My Unconscious is Earnest; It’s Only My Ego That’s Nihilist

David Foster Wallace is already starting to get inside my head (I’m reading Infinite Jest as part of the Infinite Summer project). Last night I had a dream that S. and I were moving to a new place, an old facility building that had been converted into residential dwelling, located on a sparsely built, wooded former campus of some sort (E.T.A.?) on Lake Washington in Seattle. The current resident of the unit was David Foster Wallace and according to whatever dream logic was in effect, we were moving in a few days before he was moving out (it was revealed later in the dream — because you discover your dream personae as you discover those of other people — that the occupant prior to us of the place from which we were moving was also David Foster Wallace). We engaged in a series of joint activities in the period of our overlap, one of which included sitting together around a large table with a lot of simply cut, craftsman-type ornamentation as we painted it. Mr. Wallace was telling us how good these sorts of communal art works are when in a moment of cynical snark, of which I am want — at least dreamworld Donald is accurate in this respect — I insisted, “Yeah, but this sort of artistic self-indulgence is just a few steps removed from scrawling inscrutable messages on the wall in your own feces.” At which Mr. Wallace treated me to a considerable upbraiding regarding the failings of my detached, ironic stance. I struggled to defend my position of cynicism, but only flailed rather impishly in the face of his well reasoned criticisms. The argument, and my failings, continued through an afternoon’s shoreline scrub brush walk.

I know, I know, blogging your dreams! Is there anything more boring than other peoples’ dreams? It’s bad enough to have to hear about them while struggling for bathroom sink time in the morning; then to go and blog about them! I’ve tried to keep it brief, only to serve as an example of how quickly (I’m only on like page 50) and in what ways David Foster Wallace is getting in my head in a way that no novel has in a long time.

The Mullahs Killed Michael Jackson

[Editor’s Warning: elitist liberal moralizing to follow]

Dan Savage:

The Iranian regime has accused the CIA of killing Neda in order to win sympathy for the protesters and create disorder in Iran. I accuse the Iranian regime of killing Michael Jackson to end all coverage of the protests in Iran on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC.

(“The Mullahs Killed Michael Jackson,” SLOG, The Stranger, 25 June 2009)

It’s unfortunate that the public and the media are so transfixed by the solipsistic, bread-and-circus phantasmagoria. Entertainment trumps world history every time.

When Realpolitik and Principle Converge

Apropos my two previous posts about keeping non-proliferation goals in the mix with democracy permotion, Matthew Yglesias spells out the logic for why this is probably not tenable (“Engagement With a Post-Crackdown Iran,” Think Progress, 23 June 2009):

The hope behind an engagement strategy was that the Supreme Leader might be inclined to side with the more pragmatic actors inside the system — guys like former president Rafsanjani and former prime minister Mousavi. With those people, and most of the Iranian elites of their ilk, now in open opposition to the regime, any crackdown would almost by definition entail the sidelining of the people who might be interested in a deal. Iran would essentially be in the hands of the most hardline figures, people who just don’t seem interested in improving relations with other countries. Under the circumstances, the whole subject of American engagement may well wind up being moot.

So maybe the realpolitik and the principled position have converged here. All-in with the dissidents may be the only option that can produce progress on the nuclear issue at this point.

John Bolton Almost Knows What’s Happening

I tuned in to a little Fox News last night and watched Sean Hannity’s interview with John Bolton. Politics aside, the aggression and hysteria Sean Hannity are too suffocating to endure. However, while the political tone of his analysis is all wrong, John Bolton actually gave decent expression to a few insights (“In Defense of Democracy,” Hannity, Fox News, 22 June 2009). Specifically, he explained very well the cause of the administration’s reserve with respect to Iran:

The real reason that he [Obama] won’t speak out has nothing to do with this argument that we don’t want to meddle. The Iranian regime is already accusing us of that. The real reason is the president is determined to find a way to try and negotiate with the regime — with Khamenei, with Ahmadinejad — about their nuclear weapons program. This is a policy doomed to failure, but it explains why he won’t speak out in defense of representative government and individual liberty in Iran.

