preference for dialogue over punishment. The Chinese government makes a habit of stating that it is not Chinese policy to interfere in other states’ affairs. It has backed sanctions in the past because like all nuclear powers it does not want anyone new in the club. But perhaps Chinese officials have realised that there are other ways to deal with adamant people.

Why are we so afraid of a nuclear Iran? It is not as if possession of nuclear weapons makes it likely or even possible to use them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has made them all but useless. Yet Barack has made disarmament a major part of his foreign policy.

I am looking forward to a day when Daoists run the US State Department and liberals run the Revolutionary Guard. Perhaps then we will be able to talk to each other.

The demonisation of Iran

On Thursday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a public address that he believed Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s possessing the bomb would be “potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome. On the other hand,” he said, “when asked about striking Iran, specifically, that also has a very, very destabilizing outcome…. I think it so important is that we continue internationally, diplomatically, politically — not just we, the United States, but the international community — continue to focus on this to prevent those two outcomes.”

Some people might say that the obvious course is to strike now while the iron is hot. They are wrong. The US should not be pushing for regime change in Iran, which at any rate is unlikely at this time. The answer is to engage with Iran and, over time, make it an ally.

The Islamic Republic has not always been anti-American. Those with good memories will remember that, before Ahmadinejad, Iran had two moderate, “reformist” presidents in power: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyed Mohammad Khatami. They urged cooperation with the West, reconciliation with the US and domestic freedoms. Rafsanjani spoke last July in support of the pro-democracy activists, and Khatami won the 2009 Global Dialogue Prize, and officially repudiated the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

During the 1990s, Iran’s governments were interested in improving relations with the US, but the Clinton administration pushed Iran away. Iran offered the American oil firm Conoco a contract, chosen over other foreign oil companies in order to improve ties with the US, and the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Iran in 1995.

Oil producers do not control the US government in the way most people imagine. War and sanctions are not in many oilmen’s interest. Sanctions prevent the development of oil fields by American companies and award them to rival companies from rival countries that do not participate in the sanctions regime. While security and stability are necessary to pump and transport oil, war produces instability. Whenever the US imposes sanctions on countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, or goes to war with countries like Iraq, it does so counter to US oil interests, not in line with them. As could have been expected, Conoco’s parent company, DuPont, lobbied against hurting its business.

But the sanctions came along anyway. In fact, the sanctions on Iran came at the behest of the Israel Lobby, the collection of hardline, right wing, Zionist pressure groups in the US whose actions have led to numerous strategic blunders for the US, including the subject at hand. In 1994, the US’s second most powerful lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), circulated a paper called “Comprehensive US sanctions against Iran: a plan for action”. It sought to close all of the loopholes American companies squeezed through to do business with Iran. Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Israel Lobby, scuttled the Conoco deal, and banned all American oil companies from helping Iran develop its oil fields.

In Autumn 2001, Iran helped facilitate the toppling of the Taliban regime and its replacement with the friendly government of Hamid Karzai. Iranians even held candlelight vigils to commemorate those who died on 9/11. President Khatami took these moves to mean relations with the US would improve. Instead, in 2002, George Bush placed Iran in the Axis of Evil, indicating he was keen on regime change there as well.

In 2003, after the US invaded Iraq, Bush publicly pressured Syria and Iran. Neocons and the Israel Lobby, apparently under the delusion that they could rearrange the entire Middle East, began pushing for a zero tolerance policy against Iran. Neocons accused Tehran of harbouring al-Qaeda operatives, though the CIA and the State Department thought it unlikely. Norman Podhoretz, part of the Israel Lobby, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in 2007 entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” John Hagee of Christians United for Israel told AIPAC “it is 1938; Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.”Retired general Wesley Clark, when asked why he was worried the US would go to war with Iran, said “[y]ou just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.” He was, predictably, lambasted as an anti-Semite. But as Matthew Yglesias wrote at the time, “everyone knows [what Clark said was] true.”

George Bush said his administration was willing to go to war with Iran to protect Israel. (The Israel Lobby’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from Bush’s statements, as they did not want to seem like the cause of the US’s unilateral belligerence.) All the 2008 presidential candidates echoed Bush’s remarks. While campaigning, Barack Obama said

“There is no greater threat to Israel, or to the peace and stability of the region, than Iran…. Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel…. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon… everything.”

Now, perhaps having seen the folly of this position, or perhaps because he had been speaking to AIPAC when he said it, Barack has since softened his position and extended a hand to Iran.

