America’s Exception to the Rule

What separates us from the third world and from the tyrants that run that world is not that we have weapons of mass destruction and that we are prepared to deploy them, but rather the opposite. We’re exceptional not for military might but for our restraint.

obama/putinKnow what’s funny? The conservative protest against a peaceful solution to the Syria conflict is absolutely consistent with the commonplace bloodlust of the party of “life.” And by funny, I mean disheartening. But I will give them this: unlike the flippity-floppity liberals, at least they have consistency on their side. In the wake of yet another mass shooting, the right come out en mass against gun control.

Let’s take a look at some of Obama’s changing positions. First, he says he won’t get involved unless they cross his self-imposed red line of use of chemical weaponry. Check. Then, he actually wants that threat to have teeth. He follows up like he said he would. And his position is this: unless Syria is willing to give up their chemical weapons, we’re going to start killing some people up in here. And then they agree. And Obama has the wherewithal nerve to agree. Punk.

The idea that John Kerry made a blustering mistake that “accidentally” led to a peaceful resolution is disingenuous. Say what you will about Kerry, ketchup, motorcycling photo ops with Assad, the man has put his time in. They don’t misspeak at that level, not with war at stake.

And to say that Obama was played for a fool by Putin says more about the “patriotic” right than it does about Obama’s intelligence level, which has never, through two elections and a near-constant six-year litany of insults, ever been called into question. But that’s okay. We need opposition to hold our leaders accountable. We need to question the motivations of our politicians, and we need to speak up when those questions meet with unsatisfactory answers. That’s the duty of the electorate.

In his Op-ed in the New York Times, Putin disparaged the United States in general and Barack Obama in particular for considering this country “exceptional.”  He asserted that this kind of attitude is dangerous and while it may seem unpatriotic to agree, I see his point. This kind of untouchable mindset, the kind that wallows in superiority, is a breeding ground for ignorance, which could be very dangerous indeed. And yet, America is exceptional. We are a country born of conflict and debate, and have built into our founding documents the elasticity to grow in fits and spurts. We foster disagreement here.  We might not like what people say about us. There is no way that Putin’s words appearing in a mainstream newspaper didn’t irk the shit out of a big portion of our populace. But find me a pissed off citizen who doesn’t equally believe in his right to say it. That’s our exception. It’s what makes us different.

What Putin actually meant, by throwing Obama’s words and those of the preamble back into our faces, is the word “superior.”  But that’s really beside the point, isn’t it? And the fact that Putin is wrong about us, doesn’t mean that Barack Obama is right. If you take a look at the people of Walmart, it’s hard to make a case for the hierarchy and evolution of humanity with America at the top of that food chain. But let’s take a look at Congress. They don’t make it easy either  – yet what separates us from the third world and from the tyrants that run that world is not that we have weapons of mass destruction and that we are prepared to deploy them, but rather the opposite. We’re exceptional not for military might but for our restraint. Putin said, “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.”  We can take this not as fact – commonplace? Really? But as food for thought. The times where the US has lived up to its place in the world have been when our leaders were thoughtful and analytical where others have been knee-jerk reactors. And this mindset carries down from a Constitution that promises thoughtful action into our legal system which tries to enforce that view.

Barack Obama has the dual obligation to be commander-in-chief and also to uphold and protect the Constitution. These should not be in conflict but as of late, they often are. Let’s take a look at the credo of United States to which Putin refers: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” This was a credo born in revolution, asserting that we, the underlings of the modern-day world, had the same inborn rights as those abroad. It was the cry of the vulnerable to the strong. The fact that we have risen up as one of the world’s superpowers absolutely suggests that we have a responsibility within that world. As we are now one of the biggest, that very credo allows that we need to offer our help to those in the position from whence we came: vulnerable, small, and un-equal. Exceptional, but not in a good way.

On a micro-scale, this is the way we need to address the growing problem of gun violence in this country. If the victims are the little guys, the gun manufacturers are the tyrants. And the inherited role of the United States is not to kowtow to the big guy, but to help the vulnerable. We have muscles upon muscles in this nation, and sometimes the smartest action is to flex them. The right would have us land a punch with every conflict. Or pull a trigger.

Yet, we might do well to remember our roots. And by doing so, become the exception.

 

Ayatollyah So!

Rosy neo-con visions of sugar plum oil fields and Jeffersonian democracy fairies transforming the Middle East have blurred beyond recognition over the past decade. So, it’s a good time to change the subject and refocus

“For lust of knowing what should not be known, We take the Golden Road to Samarkind.” 

                –James Elroy Flecker’s play Hassan

There was a mysterious blast at a manufacturing facility outside Teheran last November.  This past week the Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs told the annual Herzliya security conference that the Iranians were setting up to produce a missile with a 10,000 kilometer range that could hit the United States. U.S. analysts were quick to point out that known Iranian missiles have but a maximum range of 1,200 miles—enough to reach Israel….  Go to the video tape to watch a “concerned” President Bush in the fall of ’02: “Iraq has a growing fleet (of UAVs) that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas…for missions targeting the United States.”  

Not for the last time will we be misled by rhetorical mushroom clouds into the fog of war with its Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” In the lifted lyrics of John “Beach Boy” McCain, do we “Bomb, bomb, bomb…bomb, bomb Iran”?

In The Partition of Palestine, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy’s grandson) asked, “Will the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine jeopardize the position of the United States in the Middle East?”  He thought it would in 1948; moreover, it would “ease the path of Soviet infiltration.”  A comparable rationale was offered when, as Our CIA Man in Teheran, Kermit spearheaded TPAJAX, which ousted the country’s elected prime minister after he proposed nationalizing its oil, a sovereign assertion that would’ve placed Iran, in our estimation, “behind the Iron Curtain.” 

