The Illusionistas


On a personal level, I met Juan Cole on several occasions and I know that he is quite a decent guy, but, and as is the case with so many of my colleagues in the academic circles, I cannot help but be sharply critical when such nonsensical arguments as we find here are made.

For according to Cole, the Iranian people are living in penury not on account of the corruption of their ruling class, nor on account of the billions of dollars being spent on the nuclear program, nor on account of the billions being spent each year supporting genocide in Syria as well as death squads elsewhere in the region. No. the Iranian people are living in penury on account of the sanctions imposed on them sanctions which Netanyahu unfairly want to see renewed. Because Netanyahu’s goal is to impoverish the Iranian people, and the Iranian ruling elite has nothing to do with the suffering of their people.

Now, Netanyahu might want to see Iran weakened and impoverished for all her vast natural and human resources, but ultimately, it’s not Israelis and Westerners who are sucking the blood of the Iranian people, it’s the corrupt and tyrannical regime they have in place that is doing a wonderful job on their own, so much so they have been expanding their oppressive franchise all over the region. Until when will people like Cole remain willing to give Iranian leaders a pass on their corrupt and authoritarian ways and anti-democratic anti-modern discourse?

Our wellbeing and that of the people of Israel would not have been so mutually exclusive had we had a different set of leaders in charge of our destinies. But Israelis have their democracy which, no matter how flawed it is, allows for the possibility of serious change sooner or later, what do the people of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia have? Systems of governance which for all their differences converge on one point: robbing the people of the right to control their destinies and the wealth that their rich lands have to offer.

Yes, Israel and the West have often benefitted from this state of affairs, and they might have contributed to its emergence, but, after decades of independence and internal experimentation, we have long come to own this situation, and have long become responsible for it, for its obvious and devastating flaws. Our contributions to making it worse are immense. We are not the ultimate victims of Israel and the West. We are the victims of our own ignorance.

This whole argument is somewhat reminiscent of the sanctions imposed on Iraq following the First Gulf War. Even though an oil-for-food program was created in order to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people, the program didn’t work, because Saddam Hussein and his generals were so corrupt they used the funds to further their control of Iraqi society and fill their coffers. But people like Cole and other academics blamed the international community, the U.S. in particular. After all, the leaders of the free world should have known that a corrupt dictator like Saddam would use the funds for his own purposes.

So, how do then deal with corrupt authoritarian regimes that abuse their own people and create trouble for their own neighbors, and occasionally invade them? We cannot strike from the air, we cannot invade from the lad or sea, and we cannot impose sanctions. So, what can we do? What else? Engage them. Apparently, engagement is the only real alternative. It is the magical solution that would eventually work out, if not in a decade, then perhaps in a century. Meanwhile, let’s hope and pray that the world survives until then.

But what if, rather than helping moderate these regimes’ worldview, engagement only legitimated and consecrated it? What if, rather than encourage them to treat their people in a more civil manner, the ruling elites simply sought to entrench themselves even further? What if the commitment of these troubling regimes to their anti-democratic and anti-modern view proved real and not a mere façade behind which we can find pure geopolitical motivations?

The answer for our protagnists is simple: more engagement, even if these regimes are waging more wars. After all, we can defend ourselves, they would say, and we should learn to pay a higher price for oil. Meanwhile, who really cares what happens to the people of the region as we all wait for their leaders to wise up?  

This is the essence of the quarantine mentality. Let the peoples of the Middle East develop at their own pace, and learn from their bitter experiences the importance of freedom and democracy.

If only things could work like that in the real world. 

But in a world where sanctions don’t work, and are deemed immoral and inhumane anyway, can quarantine have a chance?

This is the kind of dilemma that authoritarian regimes pose. Naturally, our responses in this regard will always be inherently lacking and flawed. But rather than continuing to gravitate in our calculations towards the so-called lesser evil, the bane of our political life, perhaps we should all be guided by the notion of the necessary good.

The legal doctrine of Responsibility to Protect provides good guidelines for identifying what the necessary good means in terms of international affairs, and had it been applied in the case of Syria and Yemen we might have much bloodshed. Indeed, the kind of intervention called for in R2P is never easy and will never be so, but since when has ease of the task been the right tool to use to ascertain its soundness? Intervention is still needed in Syria, Yemen, elsewhere, and not the kind currently championed by Iran, or Saudi for that matter. But what’s good for the goose, the Saudis must have thought. And the cycle of violence will continue, and the champions of nonintervention and quarantine mentalities are not less mired in blood than the rest. They just live under the comfortable illusion that they are.

For this is what the current discourse is really about: the creation of necessary illusions to appease guilty consciences, and hide agendas and plans that will surely prove morally indefensible if made public.