It’s not that President Obama’s position has “nothing to do with this argument that we don’t want to mettle.” Unlike certain other administrations for whom the sensitivities of foreign political cultures simply don’t exist, or are such trifles as not to figure in their calculations, President Obama is aware that the U.S. has an unpleasant past in Iran that is a significant part of Iranian national consciousness. The administration actually doesn’t want to meddle.

Qualification made, the administration’s policy toward Iran grows from multiple motives. One of which is the desire to do something about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, no matter the outcome of the election. And it’s not as if this is some bizarre act of cynicism. Iran’s nuclear program is an issue of paramount importance to the U.S. (as President Obama adequately said at a number of points in Tuesday’s press conference; video parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; transcript). And it’s not as if the assessment of the Obama Administration that a negotiated solution is possible is beyond imagining. It’s the policy that the Bush Administration would have pursued had Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ever been able to outmaneuver Vice President Dick. But since The Decider never was much of a decider, the Bush Administration spent the whole of its second term paralyzed over what to do about Iran.

Which brings me to Mr. Bolton’s second point. The thing about Fox News is that it doesn’t even make sense on its own terms. Mr. Hannity asks if President Obama is giving the Iranian régime a green light for a crackdown by not saying enough. Mr. Bolton’s not so sure:

Well I think it’s mostly right except I would say this: because — including during the Bush Administration — we did not prepare adequately for this potential revolutionary moment, we’re not really in a position now to offer much concrete assistance and I don’t want America to be in a position where we urge people in the streets and then watch them die. I’d rather be a little bit prudent and prepare for the long term where we really can provide concrete assistance.

So after spending the bulk of the interview using President Obama’s restrained position on Iran as a cudgel with which to bludgeon the administration, Mr. Bolton turns around and admits that there’s really nothing we can do and that he would “rather be a little bit prudent.” So what’s wrong with President Obama’s position again?

We’ve been down this road before. In February of 1991, after the First Gulf War, President George Bush, Sr. encouraged the Shi’a and the Kurds to overthrow Saddam Hussein. When an uprising began, the United States then opted to do nothing, and Hussein crushed the rebellion, killing 60-100,000 Iraqis. Mr. Bolton is correct to suggest that we don’t want to repeat that catastrophe.

The Approaching Moment of Decision

A terrible moment of decision is rapidly approaching where the outcome of the revolution in Iran will be determined. It has been said — and I largely agree — that the fate of Iran is for the Iranians and there is little that the United States can do. But little is not nothing and should the prospects of the dissidents begin to dim, that little will become much greater in stature. The Obama administration faces a dilemma here — a real dilemma that leaders in the real world face (discouragingly, one must add this last qualification because on the right there is no acknowledgement that our means are limited and our objectives trade-off here). The United States presently has two objectives with respect to Iran:

  1. We would like to do reach an agreement regarding their nuclear program. The best situation would be that they abandon enrichment altogether, but one where they pursued a nuclear energy program, but verifiably ruled out weaponizing their nuclear material would suffice.

  2. We would like to see a liberalized, less theocratic Iran. This is in part the traditional, principled position of United States, but it is also practical. A liberal democratic Iran will have a moderating effect on the rest of the Middle East, that epicenter of that global war on terrorism that we are fighting. And a liberal democratic Iran will presumably be less likely to provide support to militant elements in Palestine.

Presumably if two obtains, that will be progress toward one. A new, popular, modernizing régime looking to distinguish itself from its predecessor will be much more willing to deal with the United States and the Obama administration will have much less problem with its domestic constituents in dealing with such an Iran.

Alternately, no matter what the United States does, should President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei succeeded in their bid to retain power, it will have become considerably more difficult for the President — any president for some time to come — to make progress on the nuclear issue. However, should the United States throw its weight behind the second objective and the Iranian dissidents fail, then the prospects for future progress on the nuclear issue will be even worse still than if we hadn’t — perhaps lost altogether. Not only will it be extremely difficult for any U.S. administration to deal with Iran, the Iranian government will return to the siege mentality of the 1980s and will perhaps — evidence that foreign powers will act to destroy the régime in hand — conclude that a nuclear deterrent is a necessity if the régime is to survive.

