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Monthly Archives: July 2009

The Death Spiral of the Islamic Republic

July 23rd, 2009 - 7:13 pm

There’s always a certain fascination watching tyrannies coming unstuck, and the convulsions of the Iranian regime are more colorful than most, as you’d expect from such a rich and ancient culture, and from such clever and imaginative people,  who specialize in illusion.  Last Friday all these qualities were on display in Tehran, at a central mosque where Hashemi Rafsanjani was preaching to the faithful.  As you know by now, there were millions of people in and around the mosque, and at a certain point, in a scene that would have delighted Fellini, the two sides faced off in a chanting contest.  The pro-regime crowd shouted “Death to America!”  And the people responded, “Death to Russia!”  Then came “Death to Britain, Death to Israel!.”  And the reply:  “Death to China.”

Which pretty much sums up the contemporary strategic landscape, enacted in a Persian morality play in front of a mosque in Tehran.  I rather think the actors understand the stakes better than we do, for they know that the Russians and Chinese are encouraging the mullahs to emulate the repression in Chechnya and Sinjiang, while blaming the actions of pro-freedom dissidents on “outside forces,” most notably the United States.  The Iranians know that a victory by the regime will be understood as a terrible defeat of America, while the fall of the regime will likely reignite the democratic revolution that toppled Soviet Communism and other nasty dictatorships from the South Pole to Siberia.

It’s high drama, and the Iranians, on both sides, understand the stakes.  They know that it is now too late to “fix” the political situation.  There is no conceivable consensus to bind up the wounds caused by the regime’s brutality, mass repression, and slaughter of innocents.  And there is no way for the United States to avoid “meddling,” since the internal conflict is over our values and our vision.  As it has been for the past thirty years, we’re the target of a war declared and waged against us by the Islamic Republic.  We can win or lose, but we can’t opt out of it.

At the moment, our leaders are lamenting the “lost opportunity” for striking a glorious friendship with the butchers of Tehran, which perfectly encapsulates the American failure in Iran ever since 1979.  It’s just that no president before this one has been so pathetically obvious about his desire to get any sort of face-saving “bargain,” and then run away.

The crisis of the regime is luminously clear to anyone who looks past the nonsense on the evening news, and is best summarized in an eloquent declaration by Mir Hussein Mousavi, the leader of the revolutionary forces, to Supreme Leader Khamenei:  “You are facing something new: an awakened nation, a nation that has been born again and is here to defend its achievements.” Those words, taken along with the evening chants of “Death to the Dictator!” from the rooftops of the country, show that the regime has failed to crush the insurrection, and the only really serious question right now is what form the next challenge to the regime will take.  Mousavi himself moved to create a new political movement, but took care to say that it was not intended to replace the popular movement.  And then he permitted himself a remark that is downright Jeffersonian:  “power is always inclined to become absolute, and only people’s movements can put a hold on this inclination.”

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yes i am ok…

July 23rd, 2009 - 2:14 pm

bought a new hip, rehabbing at home, will be writing tonight.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, but the bottom line is that we are turning loose Iranian terrorists in exchange for the release of Roxana Saberi, plus, probably, three British hostages.  The first payment arrived today in Tehran, to a triumphant reception.  Ugh.

The terrorists in question are officers in the Iranian Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps.  They were captured in Irbil, Iraq, in January,  2007, as the “surge” was getting under way.  A few weeks earlier, other Iranians had been  arrested in Baghdad.   For our military leaders, it was an open and shut case.  The Iranian military officers had been involved in several operations in which Americans had been killed, and, even though they claimed “diplomatic status,” the evidence against them was thoroughly convincing.  One American official who saw the documentation at the time told me “they are not just enemies;  they’re criminals.”

Nonetheless, from the very beginning, powerful American officials argued that the Iranian terrorists should be handled on an “arrest and release” basis, because to hold them for any significant length of time would enrage the mullahs.  As the New York Sun wrote editorially:

On one side are the Central Intelligence Agency, which has flubbed nearly every assignment it’s had in this war, and the State Department, whose very DNA seems to make it incapable of supporting a hard line. These agencies are arguing that the Iranians will escalate their war against us if the captives are not returned.

On the other side are the Marines, special operations forces, and the Army, all arguing that the risk is too great if these men are at large. This is apparently a decision — like the decision to conduct the raid that led to their arrest — that is going to have to be made by the commander in chief. It should be an easy call for a war president.

