Iran Was an Easier Enemy Before We Saw Their Faces

07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you want to kill with a clean conscience, the faces of the enemy had better be blank. Start to see them as human beings and it becomes harder to blockade and bomb them, to mine, and pollute, and "destabilize." President Clinton had no imagining of the disease he would bring to the innocent in Sudan by the "surgical" missile attack on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in 1998. George W. Bush had a happy warrior's notion of the fury he would unleash on Falluja when he gave the order to destroy that city after the election of 2004. The Sudan bombing was treated by the American press as a distraction from a sex scandal. The second siege of Falluja--tens of thousands of houses crushed or cratered--was hardly covered at all.

The faces of the people, and not "the face of the enemy." The difference between the abstract and the individual is decisive for imagination. It is the faces that are indelible, as we saw in the streets of Tehran, whether the men and women were holding up cell phones or placards written black on green, or waving a bloodied shirt or bandage; or holding a rock, as some in Iran did, and as the members of other crowds, less kindly portrayed in the American press, have been known to do. It isn't the face of the enemy that we see in these pictures. No, these are people much like ourselves, who don't want to die at the hands of their government--or at the hands of ours, either, for that matter.

We know them from the messages they have sent by Twitter; by the evidence of their large and small sacrifices; by their expressed loyalty to a God whom they invoke in prayers against the abuse of power by their leaders. The faces are peculiar, personal, and counter to expectation; they show an energy of original purpose. I want to live as much as you do, they say.

The large plans for good wars need to reduce the enemy to an abstraction before the bombing feels right. The most famous of American war promoters, John McCain, has a simple and emphatic ability to abstract--Iraq, Gaza, Georgia, Iran, it is all one to him. They turn him on and fire him up. Wars, he thinks (and was raised to think), are simply the spectacular way that we settle our affairs in this world. But successful abstraction is a mental trick that is not possible to everyone.

The secular prophets for the bombing of Iran have always known how to perform this trick. They knew long before they fell in love with a fraction of the Iranian people. McCain himself, and Charles Krauthammer and Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman and Alan Dershowitz--all are friends of Iran, as they see it. Friends of the Iran of their minds, which will some day replace the enemy Iran. The proof of their friendship is their eagerness to secure a blockade and to bomb.

And how these prophets of war loved the protests! Here was the real Iran, yearning to be surgically struck. We will bring these Iranians their freedom, said McCain and the rest, by killing their country. So let us cheer them now, and metaphorically shake their hand by satellite image, before we bomb them for their own sakes.

There was an odd thing, though. With the swell of vicarious protest--the pulse of resistance beating for Iran in American hearts that haven't for years protested against an abuse of American power--none of the Iranians was saying what the men of our war party took them to be saying. The Iranians were not saying: "Please, America, heed our call, and lay down sanctions against us. Starve and debilitate, murder us with 'black ops' and lecture and bomb us into your idea of civilization." They seemed to say none of those things. Their message was short and their faces said only what faces can say: "Here we are; we, too, are Iran. Now watch us--we know what we're about."

In the absence of local clients in the theatre of action--all of Iran seems to offer nothing on the lines of Ahmad Chalabi, no-one that Americans can call our own--the McCain gesture has been reduced to a strut. The sham is revealed by the fact that the people who criticize Barack Obama for saying too little today cannot cite the name of a single Iranian dissident who wants the United States to say more (let alone to take an active role). There is not one politician in that country of 70 million who wishes the United States to be his special backer. On the contrary: an American endorsement is death to an Iranian politician. We are, after all, the casualties of our history: our access to oil in the days when Iranians enjoyed no such access, our support for Iraq in its war with Iran, our training of the Shah's secret police, the Savak, in methods of torture. Savak victims number between 25,000 and 100,000.

Nor does the curious contrast under the apparent alignment escape the notice of the more observant Iranians today. The American-Iranian journalist Kouross Esmaeli, for example, said on Monday in an interview with Amy Goodman:

The Iranians know Senator John McCain as the man who sang "Bomb, bomb Iran" during the elections of last year. The man holds no credibility as far as supporting Iranians or seeming like he's got the best interests of the Iranians at heart. . . .President Obama's stand, I think, has been the most sensible, and it's amazing that the President of the United States is taking such a sensible stand. . . . Everyone I've talked to in Iran has said the same thing, that we do not need any symbol of Western, especially American, interference in Iran's internal politics. And the fact that America does not have diplomatic relations with Iran really ties its hands as far as how far he can go in really supporting Iran.

