As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Embarrassing Rhetoric On Iran

I don't know if this Jerusalem Post story about an imminent attack on Iran is true or not. There have been dozens of these kinds of stories. But you cannot deny that Bush and Cheney have certainly been using the kind of rhetoric that presaged war with Iraq with respect to Iran. They certainly SOUND like people who want to attack.

And that's intentional. Because at its root, modern conservatism demands a Manichean view of the world with an enemy of irrepressible evil. If it's not China, it's Iraq, or North Korea, or Libya, or Syria, or Iran. Blustering about the threat posed by Iran, while terrible policy, is considered good politics among conservatives - it scares people, it gives them an enemy to focus on, and it allows them to frame Democrats, or even Republicans who dare to negotiate with enemies, as Chamberlain-like appeasers, despite the wrongheadedness of that approach.

So John McCain is just following in typical conservative footsteps by ratcheting up the fear over Iran. But to do so, he has to actually lie about several things. He first has to pretend that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the leader of Iran. Which he isn't. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the leader. Ahmadinejad is about as much the leader of Iran as the House Majority Whip is the leader of America. And when confronted on this, McCain preferred to wallow in the ignorance of a poorly-informed electorate.

At a press conference yesterday, Time’s Joe Klein pressed McCain on this point. According to Klein, McCain said that Ahmadinejad “represents Iran in international forums like the United Nations,” but then Klein pointed out that “The Supreme Leader is, uh, the Supreme Leader”:

McCain responded that the “average American” thinks Ahmadinejad is the boss. Didn’t get a chance to follow up to that, but I would have asked, “But isn’t it your job to correct those sorts of mistaken impressions on the part of the American public?” Oh well.

McCain also has to lie about the magnitude of the threat that the United States, armed with the most powerful military on the planet, faces from Iran, a medium-sized country with a tiny and nearly non-functional military. McCain has to base this hyping of the threat on a seemingly unending series of hypotheticals that lead in a Rube Goldberg-like fashion to perceive Iran as a threat. But unlike in previous years, we have a Democratic opponent who is willing to actually call b.s. on these ridiculous scenarios, and ask for some perspective.

"Iran, Cuba, Venezuela: these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us. And yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at a time when they were saying we want to wipe you off the planet. (...) Iran, they spend one one-hundredth of what we spend on the military. I mean, if Iran ever tried to pose a serious threat to us, they wouldn't stand a chance."

I know that the wingnut brigade is flipping out about this, but it's obviously true on its face. You can do the math yourself, as hilzoy did, and 30,000 warheads pointed at the US, compared to ZERO, is pretty much a larger threat.

And in the continued back and forth over this quote, Obama has shown how perceptive you can look when you just look at the facts as they are instead of trying to position yourself as "the hawk" or part of the "serious foreign policy elite."

"Iran is a grave threat. It has an illicit nuclear program. It supports terrorism across the region and militias in Iraq. It threatens Israel's existence. It denies the Holocaust," he said. "The reason Iran is so much more powerful than it was a few years ago is because of the Bush-McCain policy of fighting in Iraq and refusing to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran. They're the ones who have not dealt with Iran wisely."

Obama also called Iran the "single biggest beneficiary" of the Iraq war and pledged to secure all loose nuclear materials during first term, if he is elected president.

Obama could have gone ahead and mentioned Ahmad Chalabi's spying for the Iranian government, and how Osama bin Laden is completely opposed to Iran and engaging them could have been a moment to rally cut off Al Qaeda. And later on, he probably will.

This is really shaping up to be one of the big wins early on in the general election. He's fighting back on national security with a great deal of confidence. And he's really coming at the issues from a different angle than we've seen from the Democratic Party.

After the Kerry loss of 2004, Democrats began to vow: we understand what happened. We're not going to let ourselves get outboxed and intimidated next time around, especially on national security. There was every reason in the world to think this was an empty promise. If Hillary Clinton were the nominee, it wouldn't be exactly empty, because the Clinton camp does know how to return fire. But it would be a dissatisfying thing for most Democrats to watch, because Clinton's returns of serve would consist of hawkish statements designed to prove that she could be just as tough as the Republicans (witness her recent promise to "obliterate" Iran).

Obama is doing something altogether different. He is standing for an alternative vision of how America should operate in the world, and he is defending it tooth and nail. I'm not sold on the idea that negotiations without preconditions with hostile powers are the world's best strategy. If the US had some leverage over Iran that might be one thing, but, in our current state, we have little. Still, this is one of those cases where the symbolic message of what Obama did last Friday is more important, for now, than the substance. He said: These people have screwed up foreign policy and security. I have a different way of doing things. And I'm not ceding an inch.

This is a good manifestation of why so many Americans have rallied to Obama as the breath of fresh air the country needs right now.

Indeed. But these aren't even that difficult concepts. Matthew Yglesias has written a book called Heads in the Sand which argues for a new conception of foreign policy outside the current consensus that strength can only mean acting tough, that the only proper pose is some kind of hegemonic hyper-nationalism that advocates for intervention based on strategic interests and simplistic shibboleths (like the "Global War On Terror"). This is a more intelligent foreign policy doctrine, based on common sense and broad diplomatic engagement, both private and public. McCain is invested in the old worldview, Obama is advocating for something new.

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