Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘iran’

Memo to the Palin Camp

September 5, 2008 · Leave a Comment

I’m going to share something with you that I learned from former Secretary of State Warren Chrisopher:

You see, Mr. Chrisopher taught a class I was in at UCLA called “International Hot Spots.”  It was a competitive 20 person seminar in which we debated US foreign policy in a number of important geopolitical situations around the world.

One day in class, we were discussing the history of Iran and Iraq, and the US government’s subversive role in their border conflict.  The debate was intense, and we were really laying into one another, before Mr. Christopher stopped us abruptly:

“I need to tell you all something before you continue.  Some of you in class are pronouncing the names of these countries incorrectly, and it completely subverts your argument and makes you appear unknowledgable.”

He cleared his throate and enunciated the next words VERY clearly.

“It is not I-raq and I-ran.  It is Ear-raq and Ear-ran.” He tugged on his ears, to emphasize the point.

Someone needs to pull on Sarah Palin’s ears, because she’s grating mine.

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Must Read

July 1, 2008 · Leave a Comment

Seymour Hersh – “Annals of National Security:  Preparing the Battlefield”

Here are some gems:

A Democratic senator told me that, late last year, in an off-the-record lunch meeting, Secretary of Defense Gates met with the Democratic caucus in the Senate. (Such meetings are held regularly.) Gates warned of the consequences if the Bush Administration staged a preëmptive strike on Iran, saying, as the senator recalled, “We’ll create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America.” Gates’s comments stunned the Democrats at the lunch, and another senator asked whether Gates was speaking for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. Gates’s answer, the senator told me, was “Let’s just say that I’m here speaking for myself.”

Scary stuff, especially when you consider where Cheney’s priorities lie:

Weariness with the war in Iraq has undoubtedly affected the public’s tolerance for an attack on Iran. This mood could change quickly, however. The potential for escalation became clear in early January, when five Iranian patrol boats, believed to be under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, made a series of aggressive moves toward three Navy warships sailing through the Strait of Hormuz…The crisis was quickly defused by Vice-Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, the commander of U.S. naval forces in the region[...]   But a lesson was learned in the incident: The public had supported the idea of retaliation, and was even asking why the U.S. didn’t do more. A former official said that, a few weeks later, a meeting took place in the Vice-President’s office. “The subject was how to create a casus belli between Tehran and Washington,” he said.

Cheney is looking for his Gulf of Tonkin.  How does the brass feel about that?

The White House’s reliance on questionable operatives, and on plans involving possible lethal action inside Iran, has created anger as well as anxiety within the Special Operations and intelligence communities.

Like I said, a must-read, and a good primer for the regional conflict.

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Dropping Knowledge: Stating the Obvious

November 26, 2007 · 1 Comment

oil map of world

One thing I’ve learned studying IR Theory is that most decisions at their core are based on the theory of structural realism. That is to say, at a minimum all states make decisions to ensure their survival, and that states with greater capacities will seek to increase their capabilities (also known as “power maximization”). Great powers constrain each others’ maximization pursuits, resulting in what is known as a “balance of power.”

In today’s world, the key to power is oil. This point tends to get vastly understated in the discussions we have about current affairs. For example:

1. When we talk about the rising cost of oil (which is now flirting with $100 per barrel), we tend to neglect two important facts: first, that the price elasticity of demand for oil is extremely inelastic. That is to say, it doesn’t matter how much oil prices drop or rise, the quantity demanded remains the same. As President Bush said in this years’ State of the Union Address: “Our nation has an oil addiction.” And it’s not just our country, although we’ve got it the worst. It’s a global addiction.

Second, addiction by its very definition implies lack of control. Which brings us back full circle to the original point: whomever controls oil, controls the world. From the perspective of industry, this is because the factors of production of almost every sector include components that are sensitive to oil prices. These price sensitivities can have a direct impact on cost, as in manufacturing, or an indirect impact (via transportation costs), as in technology. And every sector has varying degrees of energy costs. So the more sensitive an industry is to oil prices, the more power whomever controls the oil supply has over that industry.

