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Monthly Archives: May 2008


May 30th, 2008 - 3:33 pm

Modern life offers many happy moments, but I’m particularly indebted to the People’s Republic of China for censoring the latest issue of the Far East Economic Review, which featured an article of mine on the cover.  As Rowan Scarborough was kind enough to point out, the folks at FEER had asked me to update an old think piece, in which I had argued that contemporary China is difficult for us to understand, because it is something we haven’t seen before:  the world’s first mature fascist state.  And I did that, as you can read here.

One of the points I made is that the regime in Beijing is hypersensitive to criticism, and their reaction to my essay seems to prove that abundantly.  The entire issue was seized, both subcriber copies and newstand copies.  As I told Scarborough, one could hardly ask for more dramatic confirmation of my main thesis, and he was good enough to describe me as someone with “a penchant for tweating repressive regimes.”

I’d like to put that line on my front door.

As you know, I’m a big fan of “Spengler,” the elegant and cultured columnist for “Asia Times.” He’s just come out with a new think piece on Iran, which comes to the right conclusion (that is, the same one I have), but greatly confuses the issue of why the mullahs do what they do.

Read his important essay–if you can’t be bothered, I’ll summarize most of it anyway, but it’s always a pleasure to read his prose–and then come back to me. His central theme is that the Iranian economy is a basket case, that the country is facing hyperinflation, that there is a great lack of public confidence in the regime, and that the mullahs will (quite soon) have to choose between a Gorbachev-style surrender, or war. He thinks they have already chosen war. And he doesn’t think we can offer them anything that will produce Iran’s “giving up its nuclear ambitions and kenneling its puppies of war.”

He is certainly right about the economic diagnosis, which I have discussed at great length in “The Iranian Time Bomb.” He considers the very real possibility that Iran is running a current account deficit right now, despite the extraordinary runup in oil prices:

In a May 19 statement reported by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), President Mahmud Ahmadinejad denied a report that Iran’s imports now exceed $60 billion, against an official estimate of $45 billion. This sort of discrepancy typically occurs when capital flight is disguised as imports through fraudulent invoices and similar devices. A small current-account deficit would be of little concern for a nation with normal access to world capital markets, but Iran is unable to borrow.

There is indeed massive capital flight. As I wrote a couple of years ago, Gulf bankers told me that they can’t handle all the money pouring out of Iran. Wealthy Persians long since saw the doom of the Islamic Republic, and have been looting the country’s resources for their own gain.

So far, so bad, and the regime is making things even worse. Instead of devoting real resources to improving things, they are printing money, further pauperizing Iranian workers–who are famously paid very late, if at all, as demonstrated by the ongoing demonstrations and strikes at government-owned companies–and the commercial middle class. As Spengler puts it:

If Ahmadinejad were in the pay of a hostile intelligence service, he could not have found a more effective way to sabotage Iran’s economy. If the price of goods rises faster than the cost of money, everyone who can will borrow money to purchase and hoard goods. The result will be higher prices and reduced economic activity, and the eventual prospect of hyperinflation, which no government ever has survived.

I don’t know about that last claim; to take just one current counter-example, Zimbabwe’s inflation is now seemingly beyond rational calculation, but Mugabe still rules. National suicide is not unknown, and I can well imagine the Islamic Republic martyring itself at its own hands, quite in keeping with the ideology of the leaders.

But Spengler doesn’t ask the obvious question: why? Surely the mullahs know how bad things really are, and they have plenty of resources to cope with the crisis. Why aren’t they? I think Khomeini gave the answer on the airplane that flew him from Paris to Tehran in 1979: he didn’t give a damn about Iran, he was fighting for the triumph of Islam. His heirs are of the same fanatical ilk: Iranian resources are largely devoted to the cause of jihad, not to Iran per se. If Iran goes down the drain, but a new caliphate is created, first in the region and then globally, that’s success by their standards.

