A hole must have been ripped in the space-time continuum lately, because the world in which I live doesn’t seem to make sense. Something seems amiss, as if the events of the last 30 years never happened, or didn’t happen the way I remember them. Or something.
Speaking to restauranteurs — you know, real foreign policy experts — in Chicago recently, Republican presidential candidate John McCain (I don’t have a nifty nickname for him like I do Bush Jong Il for the current occupant of the White House; maybe someone out there could help me with this) responded to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s call for talks with Iran, noting all throughout the Cold War, U.S. presidents spoke to Soviet leaders and the USSR was a far graver threat to both the United States and Israel.
(I don’t know if Obama added the Israel part. But he should have.)
At any rate, McCain claimed he understood this — this notion that Iran is most certainly not a superpower. But this is what he said on the subject:
Before I begin my prepared remarks, I want to respond briefly to a comment Senator Obama made yesterday about the threat posed to the United States by the Government of Iran. Senator Obama claimed that the threat Iran poses to our security is “tiny” compared to the threat once posed by the former Soviet Union. Obviously, Iran isn’t a superpower and doesn’t possess the military power the Soviet Union had. But that does not mean that the threat posed by Iran is insignificant.
On the contrary, right now Iran provides some of the deadliest explosive devices used in Iraq to kill our soldiers. They are the chief sponsor of Shia extremists in Iraq, and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. And their President, who has called Israel a “stinking corpse,” has repeatedly made clear his government’s commitment to Israel’s destruction.
This is interesting logic. First, it suggests the United States should never talk to governments that are providing weapons or equipment to groups (or countries, I suppose) that are "used … to kill our soldiers" or threaten the state of Israel. What about the summit meetings between President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in New Jersey in June of 1967 in the wake of the Six Day War? Or the three meetings between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev between 1972 and 1974 (two of which were in Moscow), the first of which led to the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty?
The U.S.S.R. was hardly a shrinking violet in regards to the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. The Soviets were not just "allegedly" providing the occasional rifle, box of bullets and improvised explosive device to the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam, but the U.S.S.R. was busy providing tanks, fighting vehicles, trucks, fighter jets and the very surface-to-air missiles that enabled John McCain to become a temporary resident of Hanoi. This wasn’t covert aid, it was very much overt, hauled in great big ships flying the yellow hammer and sickle on a blood red background (I watched several such ships transit the Panama Canal when I had the pleasure of protecting that decrepit muddy ditch during my time in the Army in the mid-1980s) steaming into the North Vietnamese port of Haiphong on a regular basis.
Using McCain’s logic (and the logic of all neoconservatives and militarist nationalists who cry "appeasement!" at the very prospect of diplomacy), U.S. leaders should not have even considered summit meetings with Soviet leaders, and should have instead threatened war with the U.S.S.R. as long as it continued to support North Vietnam.
So, should World War III have been waged in all its lethal glory in 1968 or 1969? Over South Vietnam?
But this isn’t all. Offending Israel and supporting terrorism is another excuse McCain gives for not speaking to governments. The U.S.S.R. was not bashful on that subject either. It was the main supporters of military equipment to the governments of Gemal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the permanent floating crap game that was the government of Syria (it changed a lot, and modern Syrian history never interested me enough to keep track of them) — tanks, fighter jets, infantry rifles, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, advisors and training, both before and after the 1967 war. Indeed, as I understand it, Soviet pilots flew "Egyptian" planes in the immediate months after June 1967 and Soviet missile crews manned surface-to-air missiles during the "War of Attrition" between Egypt and Israel over the Suez Canal from late 1968 through the summer of 1970.
In fact, the big Soviet-made World Atlas that I bought in San Francisco nearly 20 years ago, produced in 1967 to mark the 50th anniversary of the "Great October Socialist Revolution" (it’s a stunningly gorgeous book, even with the Lenin head on the frontispiece), marks the boundaries of the state of Israel as the 1948 UN partition line, and not the 1949 armistice lines (though they are there too). And yet, despite not even recognizing the "borders" of June 5 Israel, U.S. leaders still talked to Soviet leaders.