From the perspective of the consumer, rising oil prices are also felt directly (at the pump and airport), and indirectly, by both a constrained budget set (more money spent on gas means less for movies, clothes, etc.) and by the increased prices for consumer goods (the costs of which are passed along by producers). You know what they call the combination of rising prices, low interests rates, and decreased purchasing power? Inflation.

2. If I lost you above, I shouldn’t have. Go back and read it again. I’m just stating the obvious here. The first point was meant to establish just how important of a position the global control of oil is to whomever can secure it. Take a look at the map above. You see how little oil Europe has? China? The US? India? The less oil a country has, the more it is willing to give up to get oil. The more globally integrated oil is within consumption and factors of production, the more dependent consumers and producers become on oil.

Now take a look at this map. Notice how many US military bases are in the Middle East? You think that’s a coincidence?

3. The logical “next steps” everyone seems to recognize, especially given the environmental considerations of oil, is the pursuit of “alternative” sources of energy. There is of course some game theory to this though. Even if there were a cost-effective substitute for oil (and there most certainly is not, at least yet), the transition costs of adopting that alternative source across sectors would be enormous. And the countries that undertook such an enterprise would be buried by the “cheaters” who continued to use oil (and at an even lesser price due to drop-out of demand). No, oil is a fixed commodity, and unless we find some form of global governance to ration it (highly unlikely), it seems the race is on to squeeze the orange and horde the juice before its all gone in the next 25 years or so.

In the meantime, there is evidence to believe that the financial markets are grossly distorting the price of oil by placing a premium on the political risks associated with its extraction. Based on global supply and demand, it is argued that the price should not be any higher than $60 per barrel. Speculative trading creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where oil rises to $100 because traders spread unsubstantiated rumors that China and India are insatiable, or Nigeria/Venezuela/Iran are unstable. The consumer ultimately suffers here for the reasons mentioned previously, including inflationary risks, and even risks of recession.

All of this information is extremely relevant when we consider the following foreign policy “debates.”

1.)  Iran and Nuclear Energy– Notice how much oil Iran has?  Notice how much they consume?  It would be economically advantageous if they were to consume nuclear energy and maximize foreign oil sales.  When hawks argue about Iran “obtaining nuclear weapons,” they’re really pushing an agenda that says “Iran holds the potential to leverage and balance the oil oligarchy, and once they obtain nukes we can’t foment a regime change.”

2.)  “Democratizing the Middle East”– The so called “Bush Doctrine” is a fanciful liberal justification for a realist policy.  Oil rich countries really only have two options:  1) illiberal autocracies (Saudi Arabia) or 2.)  illiberal democracies (Venezuela).  The distribution of wealth obtained from a natural resource is complicated in state systems because the citizens of the state feel entitled to the financial windfalls in some form or another.  Elites must either find their power base internally (by implementing fiscally irresponsible, short-term, socialist programs) or externally (by charging rent to the United States in return for a strong military presence or other forms of foreign “aid”).

3.)  Iraq — With the above point in mind, the US objective has become to contain the sectarian violence within the confines of Baghdad.  Let politics play out on a political stage, but keep the pipelines flowing in the fringe regions.  A true power-sharing constitutional government isn’t possible as long as the US is present: because the emergent elites are reliant on the US for security provision, they will never have popular support, and vice versa.  Not to say the US prefers a disorganized central government, only that it benefits from one.  Our presence is justified for as long as there is insecurity.

So that was my Thanksgiving dinner conversation with my parents to justify my expensive Ivy education.  No solutions provided, only a survey analysis.  My stepmother thinks that Hillary will have solutions to these problems.  I introduced her to Mark Penn, the next Karl Rove.  She’s no longer so optimistic.

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Dropping Knowledge: Rentier States

October 15, 2007 · 2 Comments

“Dropping Knowledge”… where I laymenize an important aspect of social science.

A rentier state is a government that derives all or a significant portion of its national revenue from the rent of its indigenous resources to external clients.  It is a term most commonly applied to oil rich countries (such as Saudi Arabia), which grant access and management of its petroleum deposits to the United States (or the UK, Russia, etc.) in return for a “rent.”