It was, in the event, an easy call:  the “Irbil Five” remained in American detention.  Every time somebody in the American government suggested it would be good to release them, the military leaders spat.  Until now.

American officials, eager to pretend that “their hands were tied,” will point you to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, which in theory gives the Iraqi Government control over everything and everybody in the country, including detainees.  The language is typical legalese, but American military officers recognized that the Agreement would oblige us, on request, to turn over all the prisoners we had captured, from Day One.  For that reason, they fought a heated but ultimately unsuccessful battle against it.  Some of our highest ranking officers begged their civilian commanders to make special provision for the likes of the Irbil Five.  They didn’t want them back on the battlefield, either in Iraq or Afghanistan, areas where their lethal expertise would inevitably be used to kill more Americans and our coalition allies.

But the government’s excuses only go so far, for like the provisions that give the Iraqis total control of their air space, they are theoretically binding but practically impossible to carry out, at least in the short term.  Iraq does not have the facilities for all of our prisoners, any more than it can patrol and defend its air space, or provide air cover for ground operations.  So it was understood by both sides that Iraqi sovereignty would be extended gradually.  And our men and women on the ground intended to hold the Iranian terrorists–of whom there are more than thirty important agents and officers, and many hundred lower level operatives–as long as they could.

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The 9th of July, the 18th of Tir

July 8th, 2009 - 2:01 pm

Maybe it’ll be a turning point.  Maybe not.  It’s the anniversary of the massacre of students in Iran ten years ago, when they defied their tyrants and called for freedom.  There are certainly a lot of people around the world who will turn out to show their contempt for the Tehran regime.  I can’t keep track of them all, but there should be significant turnouts in the Hague, Vienna, Rome, Paris, Washington, New York, Irvine and Santa Monica, Seattle and Hamburg…and more and more.  In Iran itself, the regime’s opponents have called for “the biggest turnout yet,” totally silent, no posters or banners, just silence.

The silence of the demonstrations would be a counterpoint to the nightly chants from the rooftops and prisons of the nation.  Chants of “Allah is great,” along with “Death to the Dictator.”  If you believe the folks on Twitter, those chants have been louder with each passing night, despite the violence of the Basij and Revolutionary Guards, which ranges from snipers shooting from one rooftop to another, armed thugs breaking into homes to seize computers, cell phones and other communications devices, and arrest one or more family members.  Meanwhile, horribly maimed bodies have been showing up all over the country.  Some of the gouging of the bodies seems to have been done to remove all evidence of bullet holes, but whatever the “explanation,” the bloody savagery is well documented.

If you want some detail about the horrors inside Iranian hospitals, have a look at Le Figaro’s account.

Over the objections of medical staff, bodies from the demonstrations were quickly moved elsewhere. “We believe they were transferred to the Baqiatollah military hospital or some other undisclosed location”, notes the doctor. Then, under the pretext of “organ donation”, all traces of bullets were removed from the bodies. “The parents were force to accept this if they wanted to retrieve the body for burial”.

And yet, the protest goes on.  For the past three days, a general strike has been in effect, with significant results.  Indeed, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei preemptively admitted defeat when government offices and factories were shut down in the name of a religious observance.  But the strikers only expanded the range of their actions, notably by shutting down electrical grids in several cities, including parts of Tehran.  Great swathes of the nation were plunged into darkness.  This sort of thing is likely to continue, whatever happens on the 9th.

Most of the protesters fear the worst, warning of snipers preparing to shoot into the crowds, and a massive buildup of security forces in Tehran.  There are rumors about possible countermeasures from the demonstrators, but, like the stories about massive repression, these remain to be confirmed.

Meanwhile, there are continuous accounts of internal strife in the regime’s ranks.  The London Guardian, in a carefully worded account, tells us that the most powerful figure in the ongoing repression is Khamenei’s second son, Mojtaba.  He is said to be particularly enraged by the British Government’s seizure of more than a billion dollars in London accounts, at least some of which belongs to him.  No one would be surprised to find that the supreme leader was a very wealthy man, or that he had salted away some of his money outside Iran.  Others have been moving their funds to more secure lands of late.

