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It's not all about us

Iran and the "ugly American" syndrome

Well, now we know how John McCain would have behaved as president. He would have poured gasoline on a fire.

One lamentable American character trait - exhibited by McCain yesterday, as he opined about the post-election riots in Iran - is our propensity to view every international event only through our own eyes, and to assume that whatever happens in the world is really all about us. As evidenced repeatedly in our history (Vietnam and Iraq being prime examples), we then proceed to blunder into foreign lands. Clueless about the local cultures, we meddle in extremis and wind up making things worse - not only for the people we profess to be helping, but for ourselves.

Predictably, this was McCain's mindset yesterday (echoed, in various ways, by charter neoconservative William Kristol and former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer) with respect to the crisis in Iran. McCain's solution is for us to wade into the fray with all rhetorical weapons blazing, and stand with the good guys against the bad guys. Never mind the fact (to be elaborated upon shortly) that the political landscape in Iran is highly complicated and does not easily lend itself to a good guy/bad guy dichotomy; from the perspective of neoconservatives and others on the Republican right, such American-style dichotomies are required, because they provide the required moral clarity.

The bare facts are that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated his closest rival, Mir Hussein Moussavi, in last Friday's election, purportedly by a landslide. Election fraud is widely suspected, although the scale of it is not known. Moussavi supporters have been in the streets for days, and now Ahmadinejad's chief patron, supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the real power guy in Iran), has sought to quell the protests by offering to stage a limited recount.

In response, McCain told NBC yesterday that we should react the way we have always reacted: by pounding our chests and taking sides. He said that President Obama "should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election." He said that we should "do what we have done throughout the Cold War and afterward, we speak up for the people of Tehran and Iran...We speak up forcefully and make sure that the world knows that America leads." (Remember last year, during Russia's standoff with the breakaway nation of Georgia, when McCain declared "We are all Georgians?" Now, apparently, it's "we are all Iranians.")

Kristol weighed in the other day, arguing as well that Obama "should support the demonstrators." Fleischer upped the ante and tickled the funny bone with his claim that the pro-Moussavi demonstrators are raising hell because they've been inspired by George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. I kid you not. Here's Fleischer: "(Iranian) Shiites in particular see Shiites in Iraq having more freedoms than they do. Bush's tough policies have helped give rise to the reformists, and I think we're witnessing that today." (See what I mean? Everything that happens is really about us.)

Anyway, it takes maybe five seconds of cognitive thinking to spot the key flaw in McCain's bellicose stance.

For starters, Iranians don't exactly have warm and fuzzy feelings for America; they are a tad xenophobic and paranoid, having come to believe that much of their modern history has been written by others...starting with the fact that the CIA, with help from British intelligence, staged a coup in 1953, overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and installing our preferred leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

I'm not defending or excusing contemporary Iran's hostility to the West, just citing it as reality. The point is, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would love to have an excuse to paint the pro-Moussavi demonstrators as American puppets. The McCain/neocon approach would serve their purpose splendidly. What better way to de-legitimize the opposition than to link it with the Great Satan?

This is why Obama is keeping his powder dry; as he put it yesterday, "It's up to the Iranian people to make the decision. We are not meddling." Indeed, he recognized, meddling would not be productive, "given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations." His argument was echoed yesterday by Richard Lugar, one of the sanest Republican foreign affairs specialists. The senator told CBS: "For us to become heavily involved in the election at this point is to give the clergy an opportunity to have an enemy and to use us, really, to retain their power."

By implication, Obama also mocked the simplistic, American-style notion of dividing the Iranians into good guys and bad guys: "It's important to understand that although there is some ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Moussavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as advertised."

No kidding. Beyond the fact that the Iranian nuclear program is run by supreme religious leader Khamenei, regardless of who serves as president, the Republican right in our country appears to have forgotten, or prefers not to know, certain key facts about Mir Hussein Moussavi, the designated "good guy" and purported "reformer" in this passion play.

Moussavi served as Iran's prime minister from 1981 to 1989, during the Iranian Revolution's formative phase. His closest ally in those days was Khamenei. Moussavi defended the seizure and 444-day imprisonment of the American hostages; he edited a party newspaper that opposed their '81 release. He helped sponsor Hezbollah. He was instrumental in launching Iran's chemical weapons program. And his "reformist" coalition is closely allied with conservative economic barons (such as former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, scion of a family fortune); these people have domestic financial grievances with Ahmadinejad - as opposed to having any love for America or western democracy.

So maybe it's wiser for us to forgo the usual cowboy mentality and take a chill pill for a change. Maybe the Iranians should be free to sort out their own affairs, at least for the foreseeable future. Hard as it may be to believe, not everything that happens in the world requires our intrusive participation.


Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign, the erstwhile rising GOP star who yesterday copped to an affair with an aide's wife, wants to ban gay marriage via a federal constitutional amendment. In 2004, he declared that it was important "to defend the institution of marriage....The effort to pass a constitutional amendment reaffirming marriage as being between a man and a woman only is being undertaken strictly as a defense of marriage against the attempt to redefine it and, in the process, weaken it. Marriage is an extremely important institution in this country, and protecting it is, in my mind, worth the extraordinary step of amending our constitution."

In light of his announcement yesterday, I think that I understand his position:

Under the terms of a constitutional amendment that safeguards the institution of marriage, an extramarital affair shall be solely between a man and a woman.