December 15, 2004

"Why Do They Hate Us?" Reconsidered

So I spent the evening finally getting around to reading Ken Pollack's The Persian Puzzle. Most of it anyways. The later chapters aren't so good—I would have liked to see a full plunge into the thorny little world of Tehran politics, but I gather that Pollack's not a Farsi-speaker, so he can't really work off of primary sources here.

However, his history of Iran is very good. I've blundered through this stuff before, but Pollack lines it up in fairly new ways. Most interesting, I think, is his contention that the U.S. really wasn't responsible for Iran's pre-revolution woes. Oh sure, the Kennedy-through-Carter folks all nominally backed the shah, but they also all variously asked him to institute economic and political reforms, and the shah refused. At no point was the U.S. implicated in SAVAK's reign of terror—at worst, Washington's leaders were simply indifferent. Especially in the 1970s, the shah had the upper hand in our little relationship, and his domestic blunders were all his own.

And yet… the U.S. was still blamed for all that ailed Iran. Much of this owed to the bizarre and irrational sentiments on the part of Khomeini, who really hated America and decided to make the 1979 revolution fundamentally about anti-Americanism. But the Iranian people readily hopped aboard, readily blamed America for the shah's screw-ups, regardless of reality. It may defy reason, but it also makes sense: The U.S. is a superpower, so of course it gets blamed, whether it's tugging on the puppet-strings or not.

Anyways, I bring all this up because I've also been reading Reuel Marc Gerecht's The Islamic Paradox, which makes the oft-repeated point—in the grand tradition of Noam Chomsky—that U.S. support for Arab dictators is what creates an Islamist "blowback." Now I don't disagree, but here's a question: how much could the U.S. really distance itself from these dictators? Obviously we send billions to Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt right now, but Iranian history suggests that, were to reduce our support to shah-type levels, we'd still be at the butt-end of fundamentalist rage.

By way of a solution, Gerecht suggests we just let the fundamentalists take charge and let them either reform or discredit themselves. (See here for a dissent.) Fair enough, but I don't see how any of this prevents "blowback", which would seem from a reading of Iranian history to be inevitable, no matter how benignly the U.S. acts. America is there for the blaming—it's not exactly our policies, it's not exactly simply because "they hate us". Time to seek out new explanations.
-- Brad Plumer 3:31 AM || ||