This judgment by an Iranian dissident was recently echoed by Joe Klein--a journalist who knows that the war party have democracy most on their lips when they have destruction in their hearts. The bluster of Senator McCain in support of resistance abroad, said Klein,

is a self-indulgence at this point. Senator McCain, if he's going to talk about this, should also talk about the fact that the United States supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war for eight years. Every one of those protesters out in the streets, every last one of them believes the United States supplied Saddam Hussein with the poison gas that has debilitated tens of thousands of Iranian men.

To call McCain's recent statements self-indulgent is charitable. They are the convenient reflex of a hothead, whose alternations between principle and opportunism would be dizzying if the two postures were not so often indistinguishable.

A striking feature of the American coverage of the protests has been the omission of the word Israel. For it is to Israel, and especially the ministries that have governed Israel since 2001, that we in America owe our sense that the overthrow of the present regime in Iran is an exigent concern for us. The idea--absurd on the face of it--that Iran is a "suicide nation" and that its nuclear research must consequently be stopped at once and by violent means, has re-appeared in recent days. The idea of the suicide nation is meant to stimulate the crime of war that it excuses; but like all such abstract ideas, it is untestable and therefore impossible to defeat by rational argument.

The best reply to those who would show support of the good Iran by a military strike against the bad Iran was given last week by an Israeli journalist, Zvi Bar'el, in Haaretz:

Suddenly, there appears to be an Iranian people. Not just nuclear technology, extremist ayatollahs, the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad, and an axis of evil. All of a sudden, the ears need to be conditioned to hear other names: "'Mousawi' or 'Mousavi,' how is it pronounced exactly?"; Mehdi Karroubi; Khamenei ("It's not 'Khomeini'?"). . . .Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators did not pour into the streets due to American intervention or threats from Israel. They want a better Iran for themselves, not for Obama or Benjamin Netanyahu. They will be the ones to determine what qualifies as a better Iran.

This is the crux of the confusion that we have stumbled upon. The grand enemy that was neatly packaged into a nuclear, Shi'ite-religious container has come apart at the seams. On the one hand, it threatens, while on the other hand it demonstrates for democracy. On one street, it raises a fist against America, and in another alley, streams of protesters march for human rights. For goodness' sake, who is left to bomb?

The question is finely framed. But it needs to be followed by another question. Who wants to bomb?

The answer, in Israel, is those whose idea of national security is to create a devastation all around Israel. The answer in America is those who have an appetite for wars. But a shockingly small number of them have ever set foot into the trouser leg of a military uniform. McCain is an exception, but McCain bombed the Vietnamese from a commanding height. He witnessed, once, the effects of napalm, and said he preferred not to think about it again. (That is another meaning of abstraction.) So let us say it plainly. The abstract men of power who have now set up as critics of Barack Obama for his want of aggression, the new special friends of "the real Iran"--their warmth, their zeal, their passion all depend on the ability or deformation that allows them to turn a chosen enemy into an inhuman blank.

In America, we have also heard more seductive and moderate-sounding appeals from those who speak of "regime change" as a thing that outside forces can help Iran to achieve. This goes with the ethic of Romantic interventionism which has a nineteenth-century prehistory in the writings and actions of Byron and Gladstone, among others. But we cannot reawaken the old imperial idealism at this moment without the imperialism out of which it naturally grew.

All vicarious politics is sick--the more eager, excited, and fraternal, the more prone to self-deception. The vicarious politics of liberation only adds a dimension of self-righteousness to the fault Edmund Burke detected in the politics of all revolutions: "The very idea of the fabrication of a new government is enough to fill us with disgust and horror." But the reformers of Tehran know well enough what they are about; they know in spite of (perhaps at odds with) the help with which we would encumber them. They are not calling it revolution. And whatever they end up doing, we should not try to name it or clinch its meaning for them.