Commentary Magazine


He’s Not Even Warren Christopher

In what now amounts to one of my more tiresome public services, I will once again take a moment to respond to a Joe Klein outburst, this time criticizing something I wrote earlier this week. Klein writes:

Pete Wehner has a post at the Commentary blog comparing Iran in 2009 to the Soviet Union of the 1980’s which, of course, is completely ridiculous. I visited Russia back in the day and I’ve now visited Iran twice. There is no comparison. The Soviet Union was the most repressive place I’ve ever been; its residents lived in constant terror. I’ll never forget my first translator in Moscow telling me that his parents had trained him never to smile in public –i t could easily be misinterpreted and then he’d be off to the Gulag. There was no internet in those days, no cellphones, no facebook or twitter.

Iran, by contrast, is breezy with freedom. It is certainly freer now, despite Ahmadinejad, than it was when I first visited in 2001. There are satellites dishes all over the place, which bring accurate news via BBC Persia and the Voice of America. The place is awash in western music, movies and books. The Supreme Leader has a website; ayatollahs are blogging. You can get the New York Times and CNN online. (I was interested to find, however, that most blogs except those, like this one, that are associated with a mainstream media outlet, are filtered by the government.) There is, in fact, marginally more freedom of expression in Iran than in some notable U.S. allies, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia — although the danger of imprisonment always exists if a journalist or politician takes it a step too far for the Supreme Leader’s watchdogs. It is not even clear that Ahmadinejad — who has significant backing from the sort of people who support Republicans here (the elderly, the religious extremists) plus a real following among working-class Iranians — would have lost this election, if the votes had been counted fairly. (I tend to believe that they weren’t counted at all, but that’s just my opinion.)

The point is, neoconservatives like McCain and Wehner just can’t seem to quit their dangerous habit of making broad, extreme statements based on ideology rather than detailed knowledge of the situation in Iran and elsewhere. This was always the main problem with McCain’s candidacy — he would have been a trigger-happy President, just as Wehner’s old boss, George W. Bush, was. We are well out of that.

Let’s quickly untangle Joe’s arguments.

1. My reference to the Soviet Union was in the context of how Reagan’s words inspired dissidents (which they indisputably did). While writing in a related follow up post that “[r]easonable people can differ on what approach to take,” my view is that appropriate words from Obama might do the same thing in the context of Iran. And in saying, “It is a useful contrast, I think, between how Reagan approached brutal and terror-sponsoring regimes and how Obama does,” does Klein dispute that Iran is both (or either)? According to a study by Freedom House, “there is near consensus on two assessments: the Islamic Republic is one of the most despotic regimes in the world, and it represents one of the biggest challenges facing the new U.S. administration.” And according to the 2008 State Department report on terrorism, ” Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism.” What terribly inconvenient conclusions for Joe. And by the way: Do these authoritative reports make Iran sound like a nation “breezy with freedom” to you?

2. Klein constantly refers to his travels abroad, as if they provide him sapience in commenting on foreign policy matters. The problem is that Klein has been mistaken in his analysis of foreign policy issue after foreign policy issue. For example, Klein, who loves to broadcast his travels to Iraq, was a vocal opponent of the surge — which almost everyone now concedes has been a tremendous success. If President Bush had followed Klein’s counsel, the Iraq war would have been lost and the country would have become a scene of mass death and probably genocide. Iran and al Qaeda would have notched two huge victories. And America would have suffered a terrible blow. Fortunately Bush was right while Klein was as wrong as wrong can be.

In the arguments he offers, Klein is making a category error. He mistakes frequent flyer miles for wisdom, and overseas passports for insight. Joe is a man so consistently and, at times, comically wrong in his analysis, that he is becoming an advertisement for why, when it comes to commenting on foreign policy matters, it is better to stay at home than travel abroad. Why travel 7,000 miles to draw ideologically simplistic judgments? Klein is a political commentator who somewhere along the way convinced himself he was Henry Kissinger. It turns out he’s not even Warren Christopher.

3. Joe refers to George W. Bush as a “trigger-happy President.” Here’s the thing, though: Klein supported both of the wars that happened on Bush’s watch — Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Which I suppose makes Joe a “trigger-happy Pundit.” And an increasingly self-deluded one as well.

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