Um, no one cares what Jose Maria Aznar thinks, but this is an especially useless effort. The comparisons between Iran and the Soviet Union are delivered with the stupidity that’s customary for the genre; it’s hard, for example, to know where to begin his claim that Western support for Soviet dissidents (a) made Soviet leaders fearful of treating them badly, and (b) eventually brought town the government itself. Whatever force “the Free World” was able to exert upon Soviet human rights was a direct result of the fact that the US and the Soviet Union had, from 1963 through the mid-1970s, established a reasonably successful record of negotiating on a variety of issues of mutual interest (e.g, nuclear testing and arms limitations, grain shipments, etc.) So far as dissidents were concerned, their treatment during this period was mild by the obviously unpleasant by historical standards — not because the government feared Johnson, Nixon or Ford (who were, it’s worth pointing out, not hollering conspicuously about Soviet dissidents) but because Soviet leadership saw little to be gained domestically from “ruthlessly [doing] away with them,” as Aznar insists they would have. After Khrushchev’s disclosures, a full revival of Stalinist brutality was probably an impossibility; whatever ill needs to be spoken of the post-Stalin era, it’s insane to claim their behavior was held in check simply out of fear of external punishment. The state viewed dissidents as enemies of the regime and suppressed them as best they could, but by the late 1970s and 1980s — when Aznar presumably believes US support for dissidents was most consequential — the Soviet leadership hardly required the aid of dissenters (or critiques by American leaders) to bring discredit to its own project.
That said, it’s hard to imagine what sort of guidance Aznar thinks his flawed history might provide for the Obama administration. This is of course a problem for anyone who’s been insisting that Obama Must Do SomethingTM, but Aznar captures the vagueness of the argument with impressive brevity:
This is no time for hesitation on the part of the West. If, as part of an attempt to reach an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, the leaders of democratic nations turn their backs on the dissidents they will be making a terrible mistake.
President Obama has said he refuses to “meddle” in Iran’s internal affairs, but this is a poor excuse for passivity. If the international community is not able to stop, or at least set limits on, the repressive violence of the Islamic regime, the protesters will end up as so many have in the past — in exile, in prison, or in the cemetery. And with them, all hope for change will be gone.
See, I’d been under the mistaken impression that the US would be hard-pressed to find a constructive role to play with respect to the Iranian crisis. But I forgot that by simply not hesitating* and by facing the protesters squarely in solidarity**, we could actually set limits*** on the behavior of the Iranian state!
* Whatever the hell that means. ** Ibid. *** Ibid.
I had the same thought as Jason Zengerle; inviting Iranian diplomats to the July 4 embassy picnics was potentially an intelligence gathering opportunity. This appears not to be the case, however.
Also, this is the nicest thing that Ann Althouse has ever said about anyone associated with LGM. An attempt at engagement to end the longstanding rift between our two peoples? Or unwelcome interference in LGM affairs?
I don’t think it has been linked here yet — I’ve been behind on my LGM reading and posting as the last two days were a sea of meetings, but this was forwarded to me by a colleague who “does” Iran. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that she knows Iran well. The core argument of the piece is that Rafsanjani knows precisely what he is doing in the midst of all this, and he is attempting to “outflank supreme leader Khamenei” et al.
When chatting about it before (and, admittedly, during) one of the meetings over the past two days, we both were shocked at just how ineptly Khamenei and allies have played this. Dude, game theory. Check it out. But it may be a little late, as the linked article suggests:
“To a certain degree, hardliners now find themselves caught in a cycle of doom: they must crack down on protesters if they are to have any chance of retaining power, but doing so only causes more and more clerics to align against them.”
If the linked analysis has legs, it could be interesting . . .
In trying to break down the “Obama Should Denounce!” crowd into some subsets, I came up with the following five groups:
Obama is being quiet because he thinks that US intervention would cause the situation in Iran to deteriorate; he’s wrong about that.
Obama is being quiet because he thinks that the US can still win concessions from Iran on the nuclear program, and doesn’t want to endanger that possibility; he’s either a) wrong about the possibility of winning concessions, or b)the game isn’t worth the candle.
Obama is weak, indecisive, and objectively pro-Ahmadinejad.
Obama is pro-Ahmadinejad.
I don’t really know anything about this, but any opportunity to criticize the Obama administration is worth taking.
