By Daniel Luban
Charles Krauthammer’s most recent column on Iran offers a concise distillation of neoconservative pathologies about the Middle East, and a demonstration of why the Iranian protesters’ self-proclaimed best friends in the U.S. may prove to be their worst enemies. In the course of excoriating Barack Obama for his alleged abandonment of the protesters, Krauthammer displays a deep indifference to the actual wishes and needs of the protesters that is extremely common among those pushing for more robust American interference in the Iranian crisis.
“The demonstrators,” Krauthammer informs us, “are fighting on their own, but they await just a word that America is on their side.” As it happens, Obama has offered many words of support for the protesters’ right to peaceful demonstration, but has stopped short of the full-throated denunciation of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad that Krauthammer evidently wants. Regardless, what is striking about Krauthammer’s assertion is that he does not deem it necessary to offer a shred of evidence to support it. He simply takes for granted, in the face of a fair amount of evidence to the contrary, that Iranians want a more aggressive U.S. intervention into the crisis. In this respect Krauthammer is representative of right-wing commentary on the Iran situation, which has been primarily concerned with striking the requisite “Churchillian” and “Reaganite” poses while displaying a remarkable disinterest in what actual Iranians might want or think. After all, why let the wishes of our intended beneficiaries get in the way of a fine opportunity for self-congratulatory moral posturing?
But Krauthammer is not done reading the minds of the Iranian people:
[P]eople aren’t dying in the street because they want a recount of hanging chads in suburban Isfahan. They want to bring down the tyrannical, misogynist, corrupt theocracy that has imposed itself with the very baton-wielding goons that today attack the demonstrators…What’s at stake now is the very legitimacy of this regime — and the future of the entire Middle East. This revolution will end either as a Tiananmen (a hot Tiananmen with massive and bloody repression or a cold Tiananmen with a finer mix of brutality and co-optation) or as a true revolution that brings down the Islamic Republic.
Once again, Krauthammer takes for granted, without seeing fit to offer any evidence, that the protesters loathe the Islamic Republic itself and that their goal is to topple it. But as Ali Gharib has written, Moussavi himself and the protesters as a whole have been driven primarily by a desire to reform the Islamic Republic rather than to topple it, and to get back to the principles of the 1979 revolution rather than to abandon them. The chants of “Allah O Akbar” that have been so central to the demonstrations are certainly a savvy political move, but undoubtedly reflect more deeply held belief as well. However, the actual aspirations that seem to motivate the protesters do not fit Krauthammer’s Manichean framework — in which the Islamic Republic in any form is unmoderated evil, and can only be overthrown, not reformed — so these aspirations are conveniently ignored.
Having dispensed with the Iranians as they are, and created in their place the ardently pro-American secular revolutionaries that he would like them to be, Krauthammer then lays out a vision of liberal transformation in the Middle East that will be familiar to anyone who remembers the grandiose claims made in the run-up to the Iraq war. Regime change in Tehran will “do to Islamism what the collapse of the Soviet Union did to communism — leave it forever spent and discredited.” It will “launch a second Arab spring,” bolstering Iraq and Lebanon, isolating Syria, and emasculating Hezbollah and Hamas. He does not mention the so-called “moderate” Arab states, perhaps because they shatter his “pro-democracy” pretext — after all, it would not do for the second Arab spring to sweep out Mubarak and bring in the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor does he mention the Palestinians outside of Hamas, but presumably they will at long last recognize themselves as a defeated people and acquiesce to whatever arrangement Israel sees fit to grant them.
Without getting into the merits of Krauthammer’s vision (I personally think it is no less far-fetched in 2009 than it was in 2003), how could anyone possibly believe that this is what the protesters are fighting for? It would be rather remarkable, to say the least, if the goals and aspirations of Moussavi and his supporters turned out to be identical with the goals and aspirations of the Wall Street Journal editorial board and the American Enterprise Institute.
This tendency toward projection has always been characteristic of neoconservative foreign policy thinking, even if it is rarely as obvious as in Krauthammer’s column. Constantly inclined to view foreign policy as a Manichean struggle between light and darkness, the neoconservatives have never really been able to grasp that anyone might be in the middle, and that the Iranian or any other people might share some — but not all — of their goals. Thus the assumption that if Iranians are repelled by the authoritarian abuses of the their government, they must by the same token be secular, pro-American, anti-political Islam, anti-Islamic Republic, and clamoring for the United States to free them from their oppressors. It does not seem to occur to them that although many of the protesters may be secular, many are devout Muslims; that although some may want to overthrow the Islamic Republic, most respect its basic legitimacy; that although most want to avoid confrontation and conflict with the West, few are overflowing with admiration for America or Israel; that although none want to instigate a regional nuclear holocaust, the vast majority support nuclear power as a matter of national pride.
It has frequently and rightly been said in recent days that the U.S. should avoid an over-enthusiastic embrace of the demonstrators because the regime will use it to delegitimize them and paint them as tools of a hostile power. What has not been said enough is that any attempt to coopt the protests in the service of American goals risks delegitimizing the movement not merely among the public at large but among its own members. By and large the protesters have no interest in being enlisted in the grand battle between Islam and the West that the “clash of civilizations” crowd so ardently seeks. If their self-proclaimed American supporters persist in trying to turn their admirable political struggle into something that is alien to them — by insisting that in marching against fraud and repression they are really marching against Islam, against the 1979 revolution, and for American interests — then these alleged supporters may succeed only in convincing the protesters that the movement is something they want no part of.