Rentier states are inherently undemocratic.  You see, the geo-political distribution of natural resources makes certain areas extremely profitable, by random chance.  If the states themselves lack the privately developed technology and infrastructure to efficiently extract and distribute their resources, they must (or are otherwise coerced to) outsource such activities.

The thing is, democratic societies detest foreign management of domestic resources (see: Venezuela, Bolivia), and will take steps to “socialize” their industries, directly tax the exports instead of charging rent to foreign entities, and redistribute the wealth domestically, for a much bigger return.  But democratic management of a single resource economy naturally entails a heck of a lot of fighting over “who gets what, and why.”  And government industries are never as efficient as private industries in terms of production, so global trade organizations (OPEC) get antsy when a member state isn’t hitting its productive capacity.

The most efficient governmental arrangement for single-resource economies is therefore the rentier model… small, authoritarian leaderships (Saudi royal family) that placate domestic population by subsidizing EVERYTHING (except, generally, higher education, since educated elites tend to challenge authority).  The tax costs “flow” through the rent charged to Americans for pumping out oil and establishing military bases in the region for security purposes, and no taxes are levied domestically.  The royal family invests the majority of its staggering financial resources back into US securities, which solidifies the dollar and keeps oil demand and prices high.

This brings up a couple important issues:

1)  Some “experts” like to state that Islam is incompatible with democracy.  Bush is actually right when he says this is false (just look at Indonesia).  It’s actually more likely that democracy cannot exist without a diversified economy.  The less access there is to economic opportunity, the less people are involved in the management of the economy.

2)  Democracy is about sovereignty, about the population making decisions based on the Wilsonian principles of self-determination.  If you look at Iraq, you have two major obstacles:  the first is the introduction of a political power struggle between rival populations (Sunni and Shia).  Sunnis are keenly aware of their minority position in Iraq and refuse to participate in a political framework that is illegitimately stacked against their interests.   Shias are a minority within the greater Muslim world and subscribe to a cultural narrative based on resistance to oppression and illegitimate authority.  Even if Shia leadership wanted to achieve stability under the watchful eyes (and guns) of the US, they would continue to be undermined by Iran, which has no interest in seeing a successful secular Shia-dominated democracy as a neighbor, because that would intensify domestic pressures for reform.

The second obstacle to self-determination is that clearly, the preferred interest of Iraqis is American withdrawal, if not now (in the short-term), certainly in the medium- and long-terms.  Iraqis are well aware that the Persian Gulf war resulted in the construction of permanent bases in Saudi Arabia.  And Secretary of Defense Gates has stated publicly that the US “has historically had a strong presence in the region, and we will continue to have a strong presence in the region, and it’s important for our friends, and those who might consider themselves our adversaries, to recognize that.”

The US would prefer for the political outcomes of Iraqi democratic elections to be friendly governments that actively engage in rentier relationships to assuage the masses and ensure their positions of power.   But the Iraqi population will never recognize a pro-US business government as legitimate.  We live in an Age of Information where covert regime changes or puppet governments are really, really hard to achieve.  In the meantime, as instability and civil war rage on in Iraq, the US is quietly consolidating four major bases around the strategic oil regions in the country.

3)  That last point is the most telling.  For all of the gum flapping that goes on about “the principals of liberal democracy” and “freedom,” we tend to get distracted from the realist perspective — that control of Iraq means control over the second largest oil reserve in the world.  Always keep in mind that oil is a finite resource whose price rises with scarcity.  It’s one thing for Saudi Arabia to sell oil at (relatively) competitive prices now… it’s another thing entirely for the US to be rationing the last drops of oil in 20 years, at monopoly prices (don’t forget about Alaska!).  That means the potential for wealth and global power… power over everyone who is addicted to oil… is assured to whomever controls Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to some, but that means the business and military pressures are too great on the executive branch of the US government to expect a withdrawal anytime soon, unless Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul magically win their primaries.  The US army/state department did not spend billions of dollars on bases and the world’s largest embassy to come home any time soon.