After the Israeli General Ariel Sharon led his forces across the Suez Canal and into Egypt proper, bottling the Egyptian Third Army on the east side of the canal, the U.S.S.R. threatened to intervene. Not by covertly giving the Egyptians roadside bombs or equipping "special groups," but by sending several Soviet airborne and airmobile divisions to Egypt to fight the Israelis. The Soviets mobilized their armed forces — the beginnings of the (short-lived) blue water navy they were building, hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of fighter jets, and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. The United States did likewise, and the two nations came almost as close to World War III in October of 1973 as they did in October of 1962.
Diplomacy — talking — thankfully prevented it. Using his logic, John McCain would have waged that war. Without pity and without mercy.
The Soviet Union was also the nexus of a web of international terrorists organizations — remember the urban guerrillas of the 1970s, the PLO and the Red Army Faction and dozens of other vaguely socialist groups enamored of violence and revolution? Links to the U.S.S.R. and the other states of the Warsaw Pact were both tactical and ideological — again, during my time in the Army in the mid-1980s, my Czech teacher at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey said that his job in the Czech army (before he defected with his family) was to train Palestinian terrorists in either the use of communications equipment or small arms, I don’t remember which. Yet this support for terrorism and terrorist groups (including those who hijacked U.S. civilian jetliners or kidnapped U.S. generals in NATO countries) did not prevent summit meetings between U.S. and Soviet leaders.
Indeed, it probably spurred them on because the stakes — the destruction of civilization — were so high. The U.S.S.R., for all its 1970s decrepitness, was still a military power, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (the Palestinian terror group backed in the 1980s by the government of Saddam Hussein) or the Bader-Meinhoff Gang were simply not worth the swapping of nuclear missiles until no one was left.
McCain also complains that somehow shaking the hand of the U.S. president will convey upon the Iranian regime "international legitimacy" and bolster his domestic popularity. Is he kidding? Did such meetings between Eisenhower and Khrushchev, or Johnson and Kosygin, or Nixon and Brezhnev, or Carter and Brezhnev, or Reagan and Gorbachev, convey additional "international legitimacy" on the Soviet government or the Soviet state? Does "international legitimacy" even matter? Did these meetings boost the popularity of the Soviet government? (I have this silly vision, a Leningrad family gathered round the teevee seeing video or photos of Nixon embracing Brezhnev and saying to themselves, "now that America loves our government, we can too!" Does anyone think it really works that way?) Granted, the president of Iran is elected by a broad-based electorate while the Soviet premier (prime minister) was appointed, the president probably elected by the Supreme Soviet, and the head of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. by simply being the last octogenarian standing, so "popularity" was never much of an issue for the Soviet regime. But that just means the president of Iran can be tossed out of office by Iranian voters, a privilege no Soviet voter could ever claim.
The lack of domestic legitimacy may, in fact, explain why the Soviet Union … um, how do I put this … went away some years ago. Of its own accord. Without so much as the issuing of missile launch orders or the deployment of bombers. I suppose it kinda sucked for so many champions of good in the United States that evil just simply went away, rather than meeting its final apocalyptic end at the hands of virtuous and always-righteous good.
In fact, I suspect that the real reason there is so much loud talk about Iran in Washington (and by Americans visiting Tel Aviv) is that Iran is so weak. There was no not talking to the U.S.S.R., even under the worst of conditions (in the early 1980s), especially after several years of military buildup beginning in the mid-1960s at the hands of Leonid Brezhnev. Even as a second-rate super-power, it was still a power to be reckoned with, what with all those nuclear missiles and warheads, those armored and mechanized and airborne divisions, bombers and fighter jets, and something resembling a global navy (more than 1,000 ships in 1982 according to The War Atlas).
What does Iran have that can even come close? A navy with global reach? An air force able to bolster allied governments far away (with the help of Cuban infantry)? Missiles and fighter jets and a near-permanent presence in low-earth orbit? The truth is, if the United States attacks Iran, it will do so because it can, because Iran lacks to the means to retaliate (and thus deter) such an attack. Because Iran is weak, and not a threat in any way, shape or form. To either Israel or the United States.
I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as the very definition of what a bully is. And what evil is too.