Spengler knows that. He notes that “Iran is engaged in such an adventure, funding and arming Shi’ite allies from Basra to Beirut, and creating clients selectively among such Sunnis as Hamas in Palestine.” Let’s add al Qaeda to that list, while we’re at it. He then compares the Iranian regime to Gorbachev’s. By the time Ronald Reagan entered the White House, “all the communists in Russia were dead or in the gulags,” and the Kremlin was largely managed by cynical self-promoters, not true believers. So when the moment of truth arrived, the Soviets went quietly to their doom. But in Iran, “Ahmadinejad typifies the generation of Revolutionary Guards who followed the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, and now hold senior positions in the state and military.”

I think that’s why Iranian society is careening into history’s septic tank, it is why the word most often used by sensitive Iranians to describe their country’s plight is “degradation.” Persia is being gutted in order to fund the terror war against the West. From the grim figures on the economy, to the mounting trafficking of Persian women to the brothels of the world, to the drug epidemic sabotaging the future of Iranian youth, to the torture cells reserved for anyone who speaks the truth, Persia is being destroyed. All in the name of an evil ideology that drives a global war against civilization.

That war has been raging for nearly thirty years, and no Western government has yet found the will to engage in it. The message Spengler delivers is that there is no way out of this war. Left to their own devices, the mullahs will destroy Iran, and, if they can, us as well.

UPDATE:  Spengler writes to point out that his article was written a year ago.  Another senior moment for me!  And high praise for him, since it reads as if it were done this morning.

Martyrs and Mental Illness

May 25th, 2008 - 7:46 am

The London Sunday Times reports that the British Intelligence Service, MI5, is afraid that terrorists are recruiting mentally disturbed people as suicide bombers.  Here’s the lead graph:

Islamic terrorists may be targeting mentally disturbed or disabled people in Britain in a bid to form a new “brigade” of home-grown suicide bombers, security officials fear.

Which prompts a couple of thoughts.  The first is that blowing yourself up, usually to kill innocents, is not exactly a sign of mental stability.  In that sense, all of those targeted by the jihadis (that oft-banned word actually appears in the headline, by the way) are mentally disturbed or disabled.

But the more serious concern is the implication that MI5 didn’t already know that mentally disturbed people have long been recruited as suicide bombers.  If you talk to Iraq war veterans, you will hear no end of such stories.  If we had better reporters in the field, we’d have learned long since that American troops have refrained from shooting people who approached them, when it looked like they were seriously disabled.

The exploitation of such people by the terrorists is one of the most disgusting and cynical aspects of the war, and says a lot about the kind of evil we are combating.  I hope that our own domestic security people are paying attention.


May 9th, 2008 - 8:48 am

This seems a good site if you’re interested in up to date info on Lebanon.  If you look around, you’ll find a typically whacko statement from Shimon Perez, who says a) that the violence in Lebanon is part of Iran’s plan to dominate the region, and b) that it’s an internal Lebanese conflict, so Israel doesn’t have to worry.

Which of course doesn’t parse.  But it’s rare that Perez utters two sentences in sequence that aren’t in conflict with each other.  He was right the first time:  Hezbollah equals Iran.  And thus it most certainly threatens Israel.  Doh.

The State Department and the President

May 6th, 2008 - 9:43 am

It’s become a standard theme:  the State Department makes its own foreign policy, whatever the president might desire.  And most people think this is something new.  It isn’t.  Take a look at this fascinating excerpt from Clark Clifford’s memories of his years in Washington.  It deals with President Harry Truman’s decision to recognize the State of Israel.  The State Department didn’t want to do it, and on at least one occasion took direct action to thwart Truman.  He was stunned and depressed, he said that State had made him look like a liar.  And we’re talking about sixty years ago.

As Max Weber once said, we are living in the age of bureaucracy, and only the strongest, toughest leaders can make the bureaucrats enforce the leaders’ decisions.

The Iranian Terror Camps

May 6th, 2008 - 9:31 am

I’m delighted that my friend and colleague John Bolton has joined me in a call for attacks on the terrorist training camps in Iran, from which killers are sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to kill American and allied soldiers.  I have always seen this as legitimate self-defense.  Iran is waging a proxy war against us, Iraqi and other Coalition forces, Lebanese forces, and Israel.  There is every reason to respond.  It is not legitimate for the mullahs to provide arms, money, intelligence, training and safe haven to their various killers without suffering any consequences;  that is the ultimate sucker’s game for us to play, as I have been saying for years.

