April 16, 2006

Lunatic World

Consider the following scenario. We have two countries, A and B. Country A is run by a repressive, often brutal regime. That regime is in power largely as the direct result of meddling in its internal affairs committed by Country B and B's friends, meddling that began in a serious way fifty years ago. Certain of Country A's leaders (but not all of them by any means) make threatening noises about attacking Country B and some of its friends -- but all knowledgeable experts agree that Country A is years away from representing a genuinely serious threat to anyone. Certainly it is not now a threat to Country B itself. And even if Country A had the means to launch an attack on Country B or its closest friends, most people recognize that it would probably never do so, since it would thereby ensure its own destruction.

Country B is the acknowledged sole superpower in the world. It could destroy any nation on earth, probably within several hours or days. It possesses the most fearsome weapons arsenal ever known to man. Moreover, it is the only country in the world that has ever used nuclear weapons -- but on the one occasion it did so, it at least used them against a nation with which it was already at war. (Many observers argue, conclusively in my view, that using nuclear weapons even in that situation was completely unnecessary and morally detestable, and that it constituted nothing less than a war crime of major proportions.)

Keep in mind that Countries A and B are not at war.

Yet Country A's verbal threats -- which are now largely meaningless and will remain so for some years, and which arise more out of domestic political strategies as opposed to representing any formal foreign policy -- are treated as outrageous and intolerable. Many commentators say these toothless threats demand a response, and that they may demand a response in the near future, one including the offensive use of nuclear weapons.

And Country B refuses to unequivocally rule out a military attack against Country A -- even though Country A is no threat now or in the near future, and despite the fact that Country A has no history of invading and occupying other nations. On the other hand, Country B is in the fourth year of an occupation of one of Country A's neighbors -- another country that was no threat to Country B. Nonetheless, Country B attacked and occupied it.

With almost no exceptions, commentators and the public at large regard Country B's position that it would be justified in attacking Country A as entirely legitimate and moral, even if it might be strategically ill-advised. And with almost no exceptions, Country A's meaningless bluster is considered to be intolerable and unforgivable, and probably deserving of a devastating military response, if not now, then sometime soon.

Remember: Country A has no history of making aggressive war or of occupying other countries. Country B does, and is in the midst of one such campaign right now. But Country A is the villain, and Country B is and would be entirely innocent, even if it attacked still another country that represented no threat, and even if it used nuclear weapons.

This perspective, which is the framework within which the current debate about attacking Iran takes place, constitutes a lunatic world, one turned entirely upside down. We make war on non-existent threats, and threaten further wars against additional non-existent threats -- and we are heroes. Other countries, as deplorable as their ruling regimes may be, utter meaningless threats -- and for this "outrage," they deserve to be attacked. It is only the doctrine of Western "exceptionalism" (see here and here, for example) that permits this lunacy to go largely unremarked.

We believe that we have the ultimate solution to human history, and that it is our right and obligation to share it with the rest of the world -- by military might, as required. Since we have identified ourselves as inherently noble and virtuous, nothing we do can possibly be wrong. We might make a few regrettable errors -- engage in a little torture here and there, for example (even though the systematic use of torture is now indisputably official U.S. policy) -- but we are always on the side of the angels. And those we have identified as our enemies are inherently evil. Even if these "evil" nations are no direct threat to us (which is the sole relevant factor in matters of war and peace), we are justified in destroying them. Even if all the "evil" nations do is offer threats on which they cannot and probably would not make good, such threats are deserving of bombs, and even nukes.

This apocalyptic crusader perspective suffuses the West, and the United States in particular. It need not be religious in nature, although these days it often is. The West has also embraced the secular version of this psychology, in the form of the "Idea of Progress." Note that, to date, not one major voice in the United States or in the West has denounced in absolute, unmistakable terms the moral depravity and monstrousness of an attack on Iran in the current circumstances.

I was reminded of all this yet again when I read one of The Weekly Standard's propaganda articles about whether we ought to attack Iran. The article by Reuel Marc Gerecht is written entirely from the perspective of Western "superiority." Gerecht takes all the elements of Western "exceptionalism" as axioms never to be questioned.

The piece does not deserve a point-by-point refutation; Gerecht's approach is wrong in its foundation, and the details of his argument are of no consequence. Because he accepts the notion that the United States represents Absolute Good, we are entitled to do whatever we decide is required, and no questions about our "right" to so act are to be entertained. But one paragraph leapt out at me, because it underscores the lunatic nature of this approach.