4)  With all of this in perspective, it’s important to recognize why Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The real “Inconvenient Truth” isn’t necessarily that global warming is a real threat per se… I mean, that was already pretty obvious.  It’s that oil consumption is behind global warming, and that oil demand makes actions like the war in Iraq profitable.  By raising awareness about an ancillary (but still primary concern) of global climate change, Gore is indirectly calling for the necessity to research and develop alternative sources of sustainable energy that would compete with coal, oil and natural gas, making those resources’ price demands more flexible, and reducing the profit incentive of military control and domination of them.  Hence the “Peace” rationale in the Nobel Peace Prize.

The thing is, alternative energy sources are nowhere nearly as profitable as oil, even given the tremendous extraneous costs of financing strategic military bases around the world to protect the investments.  And the transition costs to adopting alternative energy sources would be tremendous in every sector, so oil companies can continue to pass the costs incurred from political instability and deeper, harder to get to reserves (i.e. the melting North Pole) onto the consumers.  I’ve read somewhere that the McKinsey Global Institute did an analysis of gasoline consumption in America, and found that demand wouldn’t significantly falter until the price went past $5.00 per gallon.  (I’m couldn’t find the exact report via a Google search, but hey, it’s midterms… give me a break).

The key of course is then electing leaders who are seriously committed to implementing policies of consumer regulation that prevent us from letting our aggregate demand get the better of us.  Individual conscience in the US is (generally) against empire, against war, against destruction of the environment, against global injustice.  But we speak with our wallets, we make demands through our purchases and consumption, and global suppliers react accordingly, even if the outcomes violate our individual consciences.

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I’m HUGE in the UK

September 26, 2007 · 1 Comment

not so much in Japan though.


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Ahmadinejad: Snarky Edition

September 26, 2007 · 1 Comment

Wow! Yesterday was quite the day. I ditched two classes to watch a dictator speak, write an article about it, go to a Mets game, and stay up until 4 am doing accounting/statistics homework.

Thanks to all the well-wishers for my article in the Huffington Post. The backstory on that is: my friend Colin (an Editor for the HP) e-mailed me right before the event asking me if I could write something from the perspective of a Columbia student. I literally ran home to type it and send it off, scooped most of the other bloggers on the “Bollinger was an a-hole” angle, and now there’s over 400 comments. Prettayy, prettayyy goooood.

In all honesty, hearing the President of an Ivy league institution use such crass language, was really quite shocking. The crowd was completely jingoistic about it too, because he’d mix in really passionate charges (about detained scholars, capital punishment of minors, repressed women and homosexuals, denial of the holocaust, nuclear ambitions, meddlings in Iraq) with petty capstone insults (”face of evil”, “ignorant and uneducated,” “intellectually uncourageous.”)

So I found myself clapping at some parts and cocking my head sideways at others. At the end, he walked off the stage like a rapper dropping the mic before on encore. It was really weird. I wonder how much self-loathing went into that address– he has a strong history as a legal scholar in free-speech, and he was clearly pandering to a political base that writes very large checks to the university (read: Upper West Side Jewish community). So maybe he stormed off for effect… maybe he stormed off out of shame. Who knows.

So that’s that. On to snark:

The Persian Hand Wave
Ahmadinejad’s “here’s the back of my hand, kiss my ring” wave has got to be in the top 3 most hilarious salutes of all time, with Nixon’s “two-handed shaking my peace fingers” and Hitler’s “Heil! I have a silly mustache, please be seated!” gestures.

Let’s Make a Stop at Filene’s before the Speech
Um, so apparently our economic embargo on Iran really limits the quality and availability of non-cheap suits. Ahmadinejad was wearing the suit I had in 4th grade that my parents got me to wear to a wedding, because they knew I’d grow out of it in 6 months anyway. Hey dictator! Get with the program, throw on some fatigues!

“We Don’t Have Homosexuals Like You Do”
To me, this was the most important moment of the entire day. A room full of rational people LAUGHING like a studio audience at an irrational person for revealing a nonsensical position. How important is that? Domestically, people fear this man, they are jailed secretly or sent to the army for criticizing him. Gays are arrested and even hung for excercising their sexual preference. And we LAUGHED at him. It felt really, really good to do that.

What does that have to do with the price of rugs in Persia?
Ahmadinejad did a superb job orating until the questions turned to internal repression. That’s when he lost a captive audience. When asked about capital punishment of women, gays and minors, he started talking about drug dealers and thugs, about the need to “eliminate microbes” from the body to keep it healthy. I was proud of our Dean when he interrupted him and said, “Sir, the question wasn’t about punishing thugs and drug dealers, it was about women and sexual preference.” SCOREBOARD!

