Snarky Behavior

On Civil Society and the Internet

June 25, 2007 · 1 Comment

This photo cracks me up.

There’s been a lot said and written (especially vis a vis the Democratic primary debates) about how to best approach the emerging threat of a totalitarian, hostile and nuclear Iran.

It’s a complicated issue. The long and short of it is:

  1. We went to war with Iraq on false information.
  2. The Bush administration underestimated the fallout of a power vacuum in a post-Saddam Iraq.
  3. The same group thinking and jingoism that justified that war in the first place is now dog-piling in the “told you so” camp.
  4. The administration has failed to see immediate returns in the surge and is now spinning the extended conflict as a proxy war with Iran.

This leaves us in a tough spot. Is the Bush Doctrine of preemptive regime change a failure in principle, or in its execution? What constitutes an imminent threat? Are we really ready to add a third front to this war?

Watching the Democratic debates, every single candidate was loathe to suggest anything but “diplomatic” tactics against an aggressive Iran. Well, the New York Times Magazine suggests that diplomacy may do more harm than good in a piece titled Hard Realities of Soft Power.

In the article, the former director of Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council says the following of US aid to Iranian NGOs:

“I was worried about the safety of those on the receiving end of the funds. But I also just wondered if this was feasible. I don’t see how a U.S. government that has been absent from Tehran for 30 years is capable of formulating a program that will have a positive effect… This may have been a very high profile, sexy project, but the likelihood of real impact was minimal.”

Now I certainly won’t purport to be an expert on the Middle East. But one of the (many) things I learned in Cuba was that in a closed society, anti-American rhetoric can completely sustain a regime. Every Cuban was vividly aware of the meddling role the United States had played in the history of their country. I am certain that Iran perpetuates and plays off the same suspicions to its citizens. Therefore, any organization that receives funding from the US, humanitarian or not, is going to be painted as a subversive front.

However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t make the effort. When the Shah was ousted from power in 1979, the intelligence community in the US was caught with its collective pants around its (swollen) ankles. Frankly, I’m hesitant to take the NSC’s evaluation as the end-all-be-all.

My take is this: for four years I lived in Westwood, which along with Brentwood and Beverly Hills is known as “Tehrangeles.” I can attest first-hand that Persian exiles living in the United States are, shall we say, “ostentatiously frivolous” with their money, much like Cuban exiles in Miami. That is to say, there are lots of designer sunglasses being purchased.

Clearly these are cross-sections of the upper-echelons which had the most to lose from a Revolution. These two ethnic groups have not only fully assimilated into the American mainstream, but have dynamically changed it. The speedy transitions suggest that the value systems of our respective cultures are not as fundamentally different as we might have otherwise assumed. Or, at least, it is misleading to paint entire populations with a broad brush, especially in non-democracies.

Moreover, this (once again) proves the universal preference for individual liberties:

There is a mass movement. There is a silent majority that does not want this regime. We’re experiencing a slow 1978 in the context of Iranian history.

As Iran Cracks Down on Dissent, we as Americans should take note. The regime is extremely insecure, and rightfully so. Controlling a society in an Information Age is no easy task.

I find it extremely interesting that Google is stepping up to the plate on this issue. In their new Public Policy blog, they outline a position that state censorship should be considered a trade-barrier.

Now, we already have a “Radio Marti” broadcast in Cuba and a “Voice of America” in Iran. The fundamental assumption of Voice of America is that the societies to which it is broadcasting are not free and that the best thing you can do to advance their freedom is to show them what fair reporting is like and, along the way, show them the good news about American values.

It’s fascinating to me that Google and its ilk could be the new Radio Free Europe of our generation. Certainly there are steps a government (like China) can take to restrict internet access, but there are also counter-measures such as IP-blocking allowing for private browsing. In China’s case, they have learned the lessons of history and are at least somewhat relaxed in allowing a space for a (monitored) civil society. This is not the case in Iran.

As Al Gore says, the internet, for all its excesses, holds the potential as the great equalizer.

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