How the desire to appease, rather than confront, leads to the romanticization of evil men.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.
In his speech on Tuesday before the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu tried to get the Americans to stop their collective swooning at the sight of an Iranian president who smiled in their general direction.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the premier warned, "I wish I could believe [President Hassan] Rouhani, but I don't because facts are stubborn things. And the facts are that Iran's savage record flatly contradicts Rouhani's soothing rhetoric."
He might have saved his breath. The Americans weren't interested.
Two days after Netanyahu's speech, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a rejoinder to Netanyahu. "I have never believed that foreign policy is a zero-sum game," Hagel said.
Well, maybe he hasn't. But the Iranians have.
And they still do view diplomacy - like all their dealings with their sworn enemies - as a zero-sum game.
As a curtain raiser for Rouhani's visit, veteran New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins wrote a long profile of Iran's real strongman for The New Yorker. Qassem Suleimani is the head of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is the most powerful organ of the Iranian regime, and Suleimani is Iranian dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's closest confidante and adviser.
Rouhani doesn't hold a candle to Suleimani.
Filkin's profile is detailed, but deeply deceptive. The clear sense he wishes to impart on his readers is that Suleimani is a storied war veteran and a pragmatist. He is an Iranian patriot who cares about his soldiers. He's been willing to cut deals with the Americans in the past when he believed it served Iran's interests. And given Suleimani's record, it is reasonable to assume that Rouhani - who is far more moderate than he - is in a position to make a deal and will make one.
The problem with Filkin's portrayal of Suleimani as a pragmatist, and a commander who cares about the lives of his soldiers - and so, presumably cares about the lives of Iranians - is that it is belied by the stories Filkins reported in the article.
Filkins describes at length how Suleimani came of age as a Revolutionary Guard division commander during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, and how that war made him the complicated, but ultimately reasonable, (indeed parts of the profile are downright endearing), pragmatist he is today.
As the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Suleimani commands the Syrian military and the foreign forces from Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq that have been deployed to Syria to keep Bashar Assad in power.
Filkins quotes an Iraqi politician who claimed that in a conversation with Suleimani last year, the Iranian called the Syrian military "worthless."
He then went on to say, "Give me one brigade of the Basij, and I could conquer the whole country."
Filkins notes that it was the Basij that crushed the anti-Islamist Green Revolution in Iran in 2009. But for a man whose formative experience was serving as a Revolutionary Guards commander in the Iran-Iraq War, Suleimani's view of the Basij as a war-fighting unit owes to what it did in its glory days, in that war, not on the streets of Tehran in 2009.
As Matthias Kuntzel reported in 2006, the Revolutionary Guards formed the Basij during the Iran-Iraq War to serve as cannon fodder. Basij units were made up of boys as young as 12.
They were given light doses of military training and heavy doses of indoctrination in which they were brainwashed to reject life and martyr themselves for the revolution.
As these children were being recruited from Iran's poorest villages, Ayatollah Khomeini purchased a half million small plastic keys from Taiwan.
They were given to the boys before they were sent to battle and told that they were the keys to paradise. The children were then sent into minefields to die and deployed as human waves in frontal assaults against superior Iraqi forces.
By the end of the war some 100,000 of these young boys became the child sacrifices of the regime.
When we assess Suleimani's longing for a Basij brigade in Syria in its proper historical and strategic context - that is, in the context of how he and his fellow Revolutionary Guards commanders deployed such brigades in the 1980s, we realize that far from being a pragmatist, Suleimani is a psychopath.
Filkins did not invent his romanticized version of what makes Suleimani tick. It is a view that has been cultivated for years by senior US officials.
Former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker spoke at length with Filkins about his indirect dealings with Suleimani through Iranian negotiators who answered to him, and through Iraqi politicians whom he controlled.
Crocker attests that secretary of state Colin Powell dispatched him to Geneva in the weeks before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to negotiate with the Iranians. Those discussions, which he claims involved the US and Iran trading information about the whereabouts of al- Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and Iran, could have led to an historic rapprochement, Crocker claims. But, he bemoans, hope for such an alliance were dashed in January 2002, when George W. Bush labeled Iran as a member of the "Axis of Evil," in his State of the Union address.