In my essay from several years ago ("In Service of the New Fascism") about Irving Kristol's article, "The Neoconservative Persuasion," I discussed Kristol's foreign policy prescriptions. About Kristol's revisionist history and his view of the U.S. role in the world, I wrote:
This is a vicious and reprehensible rewriting of history. If I thought Kristol were capable of experiencing the emotion, I would say he ought to be ashamed of himself. Every single one of those wars was one that the United States deliberately and intentionally chose to become involved in after a long period of deliberation. I will be offering some excerpts from Barbara Tuchman's masterful history of the Vietnam War (in her book, The March of Folly) in the near future -- but I would have thought everyone knew that our involvement in Vietnam was the result of an intentional and very deliberate process of decision-making over a very long period of time. It was utterly mistaken and based on what ought to have been obviously dubious premises at almost every single step, but it was hardly a course of action foisted on us when we were simply minding our own business. And the same is true with regard to every other war in Kristol's list.

But Kristol's intellectual legerdemain accomplishes one objective, and it is a significant one: it absolves us of all responsibility for our past decisions in the foreign policy sphere. In effect, Kristol's analysis entirely negates the element of moral judgment when it comes to issues of war and peace, at least so far as the conduct of the United States is concerned. Wars, endless bombing raids, huge troop deployments, massive domestic taxation, a military draft (during the long period we had one), endless foreign entanglements, and large-scale death -- it's all just "bad luck." It just happened. It's not enough that Kristol engages in intellectual suicide before our eyes: he also wishes to prevent anyone else from engaging in critical analysis of historical events, in an attempt to ascertain if there just might be any lessons to be learned from such a study. And Kristol thus hopes that this intellectual paralysis will continue in the present, and into the future. Why, we can't question the means or methods by which we are now fighting the war on terror. It just happened. It's just our "bad luck." Whatever we do now or in the future, there are no judgments to be made about any of it.
I discussed this seeming paradox further in, "On Responsibility: The Comedy Continues." The ultimate payoff of this perspective is obvious: whatever we do, we couldn't help it. Nothing is ever our fault. As I put it: "they want to be able to do whatever they wish -- and they never want to be held accountable for any of it."

In his article, Gerecht entirely adopts this view of the United States as a helpless giant. We are the world's sole superpower but, in the end, we are fundamentally passive and forced to act against our will:
Critical point: The Iranians--not the Americans--control this discussion and are circumscribing the diplomatic avenues the Bush administration is still determined to pursue. Tehran's mullahs are unlikely to allow us any running room. Rafsanjani's and Ahmadinejad's recent statements about Iran succeeding in enriching uranium (level unspecified) and its readiness to begin industrial-scale production mean, among other things, that the clerical regime believes it now has the advantage (which it does).
I must note that "the Bush administration is still determined to pursue" diplomacy with Iran only in the sense that it was "determined" to do so with regard to Iraq: that is to say, the illusion of diplomacy will only serve as a rationalization when the decision is made to launch the attack. The Bush administration will declare once again: "See? We tried to solve this terrible problem diplomatically. But they wouldn't let us. It's all their fault."

So when we attack a country that isn't a threat, it's their fault. If we use nuclear weapons offensively against a non-existent threat, it's their fault. Even if millions of its citizens die as a result, it's their fault.

This is not foreign policy: it's mental illness, and it is the psychology of a psychopathic mass murderer.

One other brief passage from the Gerecht article deserves mention, since it reveals the genuinely sophomoric level of the kind of political analysis such people offer. This made me laugh out loud:
The Iranians are making the astute call that if they can get the West to acquiesce now--if they can get the West to believe they really are on the verge of industrial-scale enrichment--then they're much safer than if they drag this out. America is, so CNN says (and the Iranian English-speaking elite faithfully watch CNN), tied down in Iraq. Politically, President Bush is obviously weak. Down the road, circumstances might not be so propitious.
Honest to God. I can barely bring myself to comment on this, given its absurdity. I have to remind myself that people like Gerecht actually believe this kind of thing. And while I might credit the statement that "the Iranian English-speaking elite faithfully watch CNN," the idea that what they see on television is the basis for their country's foreign policy is ludicrous, and offered without a shred of evidence. But in this manner, the defenders of America's undisputed "right" to impose "benevolent hegemony" on the world find yet another way to deflect blame: everything that happens is the fault of Iran, and/or the fault of that damned liberal media. Nothing is ever our responsibility or our fault, even if we are the ones who bring on World War III. And it apparently hasn't occurred to Gerecht that "the Iranian English-speaking elite" have additional sources of information about the catastrophe in Iraq and its implications, just as we ourselves do -- and as it would appear Gerecht himself does.

We should not be surprised, whatever may happen now. A lunatic ideology rules us, and almost everyone takes it for granted. And practically no one is protesting against it in any serious manner at all.