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The Storm Ahead

July 5th, 2009 - 7:58 pm

The Iranian tyrant, Ali Khamenei, told his cluster of top advisers two days ago that it was time to totally shut down the protests, and he ordered that any and all demonstrators, regardless of their status, be arrested (although there is no longer room for new prisoners in Tehran’s jails;  they are now using sports arenas as holding areas).  He further ordered that all satellite dishes be taken down (good luck with that one;  there are probably millions of them in Tehran alone). He ordered that the crackdown be done at night, to avoid all those annoying videos.  By Sunday night, hundreds of new arrests had been made, including the regime’s favorite targets:  students, intellectuals, and journalists.

His deadline:  July 11th.  He told his minions that if that were accomplished, the rest of the world would come crawling to him.

He may be right about most of the rest of the world, which has distinguished itself by its fecklessness, but he is certainly not right about his own people, who have sabotaged a major petroleum pipeline in Lurestan, and who are planning to go on strike in the next few days.  I don’t know the provenance of the people who hit the pipeline (perhaps the fact that the political desk of the Tehran Times reported it is significant), but calls for strikes, building towards a big demonstration on July 9th, come from Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami.

Mousavi got a big boost over the weekend from an important group of senior clerics in the holy city of Qom.  They branded the “elections” and the new government that will shortly be sworn in, as illegitimate.  This is a serious matter, leading Stanford’s Professor Abbas Milani to say “This crack in the clerical establishment, and the fact they are siding with the people and Moussavi, in my view is the most historic crack in the 30 years of the Islamic republic.” They are also explicitly siding with Mousavi, who released a detailed critique/expose of the fraud that confirmed Ahmadinezhad in office.

So Khamenei is under pressure, and he is not well equipped to deal with it.  He has a serious cancer, and takes opiates to mitigate the pain.  People around him are whispering that his decisions are poorly reasoned and often impulsive, and some of those close to him, including his son, are apparently issuing orders in his name.  This sort of rumor is devastating for the sort of personal rule upon which the Islamic Republic rests.  We’ll see in the coming days if the Mousavi forces are able to maintain and increase the pressure, and how Khamenei and his henchmen respond.

At the moment, there is evidence of some panic, as Iranian leaders are exporting their wealth.

Meanwhile, the American Government was sending conflicting signals to Tehran.  On the one hand, it seems that Obama will be going to the upcoming G8 conference with a request that there be no new sanctions on Iran.  This comes at a time when the Europeans, for the first time, seem inclined to get at least a little bit tougher on the mullahs, and it effectively demolishes the myth that this administration intends to do anything to support the Iranian people in their life and death struggle for freedom (perhaps this should not surprise us;  after all, Obama’s 4th of July message did not contain the word “freedom,” but it did talk a lot about his own legislative proposals).  At the same time, Vice President Joe Biden three times said the United States would do nothing to prevent an Israeli attack against Iranian nuclear targets.

So apparently we’re prepared to let the Israelis do our dirty work.  A real standup sort of policy.

UPDATE:  A great video on the Iranian uprising.  Notice the many women with uncovered heads.

UPDATE II:  The 3-day strike.  Apparently the regime was so worried about the strike that they shut down most factories, businesses and offices.  This is another sign of regime insecurity.  And Mousavi today (Monday) received several distinguished visitors, including Khomeini’s grandson.

The Government’s Diplomatic Pandering

July 3rd, 2009 - 11:27 am

We’re all celebrating Independence Day, the birthday of the modern world.  And one of the things that I used to brag about was that America valued people for themselves, not for their ethnic, religious, or whatever background.  You could just come here from anyplace and become an American.  Just like that.  We are bound together by our belief in the unique virtues of the Constitution and the message of the Declaration.

So I’ve always hated quotas.  When I was applying to college my high school guide told me to avoid certain universities because they had Jewish quotas, which for the most part were filled with legacies, and I was unlikely to get in.  I hated that.  I hated the “equal opportunity” quotas too, and still do.  And I hate the cunning forms of quotas that dominate much of our policy thinking and actions.

Just two days ago, the State Department announced the creation of a new position, “Special Representative to Muslim Communities,” which is itself, shall we say,  of dubious intellectual legitimacy.  The first special rep is one Farah Anwar Pandith, who describes herself as a Muslim from Boston.  I hate that.  I hate the job title–no one can imagine a special rep to Hindu Communities or Baha’i Communities or Coptic Communities, let alone Christian or Jewish Communities–and I hate the fact that Foggy Bottom has chosen a Muslim special rep.
This has nothing to do with Ms. Pandith.  I hate sending Catholics to represent us to the Vatican, Jews to Israel, Latinos to South America and WASPS to Great Britain.  It strikes me as un-American.  Send Ms. Pandith to Rome (she served two years in the European Bureau, after all), and send a WASP to Buenos Aires or Mexico City.  Send a Copt to Pretoria and an African-American to Paris.  They’re supposed to represent us, all of us, and if you send “one of them,” our diplomats will be treated that way, and assumed to be instinctively sympathetic to whatever the locals want.  That’s bad diplomacy.  It’s pandering.  I think it stinks.
Happy Independence Day!