Supposedly in a rage, Suleimani pulled the plug on cooperation with the Americans. As Crocker put it, "We were just that close. One word in one speech changed history."
Crocker told of his attempt to make it up to the wounded Suleimani in the aftermath of the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in 2003. Crocker was in Baghdad at the time setting up the Iraqi Governing Council. He used Iraqi intermediaries to clear all the Shi'ite candidates with Suleimani. In other words, the US government gave the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards control over the Iraqi government immediately after the US military toppled Saddam's regime.
Far from convincing Suleimani to pursue a rapproachment with the US, Crocker's actions convinced him that the US was weak. And so, shortly after he oversaw the formation of the governing council, Suleimani instigated the insurgency whose aim was to eject the US from Iraq and to transform it into an Iranian satrapy.
And yet, despite Suleimani's obvious bad faith, and use of diplomacy to entrap the US into positions that harmed its interests and endangered its personnel, Crocker and other senior US officials continued to believe that he was the man to cut a deal with.
The main take-away lesson from the Filkins profile of Suleimani is that US officials - and journalists - like to romanticize the world's most psychopathic, evil men. Doing so helps them to justify and defend their desire to appease, rather than confront, let alone defeat, them.
Suleimani and his colleagues are more than willing to play along with the Americans, to the extent that doing so advances their aims of defeating the US.
There were two main reasons that Bush did not want to confront Iran despite its central role in organizing, directing and financing the insurgency in Iraq. First, Bush decided shortly after the US invasion of Iraq that the US would not expand the war to Iran or Syria. Even as both countries' central role in fomenting the insurgency became inarguable, Bush maintained his commitment to fighting what quickly devolved into a proxy war with Iran, on the battlefield of Iran's choosing.
The second reason that Bush failed to confront Iran, and that his advisers maintained faith with the delusion that it was worth cutting a deal with the likes of Suleimani, was that they preferred the sense of accomplishment a deal brought them to the nasty business of actually admitting the threat Iran posed to American interests - and to American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Expanding on Bush's aversion to fighting Iran, and preference for romanticizing its leaders rather than acknowledging their barbarism, upon entering office Barack Obama embraced a strategy whose sole goal is engagement. For the past five years, the US policy toward Iran is to negotiate. Neither the terms of negotiation nor the content of potential agreements is important.
Obama wants to negotiate for the sake of negotiating. And he has taken the UN and the EU with him on this course.
It's possible that Obama believes that these negotiations will transform Iran into a quasi-US ally like the Islamist regime in Turkey. That regime remains a member of NATO despite the fact that it threatens its neighbors with war, it represses its own citizens, and it refuses to support major US initiatives while undermining NATO operations.
Obama will never call Turkey out for its behavior or make Prime Minister Recep Erdogan pay a price for his bad faith. The myth of the US-Turkish alliance is more important to Obama than the substance of Turkey's relationship with the United States.
A deal with Iran would be horrible for America and its allies. Whatever else it says it will do, the effect of any US-Iranian agreement would be to commit the US to do nothing to defend its interests or its allies in the Middle East.
While this would be dangerous for the US, it is apparently precisely the end Obama seeks. His address to the UN General Assembly can reasonably be read as a declaration that the US is abandoning its position as world leader.
The US is tired of being nitpicked by its allies and its enemies for everything it does, he said. And therefore, he announced, Washington is now limiting its actions in the Middle East to pressuring its one remaining ally, Israel, to give up its ability to protect itself from foreign invasion and Palestinian terrorism by surrendering Judea and Samaria, without which it is defenseless.
Like his predecessors in the Bush administration, Obama doesn't care that Iran is evil and that its leaders are fanatical psychopaths. He has romanticized them based on nothing.
Although presented by the media as a new policy of outreach toward Tehran, Obama's current commitment to negotiating with Rouhani is consistent with his policy toward Iran since entering office. Nothing has changed.
From Obama's perspective, US policy is not threatened by Iranian bad faith. It is threatened only by those who refuse to embrace his fantasy world where all deals are good and all negotiations are therefore good.
What this means is that the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power does not faze Obama. The only threat he has identified is the one coming from Jerusalem. Israel the party pooper is Obama's greatest foe, because it insists on basing its strategic assessments and goals on the nature of things even though this means facing down evil.
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