These groups are not mutually exclusive. Daniel “Go Ahmadinejad!” Pipes probably fits most comfortably into Group 5. Group 4 includes such luminaries of American punditry as Andy McCarthy and Victor Davis Hanson. Group 3 is a touch harder to categorize, because it overlaps a lot with #2, but I’d say it’s a view that’s broadly shared across the wingnutosphere. Group 2, I think, includes Charles Krauthammer, Paul Wolfowitz, and some of the smarter folks at the Corner. Group 1 includes, once you cut through the manifest crazy, Christopher Hitchens.
I think, thus far, that Obama has handled the situation fabulously well. I’m guessing that he believes that any US intervention will backfire, and that the US will need to talk to Iran in the future, whether or not Ahmadinejad remains President. I think he’s definitely correct about the first. I also suspect that it is going to be extremely difficult to carry out any engagement strategy with Iran going forward. If the regime survives, it will be because of the loyalty and brutality of its security forces. With that brutality on display on US televisions (if only rarely) it will be much more difficult for Obama to build any domestic support for talks. Moreover, it’s not clear that he should; knowing that the Iranian regime was repressive before these latest incidents, and acknowledging that many US allies in the region don’t even bother with the fiction of elections doesn’t change the fact that it’s an ugly bit of business. I’d rather, other things being equal, not have my President engage with Iran while the current group of thugs is in power. Finally, I do think that the repression has opened greater opportunity for what might be termed a non-interventionist coercive strategy; this is to say that more and tougher sanctions against the regime are on the table now than was the case two weeks ago.
Reading the comments here, what’s most striking is that Treacher et al. have yet to even attempt an argument explaining, in concrete terms, what more forceful rhetoric or more private dessert eating would accomplish. If I can try to piece together the causal logic:
Obama supports Iran opposition, ignores daughters, eats good American salad consisting of Kraft Mayonnaise over iceberg lettuce rather than those fancy greens and olive oils that people who never leave major urban centers assume that people outside of major urban centers have never heard of
Iranian government uses comments to paint the opposition as the cat’s paw of a hated regime; opposition distances itself from Obama’s comments.
I’m not really seeing it. In fairness, calling Iran the “Axis of Evil” did singlehandedly usher in an era of Democracy, Whiskey, and Sexy in Iran, so I’m sure similar comments from Obama would be equally effectual.
Meanwhile, the ill-named Socrates asks:
Let’s try a thought experiment..
What would you all really be saying today if it had been Booooooosh! doing this while Iran burned, instead of Obama..?
Take a few minites to think; and be intellectually honest about it…
See, this may be shocking news to people who think that Obama can make democracy appear in Iran through his silver tongue (and they call us “Obamabots”!), but Iran is not the only tyranny in the world. This blog has been in operation for quite a long time, stretching all the way back to the Bush administration. So, for example, we can consider the case of Zimbabwe. You may recall that — while Bush was in the White House! — an even worse regime than the current Iranian one engaged in even more egregious and violent election theft. If you search our archives, however, you will note that at no point did I attack Bush for clearing brush instead of spending all of his time denouncing Robert Mugabe, for the obvious reason that you’d have to be a Grade A Moron to think that anything Bush said would somehow cause fair elections to be held in Zimbabwe. The same, of course, goes for the assertion that more forceful rhetoric will somehow produce a fair election in Iran. But thanks for the question!
UPDATE BY ROB: Shorter Andy McCarthy: Barack Obama is objectively pro-mullah!
Why is Al Sharpton on my teevee talking to Geraldo Rivera about Iran? This is to say, what has gone wrong with the world such that I have the capacity to watch Al Sharpton talk to Geraldo Rivera about Iran?
The weight of the world now rests on the shoulders of Mir Hossein Mousavi. I expect that Khamenei’s people have privately sent signals to him that they’re ready for a bloodbath, they’re prepared to use overwhelming force to crush this, and is he willing to lead the people in the streets to slaughter?
Mousavi is not Khomeini, and Khamenei is not the Shah. Meaning, Khomeini would not hesitate to lead his followers to “martyrdom”, and the Shah did not have the stomach for mass bloodshed. This time the religious zealots are the ones holding power.
The anger and the rage and sense of injustice people feel will not subside anytime soon, but if Mousavi concedes defeat he will demoralize millions of people. At the moment the demonstrations really have no other leadership. It’s become a symbiotic relationship, Mousavi feeds off people’s support, and the popular support allows Mousavi the political capital to remain defiant. So Mousavi truly has some agonizing decisions to make.