I believe it is unlikely that the Iranian government will be easily induced to give up its development of nuclear weapons (assuming, which we should, it is indeed attempting to produce them). Nukes are good for regimes who face an existential threat. It is understandable to prepare for war with a country like the US, which has started two wars with Iran’s immediate neighbours, and Israel, which publishes daily headlines that scream of the colossal threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear bomb and the necessity of preventing them from acquiring one. President Barack wants to eliminate them but doing so would require extremely costly incentives (eg. lots of money and security guarantees for countries like North Korea) or disincentives (eg. war). And if possessing the bomb is the best way to win a prize, what is to stop everyone from having them?

Therefore, relevant questions include the following: Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel or the US? I doubt it. If an Iranian missile landed on the US or Israel, those two countries together would walk all over Iran. Let them have a nuclear weapon. They will not use it.

Will it give them to terrorists who will use them on everyone? This is an unrealistic prospect. First, Iran wants to keep its foes on their toes, but does not want to destroy the world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is just posturing. Men love to strut and posture and look tough. Men build big guns and missiles and hold military parades to feel good about themselves. Some men will always talk tough, even if, behind the scenes, they are actually hoping they will not have to carry through.

Second, most terrorists have no ability to detonate a nuclear weapon. As John Mueller explains, a nuclear bomb is not a toy. It is very hard to assemble and use, and will not simply blow up the world if tapped with a hammer. Moreover, if Iran supplied terrorists with weapons, intelligence agencies would find out and governments would fiercely punish Iran.

It is time for the US to engage with Iran. Doing so would lead Iran’s government to assist in stabilising Afghanistan and Iraq, two unstable zones that could produce anti-Western terrorism and contribute to radicalising the Middle East and Central Asia. Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said in 2008, “Frankly, from our point of view, the more engagement there is, the more Iran becomes a factor of stability in the region, the better is is for us all.” The fact is, we need all the help we can get, and we do not need another intractable conflict. The State Department, the CIA and the US military all favour direct discussion with Iran’s leaders, as does a majority of Americans. In 2006, the Iraq Study Group urged talks with Iran and Syria, which was initially rejected by the Bush administration who thought it was doing just fine in Iraq without them.

So they continued to refer to Iran as the most dangerous country in the world. Gallup polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who believe Iran is their greatest enemy has increased every year since 2001. The reason might be that rhetoric on Iran has gone up concurrently. US and Israeli warmongerers want us to believe it to buoy support for military action. They believe that, by eliminating all enemies, they can be secure. But when we attempt to destroy all enemies, we imperil our own security most, because everyone will mistrust us, and most will defend themselves.

Talk of war tends to push the potential victims of that war into the hands of tough-talking governments. To both decry Ahmadinejad’s election and threaten Iran is to defeat one’s purpose. There are wiser solutions.

Another Gallup poll of Americans taken in 2007 showed a clear majority in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts to induce Iran to give up its nuclear program. The survey then asked those who were in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts, if such efforts failed, would you support a military strike? 55% said no. Even despite the rhetoric, even though most of them believe Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Americans are largely not in favour of further military action against the US’s latest “enemy”.

They have probably not yet forgotten how we were all duped into supporting the war against Saddam. All the same transparent words are being used: evil, irrational, radical, WMDs and so on. Yet, aside from interfering with American wars on its borders, a rational act given that tying down the US in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it less able to attack Iran, Iran has never attacked the US or Israel. Why would it do so now?

Are we afraid because Iran’s government is a pack of religious fanatics with an apocalyptic worldview that puts them on a collision course with civilisation? People who take this view tend also to see everyone an American newspaper might call “jihadists” in the same light: ready to kill themselves and everyone else to bring on the end of the world. The differences among these groups are significant and often ignored. Iran’s Islamic revolution was a nationalist one, and though it supports other Shia groups in the Middle East against Western interests, this has been largely in reaction to isolation and demonisation by America and Israel, not to spread holy war. It does not support groups like al-Qaeda, though I am sure that if they get desperate, the Israel Lobby and Neocons will fabricate evidence that they do.

Being religious does not mean being stupid. Everyone responds to carrots and sticks. Iran’s leaders have shown they can be reasonable and even friendly to foreign interests, including those of the Great Satan, and may be again. Besides, if religious fanatics could not be negotiated with, no one would ever have approached the Bush White House.

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett recommend Barack give up his “half-hearted” approach to diplomacy with Iran and look to Richard Nixon’s example. Nixon flew to China during the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War. Since then, the US has been committed to engagement with the Chinese government. Barack could be the president that flies to Tehran.

Power no longer comes from wars of words or wars of bullets. It comes from close, lasting relationships with other people and governments. The benefits to engaging Iran are a new ally, a more stable Middle East and Central Asia, and a more trustworthy nuclear partner. The benefits to castigating Iran serve only the warmongering elite. It is time to reconcile American and Iranian interests and end the demonisation of the US’s chosen enemy.