Fouad Ajami says the same thing, although not as specifically.  Let’s hope the White House and the Pentagon finally get serious about engaging in a war that has been running for nearly thirty years.


May 3rd, 2008 - 10:06 am

When I first came to Italy in 1965 (egad!) I went to Florence.  It was August.  No air conditioning.  Frightfully hot.  In piazza San Lorenzo, back of the Medici family church, they sold bottles of Coca Cola for some small number of lire, and it was hot Coke, because there wasn’t any ice.  Probably in the luxury hotels you could get some ice cubes in your coke, but out there in the streets and piazzas, no go.  Of course I asked, in my then-fractured pidgen Italian, and they all said that I really didn’t want ice in my coke because ice was so terribly dangerous to the liver.  Indeed, people drinking cold Coke were known to drop dead from it, as the liver went into total paralysis.

As time passed, I learned that the list of things very dangerous for your liver was quite a long one, including eggs for example.  One night, many eggless months after my arrival, I had an egg gouamba, and ordered six of them over easy, and a quantity of bacon.  The waiter actually begged me to reconsider.  He clearly thought I was going to die in his trattoria.

You don’t hear much about the fragility of your liver these days, and if you order a Coke and you don’t want ice, you have to stipulate “no ice.”  Otherwise it comes with the usual cubes.  How do things like this happen?  It strikes me as a fundamental cultural shift.  Did we ugly Americans convince the Italians that ice was ok?  Did medical advances strengthen the Mediterranean liver so that the locals could drink cold Coke without fear of a painful and certain death?  Or did tastes change?  And if they did, why did they change?

We historians worry a lot about such questions.  On a higher cultural level, this sort of thing is similar to the famous question, “why is there a history of art?”  Why did artists change the way they portrayed reality on canvas?  Yes, Giotto worked out perspective, but why was that important to him?  And why didn’t previous artists do the same?  And where did the idea come from?  Careful with your answer.  If you’re tempted to say, well it’s obvious, isn’t it?  The world is three dimensional, so artists wanted to show the world as it really is…then how will you explain later changes like expressionism?   And what will you do with Picasso?  Dali’?  And then how did things swing back toward hyper realism like Warhol?

And why do the Italians like ice nowadays?  Does it have something to do with Berlusconi, is it part of the political revolution that is apparently under way?

The Italian Revolution

May 1st, 2008 - 7:58 am

We are in Italy. Sicily, actually. And we are watching something amazing: an Italian revolution. The new Parliament, sworn in yesterday, does not have a single member who calls himself “communist.” That’s the first time since World War II. Gianfranco Fini, the new speaker of the House, announced that the post-war era was over, and he was entirely right. No one knows it better than he, because for most of his adult life he has been called a “fascist,” and scorned by most of the writers, salon hangers-on, and politicians in the country, even though he led his right-wing party through a profound transformation from its neo-fascist past, embraced Israel, actively supported Jewish causes, and challenged the Left’s ostentatious support of radical antisemitic and anti-Israel terrorists. He dissolved his own party into Berlusconi’s umbrella organization, and is now one of the three most powerful politicians in the country. Wow.

There is more. In the last few days, the city of Rome fell to the Right. Once again, the leader was a former neo-fascist, Gianni Alemanno, who had abandoned the bad old ways. Alemanno defeated one of the Left’s most adored icons, Francesco Rutelli, who had twice before been elected mayor of Rome and who was heavily favored to win again. But Alemanno won by a huge margin, just as Berlusconi on the national level.

Why has all this happened? Above all, it is the result of the demonstrated incompetence of the Left to govern Italy effectively, along with the usual corruption scandals, and the Left’s snooty disregard for law and order, particularly regarding illegal immigrants. The people I’ve spoken to (in Sicily the Right also won an overwhelming victory) all basically said the same thing: the Left is a disaster, let’s see if these other guys can do better. It is not an ideological transformation; it’s above all a search for someone who can advance the interests of most Italians.

It’s kind of a Casey Stengel election. The Italian voters are asking if anyone around here knows how to play this game.