When it became clear last Friday that the outcome of Iran’s election was going to be controversial, I IMed a friend that there was roughly a 1 in 4 chance that the regime would be gone in a week. The timing was certainly optimistic, and I would still say, Drezner’s analysis notwithstanding, that the regime as it stands will probably survive, and that Ahmadinejad will remain President. In particular, I don’t think that the regime has mobilized all of its assets, and believe that it still retains an enthusiastic core of support with the capability to shut the resistance down, at least in the short term. Doug Muir has a far more thorough analysis; check it out.
Michael Ledeen has a curious way of approaching the social form “accusation”:
You’re going to be accused of meddling anyway, since out there in the real world you are believed to be the leader of the forces of freedom and democracy.
Now, when I apply this logic to my daily life, it would seem to mean that it is appropriate and productive for me to freely engage in any behavior that I have been accused of, whether or not said accusation is true. Accordingly, I now invite the readers of LGM to accuse me of all manner of interesting and potentially lucrative misdeeds; once the accusation hits the internet, it’s all good, baby! I would also add that Mr. Ledeen must have at some point been accused of being an amoral, poorly informed fraud, because, well… you know.
More to the point, the political value of any such accusation is certainly connected to whether the listener believes it is a)relevant, or b) true. In the case of Iran, I think there are fair reasons to believe that such charges are understood to be politically relevant; the opposition has not, by and large, called for US support, and the regime seems to think that accusing the US could have political payoff. On the second point, I suspect that even Ledeen and his ilk would concede that the accusation is implausible, and that the protesters don’t currently believe that the United States is backing them (this is rather the point of his critique). As such, the Iranian regime’s statement would seem to undercut, rather than reinforce, its legitimacy.
What follows is a long, largely unoriginal rumination on the state, coercion, the Odessa Steps, and Tank Man. Skip to the end for trivial observations about the current situation in Iran. Or just skip entirely…
The modern nation state is an extremely efficient killing machine. We know this from our Tilly; the nation-state replaced its competitors, such as empires and city-states, because it could develop and support institutions of internal and external domination. The nation-state successfully extracted a large surplus from its population, which it transformed into the coercive means for acquiring even more internal surplus and for waging external wars.
The most common interaction we have with the state is thus; the state demands property that we regard as our own, and if we refuse to hand this property over it sends men with guns to our house. If we resist these men with guns, they imprison us. If we resist too effectively, they kill us. This is true of every modern nation-state. Liberal democracies differ from authoritarian states in that they allow us to complain loudly about the process, to minimize its arbitrariness, and to have some (very) small say in how our property is reallocated. This difference isn’t trivial, but it isn’t as large as normally assumed.
The modern nation-state is nevertheless tolerable because it substantially reduces private coercion (replacing it with less arbitrary public coercion), creates a relatively safe space in which commerce and the production of wealth can be undertaken, provides regulation necessary for the conduct of a modern (socialist or capitalist) economy, provides social services, and because it creates a sense of identity and political efficacy. Its murderous tendencies notwithstanding, I’d rather live in a nation-state than not, and would prefer a more complete and capable state to the rump that libertarians envision.
The long century (1789-1914) can be regarded as the period of consolidation of the institutions of the modern nation-state. The last competitors were either eliminated or co-opted, small statelets were amalgamated, and the lower and middle classes were fully integrated into the domestic processes of the state. The perfection of these institutions, as much as anything else, allowed European states to conquer the rest of the world, and to apply the institutions of the modern-state to heretofore unfamiliar populations. This was, it is fair to say, a bloody process. It saw untold colonial depredation, from the conquests of Africa, South Asia, and North America to the “opening” of China and Japan. The Wars of the French Revolution exceeded any previous conflicts in size and destruction, largely because of the increased extractive and warmaking capacity of the state. Still, the old ways were not wholly replaced; in Europe, at least, much of the traditional elite continued to hold the reins of the state.
This process of perfection would culminate in 1914, when the truly destructive nature of the state would be unleashed. Internally and externally, the major states of the world set about the task of murdering as many people as possible. Eighteen million or so were killed in World War I. In 1917, the Russians had a Revolution designed to hand their state to right thinking people, and those right thinking people murdered dozens of millions more. Between 1939 and 1945, the German state murdered six million Jews, along with roughly twice as many Poles and Russians. The Japanese state murdered about 20 million Chinese. The good guys in that war (and I use the term with no ironic intent) saw fit to incinerate millions of German and Japanese citizens by dropping bombs on them as they slept. Following World War II, the Chinese state killed some fifty million of its own citizens, concentrated in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The various combatants in the Vietnam War killed about 4 million altogether, and the Khmer Rouge killed probably 2 million. All of this was made possible by the institutions of the modern nation-state; its extractive capacity, its efficient bureaucracy, and its ability to maximize military power.