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Bollywood handsome head of Egypt, made a parallel move three years later in 1956, by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Wielding Israel Defense Forces as the tip of their spear, England and France sought to regain the Canal and oust Nasser. While the U.S. applied economic pressure on the Brits and French behind the scenes, it was newly installed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who got Third World cred for threatening to use nuclear weapons in support of Egypt.  Nuclear brinkmanship didn’t work so well when Khrushchev went eyeball-to-eyeball with the U.S. over Cuba in ’62…and blinked.

Two more clashes with Egypt brought Israel and their most potent Middle East adversary to the Camp David peace accords in ’79. It would usher in more than three decades of peaceful coexistence with Egypt even as the Shah was falling to the cursed Ayatollahs. Twenty-six years of fealty and cut-rate oil out of the Shah’s regime was a darned good return on the paltry five-figure amount Kermit Roosevelt claimed in expenses. For all the scorn heaped on Jimmy Carter, Camp David remains the most sustained contribution to Israel’s security.  

Israeli intelligence didn’t anticipate the Arab Spring spreading to Egypt and, once it did, Prime Minister Netanyahu beseeched the U.S. to stand by Mubarek. Subsequent election of the Muslim Brotherhood on Israel’s passive southern front combines with the five-year old Hamas electoral victory on their western flank to make Likudniks very nervous. Netanyahu’s neo-con alter-ego, Newt Gingrinch, has weighed in: “I think we may, in fact, be having an anti-Christian spring. I think people should take this pretty soberly.”  

Rosy neo-con visions of sugar plum oil fields and Jeffersonian democracy fairies transforming the Middle East have blurred beyond recognition over the past decade. So, it’s a good time to change the subject and refocus. And where better to draw a bead on than that spinning Axle of Evil—Iran? Ever ready to play Mad Mullah to Zealous Zionists, Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei has trash-talked, yet again, about removing the “cancer” that is Israel. “So far,” Khamenei boasted to the “Islamic Awakening and Youth Conference” in Teheran last week, “the Iranian nation has kicked them in the mouth at every stage.”

One bold “Awakening” attendee held up a pesky sign—“Syria?”to remind everyone that growing numbers of Syrians will never awaken again, thanks to the brutal crackdown of Iran’s close ally, Bashar “The Butcher” al-Assad. The fall of Assad would blow a huge strategic hole in Iran’s hegemony. Add to that equation the Persian Spring, which was quickly quelled by Khamenei/Ahmadinejad in a forceful flash-freeze. Deep-seeded discomfort with the Arab Spring is one response Israelis and Iranians share in common.  

Given the rough neighborhood Israelis live in, how far off is Armageddon if the mullahs get the bomb? The specter of nuclear Iran was raised in 1992 by Israel’s then Prime Minister Peres as well as current P.M., Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu who predicted back then that Iran was three to five years away from getting the bomb.  Before the Shah was toppled in 1979, one intelligence report had him setting up “a clandestine nuclear weapons development program.” A looming Iranian bomb has been sighted more frequently than the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot.  

Recently retired Mossad director Meir Dagan, reflecting substantive differences in the Israeli intelligence and defense community, said that an attack on Iran would be “a stupid idea…. The regional challenge that Israel would face would be impossible.” With last year’s exodus of Dagan along with the chief of general staff and the Shin Bet director, “there is no one to stop Bibi and (Defense Minister) Barak.” Lest one dismiss the long-serving Dagan as a weak sister, heed the words of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “Dagan’s specialty is separating an Arab from his head.”

As oil hovers around the $100/bbl mark, traders have currently dismissed the saber rattling as so much bluster. But with 40 percent of world oil transported through Iran’s Strait of Hormuz, conflict would drive the current price up anywhere from 25-75 percent sending a gallon soaring close to $6. Add these sobering facts: Iran has 25 percent more people than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and land mass nearly four times that of its neighbor, Iraq.  

In the guestimate of the current Israeli chief of staff, the Iranians possess enough fissionable material to package four nukes at some point. The Israeli nuclear arsenal is approximately two orders of magnitude greater, an order of magnitude lower than the usual Israeli eye-for-an-eyelash ratio. The South Koreans have reconciled themselves to a nuclear North whose Martian leadership makes the mullahs look like hippies. Moreover, since Nagasaki, no nuclear nation, no matter how extreme, has been reckless enough to use a bomb. That restraint won’t prevail forever.

Can the Likudniks constrain themselves, resigned to sanctions of the economic and targeted variety?  Mysterious explosions, the Stuxnet virus and elimination of a half-dozen nuclear scientists have markedly crimped Iran’s weaponization. Soon the capacity of the Iranian central bank will be SWIFT-moated, severing their capacity for secure electronic financial exchange. “Iran’s economy has always been sick, but now it seems worse than ever,” said a Teheran bank employee about the prospects of more sanctions. Nonetheless, pre-emptive strikes like the ones Israel executed against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 remain mighty tempting.

As we mull all this over, return to my formative yesteryears, when mullahs were mere whirling dervishes, and consider the following Sufi tale, the Persian variation of Aesop’s Fables:

Two clever young men sought to puncture the reputed wisdom of the Mullah Nasruddin.

“You will hide a chicken behind your back,” one clever fellow instructed his clever friend, “and we will ask the Mullah whether the chicken is alive or dead.   If he says ‘alive’, you will break its neck. If he says dead, we will produce the living chicken.”

They came upon Mullah Nasruddin and put him to the test.

Nasruddin scratched his head, offered an indulgent smile and responded, “It’s in your hands! It’s in your hands!”

 

Main Photo: Richard Williams illustration from the Mullah Nasruddin series
Photo: M-Star oil tanker damaged in an explosion in the Strait of Hormuz 7-28-10