American Tyranny Redux

July 1st, 2009 - 8:43 am

Most of this appeared in an earlier post in mid-February, but given recent events I thought it useful to put it up again, with some updates.  It’s our basic problem, it puts all the others in proper context, and the things I said in February are not only being proven correct, but the discussion is getting more serious.

Roger wonders, with good reason, if Obama is “objectively pro- fascist.”  And certainly Obama’s foreign “policy” is strikingly favorably toward tyrants.  No one should be surprised, since much of his domestic program is tyrannical as well.   Most Americans no longer read Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterpiece, Democracy in America, about which I wrote a book (Tocqueville on American Character; from which most of the following is taken) a few years ago.  What a pity!  No one understood us so well, no one described our current crisis with such brutal accuracy, as Tocqueville.  As Mark Steyn eloquently points out, he foresaw the sort of American tyranny with which we are threatened today.  A unique sort of tyranny, similar to that system under which most Europeans live.

But it isn’t fascism.

If Tocqueville were around, he would remind us that we are not witnessing “American Fascism on the march.”  Fascism was a war ideology and grew out of the terrible slaughter of the First World War.  Fascism hailed the men who fought and prevailed on the battlefield, and wrapped itself in the well-established rhetoric of European nationalism, which does not exist in America and never has.  Our liberties are indeed threatened, but by a tyranny of a very different sort.

Most of us imagine the transformation of a free society to a tyrannical state in Hollywood terms, as  a melodramatic act of violence like a military coup or an armed insurrection.  Tocqueville knows better.  He foresees a slow death of freedom.  The power of the centralized government will gradually expand, meddling in every area of our lives until, like a frog in a slowly heated pot, we are cooked without ever realizing what has happened.  The ultimate horror of Tocqueville’s vision is that we will welcome it, and even convince ourselves that we control it.

There is no single dramatic event in Tocqueville’s scenario, no storming of the Bastille, no assault on the Winter Palace, no March on Rome, no Kristallnacht.  We are to be immobilized, Gulliver-like, by myriad rules and regulations, annoying little restrictions that become more and more binding until they eventually paralyze us.

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately.  It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will.  Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated…

The tyranny he foresees for us does not have much in common with the vicious dictatorships of the last century, or with contemporary North Korea, Iran, or Saudi Arabia.  He apologizes for lacking the proper words with which to define it.  He hesitates to call it either tyranny or despotism, because it does not rule by terror or oppression.  There are no secret police, no concentration camps, and no torture.  “The nature of despotic power in democratic ages is not to be fierce or cruel, but minute and meddling.”  The vision and even the language anticipate Orwell’s 1984, or Huxley’s Brave New World. Tocqueville describes the new tyranny as “an immense and tutelary power,” and its task is to watch over us all, and regulate every aspect of our lives.

It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.

We will not be bludgeoned into submission; we will be seduced.  He foresees the collapse of American democracy as the end result of two parallel developments that ultimately render us meekly subservient to an enlarged bureaucratic power: the corruption of our character, and the emergence of a vast welfare state that manages all the details of our lives.  His words are precisely the ones that best describe out current crisis:

That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild.  It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.  For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

The metaphor of a parent maintaining perpetual control over his child is the language of contemporary American politics.  All manner of new governmental powers are justified in the name of “the children,” from enhanced regulation of communications to special punishments for “hate speech;” from the empowerment of social service institutions to crack down on parents who try to discipline their children, to the mammoth expansion of sexual quotas from university athletic programs to private businesses.   Tocqueville particularly abhors such new governmental powers because they are Federal, emanating from Washington, not from local governments.  He reminds us that when the central government asserts its authority over states and communities, a tyrannical shadow lurks just behind.  So long as local governments are strong, he says, even tyrannical laws can be mitigated by moderate  enforcement at the local level, but once the central government takes control of the entire structure, our liberties are at grave risk.

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