Monday, January 14, 2008
The history of the absurd
History, they say, is written by the victors. And that writing, it's a fascinating process to observe, one that reshapes and colors the confusing stir of "current events" as they become just a little less current. This process leaves us with a story, with supposedly clear moral lessons, with good guys and bad guys and crucial episodes, a kind of retroactive must-see-tv of the human experience.
And as the forces at play in history continue to contend, we often find ourselves witness to history being rewritten.
Just the other night I was suffering through the onslaught of political ads that had come to fill every commercial break in my viewing pleasure (it was the eve of the New Hampshire primaries —I was just trying to watch some darned football) when who should appear but Rudy Giuliani with his unnaturally large teeth and his own peculiar reading (or should I say writing?) of history.
The hostage crisis in Iran —it ended, he observed, at the very moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president. The implication was that the Iranians (bad guys) had only held onto American hostages (good guys) for more than four hundred days with the limp wristed assent of President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat (more bad guys). With Reagan, the new sheriff in town, one with such a shiny star on his chest, one with such upright Republican (good guy) values, well those Iranian radical rascals knew the jig was up. Rudy grins rather charmingly at this point in his telling, and with a wink he promises us that we'd be right to expect more of the same from him if we made him president.
I realize Rudy was preaching to a certain kind of choir at this point in the election season, to the rank and file Republicans who have anointed Reagan with saint-like qualities for his valiant conquest of the communist scourge, but to paint 'The Gipper' as some kind of saviour for the American hostages in Iran in 1980 is just plain laughable. And to promise more of the same tough talking gun slinger foreign policy ...well, that's simply chilling ...he might be telling the truth.
The American hostages, held in Iran for 444 days, were released on the very day of Reagan's inauguration, just as Giuliani says. But to suggest Reagan's brand of diplomacy (let's call it that) was responsible for the release at that point, to the extent it is creditable at all, can only lend credence to the accusations that Reagan/Bush had worked to delay the release of the hostages —through illicit back-channel negotiations.
Had there been exchanges between Reagan and the revolutionary government? Reagan and the Iranian students? Or was the release meant as some unbidden welcoming present to the oval office, you know —like a fruit basket? Investigative journalist Robert Parry has had a bug in his ear on this subject for more than twenty years. He's made a case against the Reagan/Bush administration, though no congressional investigation has ever found enough to pursue his claims. Shortly after being sworn into office in January 2001, the Bush/Cheney administration reclassified documents of the era that would otherwise have shed some light.
Though some dismiss him as a conspiracy monger, it is worth noting one of Parry's earlier accomplishments. As a reporter for Newsweek he was one of the first to break the story of Oliver North and the Iran-Contra Arms scandal.
Though it is tempting, I don't mean to make a counter to Giuliani's (and most other Republican candidates') threat/promise of a renewed Reaganism with unproven theories and controversial claims. Instead let's look at the verifiable facts.
While publicly opposing the Islamic Revolution in Iran through the 1980's, arming and endorsing Saddam Hussein's Iraqi war effort against them, we did somehow manage (by "we" I mean the executive branch of our government acting in direct contradiction of Congress) to rationalize funneling arms to the Iranian regime as a method of laundering support for "freedom fighters" in Central America. We could handle a little Iranian cash if it meant funding the guerilla death squads that might undermine the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. This was that resolute American integrity at work.
That war between Iran and Iraq, by the way, the one where we were in effect arming both sides at the same time...there were more than one million casualties.
Then there's Afghanistan. If you want to see the Cold War as a chapter behind us (and that is arguable), the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan was the last proxy war in the contest. As the new film "Charlie Wilson's War" points out, the support for "freedom fighters" in that conflict was ultimately bipartisan in nature. Bipartisan and, in the end, never truly interested in freedom for the Afghan people. With the help of Pakistani intelligence forces and funding from Sunni extremists in the Arab world, we helped the mujahadeen bleed the Soviets pale in their own little version of Vietnam.
In some stark terms we won —the mission was accomplished. The Soviet tanks pulled out and limped home in time for the collapse of "the evil empire." And the power vacuum left behind in Afghanistan —it would be filled by a strange mutation of those mujahadeen freedom fighters, the Taliban.
It is odd that Giuliani, of all people, would be so oblivious to the "blow back" of Reagan/Bush era policies. He's walked through some of the wreckage while it was still warm. But Rudy, the Republican candidate prefers to partake of the mythic history, where the bad guys trembled in fear as the good cowboy rode in, where dictators and dissidents became chess pieces for the board, where it was freedom fighters who found a friend indeed, where it all culminated so neatly with Ronald Reagan intoning "Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall"
The actual legacy, maybe it's just a bit more complex: an Arab world distrustful of America's vision of freedom for the region, rooted as it is in our friendship with autocratic regimes, our War On Terror taken to the very forces we once funded, the ideological zeal for violence we once saw as a strategic asset. Iran, our enemy in the mix (unless you ask our allies) and our friends ... there's always our friends, fighting for freedom.