Denying the Holocaust is not a good way to make friends
I’ve read that this rhetoric doesn’t even play very well in Iran, that it’s spoken mostly to gain legitimacy within the greater Arab world. Whatever. It’s stupid. You want to calculate the exact number of people that were exterminated by Nazi Germany? Go ahead. Does that exact number matter? Does it change the current state of affairs? Does it make the state of Israel less legimitate if the number was 4 million instead of 6 million? Why is there a requisite threshold of deaths for something to be a “holocaust”?

I understand that it’s an issue used to question the legitimacy of the Israeli state. But why must you broach an important issue that has some merit, with an illogical issue that has NO merit, and moreover is extremely painful for those involved? I just don’t see the benefit.

He blinded me with science
Man oh man, the opening epistemological discussion of the “purity” of science was a snoozer. Look, people (including scientists and researchers) pursue things more actively for material gain than for immaterial gain. Sure, many are looking for glory and prestige. But that is secondary, especially in the West, where last time I checked, most scientific research is taking place.

Moreover, material satisfaction is pursued more peacefully and rationally than immaterial satisfaction (unless you’re Buddah). Once someone has something the rest of the world doesn’t, they’re going to try to collect rent from the knowledge. This is how economics works. If God or Allah or whomever intended for all of humanity to be illuminated by all knowledge equally, we would be born omnipotent and divine. If you want the equipment and technology needed to power your country with nuclear energy so you can sell your oil instead of consuming it, you’re certainly not going to get it from us for free.

All things I wish Bollinger would’ve said as a RESPONSE to what Ahmadinejad actually said, instead of the pre-emptive attack he gave. What kind of debate tactic is that? Why is forceful rhetoric the debative norm in US politics now (and apparently US academia)? It’s astounding…

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Thoughts on Ahmadinejad at Columbia

September 24, 2007 · 4 Comments

Readers Note: The following blog post was written for The Huffington Post on a tight deadline. Snarky post to follow.

Leading up to today’s event, I kept hearing and reading that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a “controversial” figure. But controversy implies a dispute, and there seems to be a unanimous consensus on campus that the Iranian president is repugnant, and his world views reprehensible.

For that reason it might be more appropriate to label Ahmadinejad as a “divisive figure.” The controversy, after all, isn’t about him, so much is it about us. Whether we can extend tolerance to those who espouse intolerance and hatred, and whether we are secure enough in our own positions and institutions to listen to public criticism from someone who would censure such discourse within his own nation.

President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University expanded on this important distinction during his frigid welcoming remarks to Mr. Ahmadinejad: “We are required by the norms of free speech” to “excercise extraordinary restraint and not retreat” in the “face of evil.” “We do not honor the dishonorable,” he said, but “do it for ourselves, to understand the world we live in.”

Mr. Bollinger’s remarks were not addressed to Mr. Ahmadinejad. In fact, I don’t recall him ever even looking at the man. They were addressed to those within the greater audience that would criticize Columbia for offering it’s institutional legitimacy as leverage to a Holocaust denier and terrorist sponsor. “I am only a professor who happens to be the President of a University,” Bollinger said, before briskly walking off stage. “I speak for those yearning to express their collective revulsion. I only wish I could do better.”

As a student of Columbia, and an American citizen, I wish Bollinger had done better too. I found his petty insults (at one point he charged “I doubt you have the intellectual courage to answer these questions”) to be unnecessarily aggressive and uncivil. He promised a “robust discourse” and delivered a bait-and-switch public admonition, to which Ahmadinejad rightfully took offense, as a guest of the University.

Just as we must show restraint in not retreating from contentious debates, so must we constructively engage in these debates in an effort to embolden our own positions and weaken our enemies’. Insults are, and have always been, the trademark of the insecure.

Ahmadinejad, for his part, recognized his role in our internal debate over free-speech and discourse. He warned that self-absorption allows for misconstrual of the actions and intentions of others. That questioning the rights of others to ask questions is in itself a questionable practice.

