A new book, parts of which were adapted into an article published in The New York Times last week, charts how the US fudged its departure from Iraq almost as badly as it did its entrance. The embarrassing disclosures contained in The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, by Michael R. Gordon and Lt Gen Bernard E. Trainor appear to have been buried in a news cycle focused on the latest spate of unpleasantness in the “new” Middle East.
So it’s to be another spate of burnt or stormed U.S. embassies in the Middle East, this time over low-budget artistic direction of a recondite Californian whose pseudonym bears a marked resemblance to the word “imbecile.” (He also has no problem presenting himself as an Israeli funded by Jews; the last thing demagogic bigots do is discriminate.) The hysteria and violence have already manifested in strange ways -- or defied expectation by not manifesting at all. Rioters in Lebanon, where the pope is now visiting, set fire to a Kentucky Fried Chicken but chose not to disclose the connection between the Vatican and the Bargain Bucket. In Istanbul, according to CNN’s Ivan Watson, “There were more protesters at building rights demonstration at Istanbul mayor's office than at anti-America protest a few blocks away.” In Khartoum, protestors or attackers have targeted the British and German embassies, presumably for no other reason than they couldn't find the American one.
Let us say you are facing rape charges in Sweden. You exhaust the near inexhaustible legal system in Britain in fighting an extradition case. You alienate even your ideological comrades at the Guardian by disdaining journalistic ethics regarding the protection of dissidents in authoritarian regimes. Then, as a desperate last resort, you smuggle yourself into the embassy of one such regime and plead asylum, breaking UK law (by violating the terms of your parole) and frittering away the sizable surety put up by your celebrity supporters in the process (not they mind, tenderheaded sweeties that they are). Asylum is granted, but you now face a new dilemma. If you step outside of the embassy, you’ll be arrested. The Foreign Office states that it will not allow you safe passage out of the country. What do you do?
Letters of former prime ministers of an EU countries aren’t meant to include paragraphs like this:
In one of those famous dustups that defined the lives of New York intellectuals even better than their ideas could, Daniel Bell once remarked that what distinguished Irving Kristol and himself from their more radical Alcove One comrade Irving Howe was that Bell and Kristol had lived in Paris and London and so had witnessed totalitarianism up close. It was one thing to write an admiring biography of Trotsky or inveigh against the paranoid dragnet of McCarthyism from the tenured groves of CUNY; it was quite another to encounter actual Trots trying to infiltrate the British Labour Party or to parler with an intellectual establishment dominated by unrepentant Stalinists. If you wanted to learn exactly how the ideological enemy thought and argued in the twentieth-century but you didn’t want to wind up shot or in a camp, you could do worse than relocate to Western Europe.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Robert Fisk was happy that the British embassy in Tehran was sacked and firebombed Tuesday by a regime-sponsored mob when he writes, “Anyway, the Iranians trashed us yesterday and made off, we are told, with a clutch of UK embassy documents. I cannot wait to read their contents. For be sure, they will soon be revealed.”
Little is ever revealed to a man whose surname has become an ironic verb to describe a rigorous fact-checking and contextualization of bad journalism. For Fisk, Iranians are quite right to suspect and loathe the Brits for their long history of imperial naughtiness, from Baron von Reuter’s mustache-twisting plot to amass a great fortune in the Persian railroad system to the joint CIA-MI6 overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953. What Fisk fails to mention, however, is that Iran’s hatred of Britain relates to its own long, bizarre history of Anglo-centric conspiracy theories. “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” are never a complete series in the foam-flecked rantings of the ayatollah class without the third installment: “Death to England!” Why so angry?
Those of us who have been banging on about the scale and imaginative sadism of the Assad regime's violence have had only to wait for "official" confirmation of claims which activists on the ground in Syria have been all too willing to share with Western journalists for months, typically backed up by documentary evidence such as photographs and mobile phone videos. As against thousands of eyewitness testimonies, we have had a totalitarian regime's state-mediated propaganda. "So who was right and who was lying?" some talking heads and newspapermen have asked without betraying the ghost of an ironic smile. WikiLeaked State Department cables which found that "SARG [Syrian government] officials lie at every level...They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie" --- were also evidently of little forensic use.
Typically when a country ends all financial ties with the commercial sector of another country, the sanctioned tries to appeal to the goodwill and reason of the sanctioner. In the case of Iran, however, punishment for bad behaviour is met with petulance and acts of violence. No doubt those who advocate a policy of accommodation with the Islamic Republic will claim today’s siege of the British embassy compound in Tehran as a vindication: "You see, this is what happens when you don’t play nicely with the irascible mullahs."
But surely the theocracy's pretence to being a rational or civilised interlocutor has just gone out the window along with tranches of British state documents.
Several weeks ago, I spoke to an Egyptian secularist woman who suggested to me that the halfway optimistic scenario for her country would be “the Turkish model.” What she meant by this was the advent of a parliamentary democracy in which the military still acted as safeguard on secularism and a counterbalance against the likely Islamist victory at the polls. In Turkey, at least up until recently, the Kemalist military ran its own policy, forced the separation of mosque and state, and even invalidated several governments result it didn’t like, thereby operating a “deep state” beneath the superficial one of a functioning, transparent democracy.
The irony here was twofold. First, my secularist friend has got the most in common with Western democratic values and yet she was plainly relying on the least democratic means of guaranteeing her safety, a kind of junta-in-reserve to be wheeled out as needed against an over-mighty Muslim Brotherhood. Second, the prospects of a deep state for Egypt have now been categorically rejected by the main beneficiaries of one -- Egyptian secularists -- leading to the unintended consequence of cementing an alliance between the military and the Islamists. How this happened is worth some explication if only to show how much the budding democrats of the Arab Spring have yet to learn about national politics.
When the French satirical and anti-clerical magazine Charlie Hebdo decided to make Mohammed its guest editor for a week in mock celebration of the rise of various Islamist parties throughout the Middle East, it can have expected the “offended” reply of a few first-time readers. But for those more inclined to believe that Islam is the solution aided by Molotov cocktails, the answer was simple: burn Charlie Hebdo’s office to the ground.
It’s gratifying to see the paper take a little firebombing in stride, dust off the ashes, and reprint the original piss-taking edition. Also encouraging has been the low-volume of they-had-it-coming noise in the media. Unlike the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy of 2006 -- a controversy that was completely invented at a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conferences the previous year, using cartoons that weren’t in the original Danish newspaper, in order to coax the UN into sanction Denmark for allowing itself a free press -- this attempt to violently silence free speech seemed to be more roundly condemned with no excuses or yes-but throat-clearings. Perhaps commentators are beginning to realise that they aren't to blame for religious fundamentalists wanting to kill them. (That no other publication saw fit to reprint the Hebdo drawing is an act of undisguised cowardice, but in the list of moral failings cowardice still ranks above masochism.)
( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
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December 19, 2013
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