DAMSEL IN DISTRESS

In response to the unfathomably stupid conclusion of the unfathomably stupid James Taranto in the Wall Steet Journal, who states that "We are all neocons now" favoring intervention in Iran, one of my colleagues has written a must-read editorial for a Pakistani newspaper. It makes a strong case for doing exactly what we're doing about the current situation in Iran – sitting on our asses and watching. Let's stick with what we're good at.

Unsurprisingly, the conservative wailing and gnashing of teeth about the President's inaction has been predictable, banal, and thoroughly uninformed. Stop me if you've heard any of that before. Two months ago, and for the past five, ten, twenty years for that matter, the right have demanded that we bomb the sovereign nation of Iran into the Stone Age. It was a nation led by lunatic Islamic fundamentalists and composed almost entirely of bloodthirsty terrorists desperate to wipe Israel off the map and rain death upon the Great Satan. The urgency with which we needed to start killing Iranians was difficult to put into words. Now – almost literally overnight – Iran is America circa 1775, a noble people yearning desperately for sweet, sweet democracy while being oppressed by the Commies or Terrorists or Whigs or whoever the boogeyman of the moment happens to be. Due to this sudden change of heart the right have decided that we don't need to bomb Iran, we need to execute some sort of intervention to overthrow their government in favor of an alternative which, I believe, they are just assuming will be better.

American intervention in the domestic politics of faraway nations has a long, well-documented history of failure that I won't recount here. The fundamental problem with any intervention more intrusive than a strongly-worded statement from the White House is that social and political change must happen independently of foreign meddling in order to be legitimate. This is rooted in common sense – I'm sure a new Iranian government would love to be known as the one Uncle Sam and the Big Green put into power – and in basic psychology. Everyone wants to be the knight-hero of the fairy tale and no one wants to be the helpless damsel in distress. Everyone wants to be the fireman rushing into the burning building, not the trapped person in need of rescue. Everyone wants to be the hero who saves a bystander's life, not the guy laying on the sidewalk having a heart attack.

The American Revolution might well have failed if not for the support the Colonists received from the French and other nations in continental Europe. How prominent is that fact when the Revolution is taught to American school kids? How often do we give three cheers and a big merci to France during our Fourth of July celebrations? We don't remember it because we want the story to be one of our triumph as a nation. We were David and we slew Goliath. We, like every country, need to have a creation myth in which to believe. Iran needs to write its own mythology by determining the outcome of this crisis on its own. If that means thousands of people are beaten or perhaps even killed, that is often what happens when a nation rids itself of a repressive government. Yes, it's sad. Yes, it's terrible. But our knee-jerk reaction to rush in and save the day will accomplish nothing in the long run except to entangle ourselves in another domestic clusterfuck in the Middle East. Even if the opposition leaders in Iran explicitly ask – or beg – for military intervention by the United States, we should decline.

There is a threshold, of course, and it's difficult to say exactly where it lies. Intervention would be called for if the Iranian government starts rounding up its people by the tens of thousands and gassing them in death camps, but short of that I don't think we could justify unilateral intervention. Violence and political upheaval accompany one another. We want to see a situation in which no one gets hurt, but that is rarely reality in political revolutions. The Iranian people are the only ones who can decide what price they are willing to pay to achieve their desired end. I suspect it is quite a high one. It will hurt the rest of us to watch, but the nation which emerges will be a far stronger one than an interventionist American President could ever hope to construct.

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7 Responses to “DAMSEL IN DISTRESS”

  1. depressed capitalist Says:

    The American Revolution might well have failed if not for the support the Colonists received from the French and other nations in continental Europe.

    So what did the French do right that enabled them to help the US without us harboring bitter resentment against them for years?

    Oh, wait… never mind.