All very enlightening guiding principles, if they were actually practiced and recognized within his country, or if the questions he was asking weren’t the veracity of the Holocaust. (The highlight of the event by far was when, in response to accusations of repressing homosexuality, he stated: “Iran doesn’t have the issue of homosexuals,” and the audience collectively laughed at him.)

Ahmadinejad is a crackpot, certainly. But it is not enough to dismiss him with an insulting label and move on. We must be willing to listen to the accusations of our enemies in order to properly defend the actions we take in the world in which we live. And I am proud to be part of a University and country that is strong enough to allow such discourse.

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Choose Your Next Words Wisely, Persian

September 24, 2007 · 1 Comment

It’s been an interesting week at SIPA since it was announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be speaking today as part of Columbia’s World Leader’s Forum. I’ve been contacted by various members of the media (including CNN) to give a perspective of the students’ reactions to the visit, but have declined because I don’t take myself seriously enough to represent the perspectives of others.

That said, I’ll be sure to write my eses after the talk to give a sufficiently snarky perspective.

One thing I’d like to discuss beforehand is the strong reaction from the student body against Columbia’s decision to invite Ahmadinejad in the first place. The refrain is that Ahmadinejad is “repugnant” and by offering him a platform Columbia “legitimizes” his agenda.

A law student I was chatting with put it to me this way: Ahmadinejad’s beliefs are so beyond the realm of acceptable discourse (denying the Holocaust and questioning whether Jews should be considered human beings) that his world view is not worthy of consideration. It’s analogous to inviting a member of the Flat Earth society to come speak on globalization.

But are the beliefs of the Flat Earther legitimized because he lives in America, which provides a platform for him to publicly espouse his viewpoints? Does he “leverage” the institutional legitimacy of the marketplace of ideas by introducing a theory that was denounced centuries ago?

I suspect not. I trust in my facilities of reason to separate good ideas from bad ones. As my roommate likes to say: “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”

So when the Flat Earther finishes his argument on the flatness of the earth, I don’t say to myself, “Huh! I never thought of it that way!” I instead will introduce him to Ms. Teen South Carolina so she can show him on a map where The Iraq is, and such as.

The irony here is that John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giulliani are condemning Ahmadinejad’s visit as a public relations ploy. They make the argument that his opinions aren’t valid because he supports transnational terrorism by funding Hezbollah. It is critically important to AIPAC (which funds all of their presidential campaigns) that terrorism within the United States continue to be framed as apolitical, and a reflection of irrational cultural hatred against Jews and the Israeli state.

Ahmadinejad is obviously not going to bring his “Death to America” A-game to Columbia. He’s going to talk about issues of sovereignty, of America’s aggressive middle-east policy, of the asymetric power politics in Israeli-Palestianian relations. He’s going to defend himself and his positions as a leader of a threatened nation under tremendous political pressure both internally and externally. He’s going to criticize the United States for introducing instability in his region by failing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If we as Americans don’t have prepared and justified responses to these accusations, if we are so insecure as to the salacious or pernicious potential of the words of a hate-mongerer, then maybe we’ve taken for granted our rights to free speech and free media. Censuring Ahmadinejad isn’t going to stop him from being the president of Iran, or stop him from acquiring nuclear arms, or stop him from interfering in Iraq. And allowing him to speak certainly isn’t going to make his positions any more or less “legitimate.”

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I’m Seeing Ahmadinejad!

September 19, 2007 · 2 Comments

It turns out, compulsively checking your e-mail pays dividends.

Nearly a year to the day that Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger nixed then Dean Lisa Anderson’s invitation to Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come speak at the School for International and Public Affairs, it was rather quietly announced that he will be making an appearance on Monday.

Based on the number of times the server crashed at the World Leaders Forum site while I scrambled to reserve a seat, I think this should be an interesting affair.

What do I ask him??? Do I invite him to play a game of Risk??? Israel’s not on that map… I think we could find common ground. Until I conquered Australia, swept through Indonesia and marched across Asia to send him back to the Middle East in shame.

This puts my official “crazy world leaders seen in person count” at 3: Bush, Castro and Ahmadinejad.

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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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