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Selective reading and the limits of irony

December 4, 2011

By US standards, I am not an Iran hawk. I do not think the US should go to war with Iran. I do not think we should take the MEK off of the FTO list. I do not think Iran is a modern day Nazi Germany or even a modern day USSR. I do think that Iran is a revisionist power seeking to expand its own interests but I’ve said very similar things about the US and a lot of other countries besides. That said, analysis like this overlooks a lot:

Additionally, some combination of the U.S. and Israel has bombarded Iran with multiple acts of war over the last year, including explosions onIranian soil, the murder of numerous Iranian nuclear scientists (in which even one of their wives was shot), and sophisticated cyberattacks. Meanwhile, top American political officials from both parties are actively demanding that an Iranian revolutionary cult be removed from the list of Terrorist organizations (just coincidentally, they’re all on the cult’s payroll). In the past decade, the U.S. and/or Israel have invaded, air attacked, and/or occupied Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (to say nothing of the creation of a worldwide torture regime, a system of “black site” prisons around the world to which people were disappeared, and a due-process-free detention camp in the middle of the Caribbean Ocean where many people remain encaged for almost a full decade without charges). During this same time period, Iran has not invaded, occupied or air attacked anyone. Iran, to be sure, is domestically oppressive, but no more so — and in many cases less — than the multiple regimes funded, armed and otherwise propped up by the U.S. during this period. Those are all just facts.

When I asked Greenwald if he really thought it was legitimate to consider cyberattacks an act of war, he pointed out that since the new US cyberwarfare policy said it so, then we should use the same standards for Iran. Now, under virtually any other circumstance this statement would have been condemned, but since endorsing it was useful for painting the US as the real aggressor nation, it was upheld. If we’re going to consider actions we might otherwise not consider acts of war as acts of war to show the aggressiveness of the United States, why not do the same for Iran?

So, by Greenwald’s logic, we should note that the Islamic Republic of Iran has conducted multiple acts of war since the formation of its regime. We’ll limit this to the highlights. After all, Iran assassinated somebody on US soil in 1981. It participated in a massive attack against uniformed US troops in Lebanon in 1983. It supported multiple bombings against Argentina in the 1990s. This is leaving aside that whole embassy seizure and hostage taking incident, which was more than enough to prompt military interventions in the past.

Looking at that, we’ve had multiple cases of casus belli against Iran, for several decades. And Iran has had multiple cases of casus belli, similarly, against the US and a variety of other countries. Ah, but what about in the past ten years? Iran has provided support to the insurgency in Iraq, specifically to provide weapons to enable the better killing of American soldiers while they are in vehicular transport. There has arguably been similar support, albeit in a much more limited fashion, to the insurgency in Afghanistan. Now, sure, America has committed more aggression total against various other countries, but the number of casualties inflicted by each side against the other looks rather less lopsided.

Now, given that the US was invading two regimes which Iran had nearly entered a state of war with (Afghanistan under the Taliban) or had fended off an invasion from (Iraq), Iran did not unconditionally consider these acts threats. It even offered to support the US invasion of Afghanistan by allowing overflights and sought to negotiate a “grand bargain” with the US after the invasion of Iraq. Of course, due to US refusal to make accommodation with the regime, Iran reverted to its standard operating procedure for US military forces in Middle Eastern warzones and started killing US troops via proxy.

Does any of this justify an outright war with Iran? I’d imagine it would not, under Greenwald’s schema. But if we are going to lay the bar for warfare as low as Greenwald does, then we should acknowledge that the US and many of its allies have been in a state of war with Iran since 1979, on and off, and absolutely nothing America does to countries that aren’t Iran or its allies makes Iran’s actions any less real. An action’s excusability does not preclude its existence.

Of course it’s rational for Iran to want a nuclear weapon. That does not make, say, Iran’s actions in accordance with the IAEA. If Iran wanted to do that, it could just do what most other countries in its situation do and refuse to participate in the NPT. Iran supports proxy forces in a variety of countries outside its own borders, not just in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, but also in Latin America (through Hezbollah-affiliated cells in the Triple Frontier) and Africa (where Iran has shipped arms to western and eastern Africa both). It is not simply a domestically-repressive regime that minds its own business, like many other regional powers it actively uses coercion and violence to further its foreign policy goals, although Iran, unlike the United States, has a much lower geopolitical margin for error. America’s aggression and interference does not automatically make any of the Islamic Republic’s historic aggression and interference less factual.

