Asking the right questions about Iran

Over a year ago, I wrote a couple of posts pointing out that in important political issues, one should pay close attention to not what is being discussed or argued over, but to the questions that are not asked. (See here and here for those posts.)

The success of the media propaganda model (see here, here and here) is not in how it answers particular questions but in how it frames the debate. The real service that the media serves in advancing the interests of the pro-war/pro-business party is in narrowing the boundaries of the discussion, so that important but awkward questions are not asked and thus the official narrative is not seriously challenged.

Take the current case of Iran. The question currently being hotly debated in the media is essentially “What is the best way of dealing with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its crazy leader?” Once it is posed this way, “serious” people start debating whether “we” should first try diplomacy and sanctions via the UN and use force only if those fail, or whether should we stop wasting time and invade immediately.

This way of framing the debate reduces it to a discussion of strategy, thus avoiding more fundamental questions. It then becomes impolite to point out that having to decide between these kinds of phony options was what got the US into trouble in Iraq in the first place.

Fortunately, there are some people who are asking more fundamental questions. Charley Reese is one such commentator and he recently posed them in an essay, which I will quote at length because they deserve to be given wider publicity. In his column titled “Clueless and Catastrophic”, Reese asks questions that are never raised in “polite” circles, such as:

For example, by what right do the United States and the Europeans tell Iran it cannot enrich uranium? Other nations enrich uranium. Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it grants the right to enrich uranium. Where does the United States get off telling the Iranians they can’t do it?

Oh, the U.S. claims Iran wants to build nuclear weapons. Well, first and foremost, Iran denies that, and there is no proof to the contrary. But suppose Iran does want to build nuclear weapons. Why shouldn’t it? We have nukes. The British, the French, the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Israelis all have nuclear weapons. Why shouldn’t Iran? For that matter, what right does anyone have to tell the North Koreans they can’t have nukes and can’t even test their missiles? Everybody else tests missiles
. . .
What right do we have to tell Syria and Iran that they can’t supply arms to Hezbollah? We supply arms to Israel. In fact, we are about the world’s largest arms peddler. Mr. Bush calls Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The government of Lebanon and the European Union do not. Just because an American politician sticks a label on a group of people doesn’t mean those people lose all of their rights.

Reese points out the fundamental arrogance and colonial/imperial mindset underlying this attitude and offers his own prescription for peace.

What you see is that the United States and some of the European states are still trying to run the world to suit them, even though formal colonialism has been a long time dead. President Bush seems to think that he has the right to engineer regime change in any country he chooses
. . .
I don’t think the world will know peace until all the nations of the world agree to respect each other’s sovereignty. That means no sanctions, no externally arranged coups, no invasions, no refusal to talk. We would do much better if we talked to the Iranians and North Koreans and, while acknowledging their right to nuclear technology, offered incentives – including a security guarantee – not to develop it. You know, of course, that the U.S. refuses to talk to the Iranians and the North Koreans and has refused their requests for security guarantees. Countries don’t like to be “dissed” any more than individuals do.

John R. Hamilton, who served for 35 years as a US Foreign Service officer and served as ambassador to Peru and Guatemala, points out (essentially supporting Reese) that one of the reasons for the vehemence of anti-US feelings abroad is its increasing habit of unilaterally setting itself up as some kind of moral authority and lecturing other countries on how they should behave. He says “[O]ur public reports have reinforced the view abroad that we set ourselves up unilaterally as police officer, judge and jury of other countries’ conduct. . . The tolerance of other societies for being publicly judged by the United States has reached its limits.”

Charley Reese raises some serious points. But of course, by doing so he has stepped outside the bounds of the debate by asking questions that challenge the very premise of the debate. Hence he is not a “serious” person and can be ignored. Instead the people who are given plenty of space and airtime are those who were spectacularly wrong in the past. As Tony Judt points out in the London Review of Books:

[I]ntellectual supporters of the Iraq War – among them Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick and other prominent figures in the North American liberal establishment – have focused their regrets not on the catastrophic invasion itself (which they all supported) but on its incompetent execution. They are irritated with Bush for giving ‘preventive war’ a bad name.

In a similar vein, those centrist voices that bayed most insistently for blood in the prelude to the Iraq War – the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman demanded that France be voted ‘Off the Island’ (i.e. out of the Security Council) for its presumption in opposing America’s drive to war – are today the most confident when asserting their monopoly of insight into world affairs. The same Friedman now sneers at ‘anti-war activists who haven’t thought a whit about the larger struggle we’re in’ (New York Times, 16 August). To be sure, Friedman’s Pulitzer-winning pieties are always road-tested for middlebrow political acceptability. But for just that reason they are a sure guide to the mood of the American intellectual mainstream.

Friedman is seconded by [New Republic editor Peter] Beinart, who concedes that he ‘didn’t realise’(!) how detrimental American actions would be to ‘the struggle’ but insists even so that anyone who won’t stand up to ‘Global Jihad’ just isn’t a consistent defender of liberal values. Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate, writing in the Financial Times, accuses Democratic critics of the Iraq War of failing ‘to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously’. The only people qualified to speak on this matter, it would seem, are those who got it wrong initially.

It is important that in the struggle for peace we do not allow ourselves to be divided along the liberal/conservative, Republican/Democrat lines. We have to instead distinguish between those who belong to the pro-war/pro-business one party system and those who do not. Charley Reese would have likely proudly identified himself (at least until this administration) as a conservative Republican, yet he has been opposed to this war from the outset. All the people that Judt identifies as warmongers would loudly proclaim that they are ‘liberals’ or ‘centrists’ or ‘moderates.’

Taking our cues about people from the labels placed on them by the media can be very misleading. Jeff Cohen exposes the myth behind the so-called ‘balance’ of news on ‘objective’ media like CNN and PBS. Those supposedly objective news media argue that their panels are ‘balanced’ in terms of political viewpoints but in reality they are not.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the so-called war on terror have exposed the hollowness of those labels and divisions, and revealed that what is important in forming alliances is where people stand on each issue not what they call themselves or are labeled by others.

POST SCRIPT: Onward, little Christian soldiers

And now for something really disturbing, we have “Jesus Camps” for children, where young children are whipped up into a militant Christian frenzy, to the extent of even worshipping a picture of George Bush. See for yourself.

The preview for the film can be seen here.

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