I have generally agreed with the position of restraint that the administration has taken. This is the Iranians’ struggle and strong words only make us feel puffed up — they do nothing for the Iranians. But that time may be coming to a close. Indications are that the Iranian government is moving with increasing forcefulness to suppress the dissidents. This is an effort that the government will win. Dissidents can route the police when it’s rocks versus batons. When the machine guns come out, it will be a different story. We cannot decide this conflict, but we can tilt the balance. The international community can make the government of Iranian aware that the consequences of suppressing its citizens extend beyond its own domestic politics. And perhaps — perhaps — this could bring them to the tipping point, or cause them to draw back from what they are about, or change the calculus of costs where a compromise solution becomes desirable.

But the United States and the Obama administration have to carefully weigh its principles and its objectives, its possibilities of success versus its consequences of failure. I’m not going to game it out here, but the range of options, consequences and rewards and probabilities attaching to each one should be fairly obvious. The nuclear issue is real and momentous and it would be terrible to sacrifice what possibility for progress exists chasing pie in the sky. But our principles are real too. It would be terrible for us to sacrifice them to cynical realpolitik over meager tactics when another world is possible. But not everything is possible and the future is uncertain. Judgment and luck are all that there is.

The Red Right Hand of Iran

The green hand of peace or the red hand of war? Iran, June 2009

Many hearts were warmed by this image of a moment of faction-spanning solidarity between subject and apparatus of state — and rightly so: this is an amazing image.

A demonstrator rescues a beleaguered riot policeman, Iran, 13 June 2009

Unfortunately this moment is now past. Tiananmen is upon the Iranians and the next member of the security forces to find himself at the mercy of protesters will — rightly — not find such sympathetic arms within reach.

Andrew Sullivan’s coverage drawing together a diversity of sources from twitter, YouTube and so on, portrays a startling picture of what’s happened in Iran over the course of the day yesterday (“Live-Blogging Day 8, The Daily Dish, The Atlantic Monthly, 20 June 2009). The cable news networks have definitely recovered from their weekend failure, but Mr. Sullivan is the gold standard on media innovation right now.

I desperately hope that the modernizing force of young people in Iran prevail, but in the maneuvers of the régime three are three significant cause for pessimism:

  1. All indications are that it is primarily in the willingness of the régime to compromise, capitulate or go quietly into oblivion that régimes fall. Given the power of modern militaries, unless dissidents are willing and able to fight a protracted guerilla campaign, states succeed in putting down rebellions. The Iranian régime is indicating that it has decided to dig in and fight. There is a level of drastic measures from which a state cannot subsequently step back. Demonstrators become radicalized by violence, state agents become inexpiable. They are probably already past the point of no return with respect to offering a compromise.

  2. A major determining factor of the success or failure of the demonstrators is in how the police and military react. It is incumbent upon the régime to keep the security forces apart from the rest of society. Should the police and military sympathize, judge the protesters correct, or find their own lives too enmeshed with those of the demonstrators, they may defect, or simply do nothing. Rumor is that the Basij militia, a special band of the Revolutionary Guard, can be herd speaking Arabic to one another. That is, they are not Iranians, but foreign mercenaries imported by the régime. They are not stakeholders in Iranian society and have no bonds to the people they are brutalizing, and thus can be counted upon to do the bidding of the régime in a way that other security forces might not.

  3. The régime is eschewing the sort of media nightmare of direct confrontation in favor of terrorizing demonstrators in isolation. Specifically the Basij militia are tracking protesters during the day, but waiting until cover of night when demonstrators go home and are isolated from the safety of large groups to conduct their assassinations, beatings and abductions (MacFarquhar, Neil, “Shadowy Iranian Vigilantes Vow Bolder Action,” New York Times, 19 June 2009, p. A12). There are rumors of houses being marked for later attacks. Actions such as these could have a medium-term intimidating effect that will simply wear down the demonstrators.

The Iranian government is staffed by seasoned counterrevolutionaries. They are conducting an astute repression of the demonstrations. There are only three things that can defeat the régime at this point: quick adaptation, brute determination of average Iranians and luck.