  2. comrade x Says:

    The French sent thousands of Charville muskets to equip a Contienental Army formerly equiped with captured Brown Bess muskets and fowling pieces.
    They also defeated the British Navy at Chesapeake Bay, which isolated the British garrison at Yorktown, besides directly participating in the siege itself.
    French resentment of America stemmed from the fact that the United States congress welched on their war debt. As for it existing today, it is largely a figment of Fox viewers' imaginations and is a product of their feelings of cultural inferiority.
    As far as Iran goes, perhaps the rank- and- file neocons want to be the big action hero who saves the day ( and kill a hundred thousand brown people in the process) but the ruling class of this country, Republican or Democrat, wants to get their paws on Iran's oil resources.
    That is what will motivate them to intervene. If that oil wasn't there, they would sit on their hands and watch, like they did with Rwanda.

  3. Mike Says:

    Iran is a complex situation, and I agree that a US intervention is an awful idea. Were we to intervene it is much more likely that Khameini and the old guard would consolidate their power, having a target to switch the people's anger to. I would be another "see, look at the Great Satan" moment, one which we really don't need.

    Most people agree that what we are witnessing now is the external struggle of the internal battle between Khameini and Rafsanjani. On the individual level, Khameini will likely be willing to do anything to keep himself in power, while Rafsanjani now views himself as the man who can bring Iran into a new age of prosperity with the west. As each works to consolidate power, it is worth considering who will have the guts to pull the trigger first. Sadly, it is likely to be Khameini, and he's already showing it. If we're lucky the Iranian people will push on, regardless of who is standing with them. The people have already taken a life long insider with "revolutionary credentials," Moussavi, and changed him into a reformer. They have the power to make their world a better place. Sadly, it will take quite a bit of bloodshed to get there, and a successful outcome is hardly certain. Still, much like Khameini, the Shah had all the oil, all the military, and the secret police on his side …

  4. Matthew Says:

    Okay Mike, you probably didn't mean it, but I could not read your comment without thinking of the George Bush (Sr.) episode of the Simpsons. Just because you used the phrase "consolidate power" in relation to Iran.

    Marge: Can we get rid of this Ayatollah T-shirt? Khomeini died years
    ago.
    Homer: But, Marge! It works on any Ayatollah! Ayatollah Nakhbadeh, Ayatollah Zahedi! Even as we speak, Ayatollah Razmara and his cadre of fanatics are consolidating their power!

    Ah, 1996.

  5. Owen Says:

    This post couldn't be more correct if it tried. It should be required reading for all so-called "liberal interventionists". It never fails to annoy me that for some people "the situation in country x is bad" automatically implies "the West should send in troops/drop a few smart bombs and that will magically make everything better". You'd think there have been enough examples of how wrong that can go that they'd learn the lesson.

  6. Brandon Says:

    Owen, I read Ed's post as more of a criticism of neo-conservative militarism than of liberal interventionism. And your characterization of liberal interventionism as dropping smart bombs to make everything better is a bit off the mark.

  7. Owen Says:

    I freely admit that my depiction of liberal interventionists was a caricature – it was intended as such. And maybe that's intellectually lazy (actually there's no maybe about it), but I really only meant my comment to convey that I liked Ed's post – I wasn't trying to give a detailed account of what I think is problematic in the liberal interventionist position. However, since you asked…

    My comment was probably a bit ambiguous. Ed's post certainly was directed at neoconservatives, but I think it highlights very clearly an error that liberal interventionists can (though don't always) make as well: the belief that the way to get rid of unpleasant governments is unilateral military intervention from outside the country. Don't get me wrong; I'd like a world with fewer totalitarian dictatorships, and there are some cases (as Ed says) where military intervention can be justified. But there has to be a strong opposition movement inside the country as well, and as Ed pointed out, even that isn't sufficient in a large number of cases. Iraq (of course) is the clearest example of a war that many self-described liberals supported because it would get rid of a brutal dictator, and which went badly wrong precisely (though not exclusively) because it was an attempt to impose wholesale change from outside.