Greenwald notes he is not a moral relativist. Indeed, because a thorough moral relativist would probably point out that in the international system, most powers are self-aggrandizing entities which will pursue their own ends as ruthlessly as necessary, and that two countries can simultaneously be potential or actual aggressors against each other. In fact, you do not even need to be a moral relativist to recognize that both the United States and Iran are revisionist states, just ones with opposed ideas of what revision should mean and different resources at their command to impose those visions.

Greenwald cites George Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism,” a fine essay, but he leaves out some other interesting parts, namely Orwell’s condemnation of pacifists and Anglophobes. Nationalism, in Orwell’s mind, was not just about “positive nationalism,” but also about “transferred” and “negative” nationalism.

Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defence of western countries. The Russians, unlike the British, are not blamed for defending themselves by warlike means, and indeed all pacifist propaganda of this type avoids mention of Russia or China.

On Anglophobes, those earlier foes of world empire and aggression:

Within the intelligentsia, a derisive and mildly hostile attitude towards Britain is more or less compulsory, but it is an unfaked emotion in many cases. During the war it was manifested in the defeatism of the intelligentsia, which persisted long after it had become clear that the Axis powers could not win. Many people were undisguisedly pleased when Singapore fell ore when the British were driven out of Greece, and there was a remarkable unwillingness to believe in good news, e.g. el Alamein, or the number of German planes shot down in the Battle of Britain. English left-wing intellectuals did not, of course, actually want the Germans or Japanese to win the war, but many of them could not help getting a certain kick out of seeing their own country humiliated, and wanted to feel that the final victory would be due to Russia, or perhaps America, and not to Britain. In foreign politics many intellectuals follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong. As a result, ‘enlightened’ opinion is quite largely a mirror-image of Conservative policy.

So, essentially, it’s entirely possible for one to harbor all the same errors of nationalist thinking without being what many of us would traditionally think of as a nationalistic attitude. Intellectuals can easily transfer the orientation of their nationalist biases by designating the imperial powers as their enemy and identifying their cause with the victims, within and without that imperial power. As Orwell noted, “a nationalistic creed may be adopted in good faith from non-nationalistic motives.” Even those of us critical of a full-out war with Iran, critical of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and critical of moral triumphalism ought to be cognizant that the transferred and negative types of nationalism Orwell identifies are just as problematic for rational discussion of matters of foreign policy and history.

That point about cyberwarfare I made earlier wasn’t just an idle quip. If we adopt standards we would otherwise condemn simply because temporarily suspending those standards aids highlighting the supposed moral wrongness of American foreign policy, we are committing exactly the kind of nationalist errors in reasoning, albeit in the service of a different kind of nationalist thinking. The bias can be explained and justified in all kinds of terms, but, as Orwell said, we should at least acknowledge it when it exists.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2011 5:25 am

    quite interesting
    good post

  2. December 5, 2011 12:26 pm

    Few things, in regards to the body count on both sides being commensurate I don’t think that the Iranians view it that way. There is a lot of recrimination on their side for events during the Iran-Iraq war and the use of Iraq as a proxy to punish Iran for leaving the U.S. orbit, leaving aside grievances over support of the Shah and events from the 50′s.

    Also in the beginning you state you are not by present standards Iran hawk, which I think is true and significant also because you are not the type of person who is making the argument which Greenwald is rebutting. There *are* many people making outlandish arguments, invoking the Nazis (not going to call out many examples, but “Axis” of Evil), etc. who are out there and who should be called out for their hyperbole.

    Also are you an undergrad or doing a masters? Nothing related to this conversation just curious.

    • December 6, 2011 1:35 am

      No, the Iranians don’t see it that way, but this was about seeing things objectively, rather than from anybody’s nationalist narrative, yes?

      While I’m not making the argument that Greenwald is trying to rebut, his method of going about rebutting it is still itself still resembles a deliberately one-sided example of a nationally-bounded mode of thinking which Orwell’s essay criticizes.

      If one wanted to call out the hyperbole of calling Iran a Nazi regime, one would compare and contrast Iran to the Nazis, not the United States. That’s not what that essay was doing.

      Instead Greenwald wrote an essay denying that Iran has any aggressive foreign policy aims and justified it on the basis of saying the US was more aggressive – which mirrors the sort of criticism of Britain and the US that Orwell himself pointed out was fallacious.

    • December 6, 2011 1:36 am

      Sorry, forgot to answer your question – I’ll be finishing up GWU with a BA. PhD applications to begin in full force after working for a bit…

  3. December 5, 2011 9:37 pm

    Yin or Yang, nationalism is an evil in and of itself.

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