The modern nation-state could murder at such an efficient rate because competent, well educated, healthy, efficient people staffed its bureaucracies. The medical systems of the modern state kept its soldiers and policemen healthy and capable. The educational institutions created unprecedented literacy, which maximized its killing capacity; soldiers and police who can read can also fight more effectively. The microfoundation of the story of the twentieth century is, thus, that the state created citizens, and those citizens made possible the murder of vast quantities of other citizens. This isn’t a particularly new idea; it’s more or less Arendt, and it’s something that I talked about in the context of Battle of Algiers a few years ago. Twentieth century evil is the efficiency and enthusiasm of capable bureaucrats.
Tank Man was not the first person to stand up to the coercive power of the state. People defying other people holding guns has a long and distinguished history, from Napoleon forward. The survival of Tank Man and of every other such protester depends on a decision made by the state employee carrying the gun. What distinguishes the few moments near Tiananmen from the Odessa Steps, thus, is not the heroism of the protester, but rather the decision by the tank commander not to run Tank Man down, or to shoot him. The video has always been more compelling to me than the shot; the tank commander actively tries to carry out his job without running over tank man, and eventually decides to hold up an entire tank column while Tank Man clambers on to his vehicle.
I feel that I can understand why Tank Man risked his life to stand in front of the tank column. I have less of a sense of why the tank commander decided to stop. For all I know, Tank Man may have been Tank Commander’s brother. Tank Commander may have been afraid that his superiors would have been pissed if he ran over a guy while cameras might be watching. He may not have wanted innocent blood on his hands, or on the treads of his tank. He may have sympathized with the demonstrators; perhaps his father or mother had been a victim of the Cultural Revolution. Or perhaps he identified the Tiananmen demonstrators with the Cultural Revolution, and sympathized with them. I really have no idea.
The thing is, Tank Commander is far more dangerous than Tank Man. Tank Man can simply be shot; most seem to believe that Tank Man was later executed, far out of sight of the international media. The regime survives if Tank Man dies, even if the death of Tank Man isn’t the optimal outcome. The regime dies, however, if Tank Commander refuses to run over Tank Man. Eisenstein used the Odessa Steps to demonstrate the corruption of the Czarist regime, but the regime didn’t die until the soldiers refused to shoot the demonstrators. The successor regime didn’t die until Boris Yeltsin climbed on a tank in August 1991. While there’s some mystery as to the fate of Tank Man, I don’t doubt that the CCP found Tank Commander and put a bullet in the back of his head at the first opportunity.
1989 is the end of the Short Century, in large part because of the collapse of the Eastern European empire of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Although the People’s Republic of China survived, I think that the moment that Tank Man and Tank Commander shared symbolizes the end of the era; the image and video of the moment, spread across the world by 24 hour news networks, signified a shift in the way that the state could interact with its citizens. It made the relationship between state and citizen explicit, and also exposed the weakness at the core of the state. States can still engage in brutal behavior, and horrible things can still happen, but the relationship has changed; the reliability of the bureaucracy of murder is in greater question now than it has been since the creation of the modern state system.
1989 is not 2009. The media trends that allowed the dissemination of the moment between Tank Man and Tank Commander have, if anything, accelerated; the ability of individuals to create their own narratives, independent of the state, is remarkable. At the same time, the state has developed new strategies for dealing with its citizens. This is as true of liberal democratic states as it is of authoritarian. I think, however, that the center of gravity of the state remains with Tank Commander. To the extent that the United States, other Western regimes, non-governmental organizations, and pretty much anyone else want to affect the course of events in Iran, the key is to convince Tank Commander not to shoot. The Iranian state has not deployed its full coercive resources against the demonstrators, and there’s no indication that it really wants to; even the CCP is said to believe that the massacre in Tiananmen Square was a serious mistake. The news to watch for is something like this, in which several members of the Revolutionary Guard were purportedly arrested for collaborating with dissident elements. Without the obedience of the security forces, the state collapses.
So, I’m trying to find out something about what’s going on in Iran, and on CNN I can watch a rerun of Larry King interviewing several gentlemen without shirtsleeves who apparently assemble choppers. On Fox Mike Huckabee is trying to explain why Jesus hates credit card relief. MSNBC is rerunning something about a prison in New Mexico. CNBC is evaluating whether college students should be able to afford Chanel tote bags.