Sunday, January 8

"Perhaps 'concerned' is an understatement."

I thought I'd begin with some art. This unremarkable post-impressionist streetscape of Vienna was unearthed recently in the Middle East. It is one of two paintings by Adolf Hitler found in an Iranian cellar in 1999. According to this story, "Hitler is thought to have given the paintings showing Vienna street scenes to the Iranian ambassador to Germany. Iran was sympathetic to Germany during World War II."

Plus ca change. While it is silly to characterize all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, there can be no mistaking the comments of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the last month. What puzzles me is the lack of any sense of urgency in the Western media. By now, everyone has had several weeks to digest Ahmadinejad's stated goal of "wip[ing] [Israel] off the map," and we have been tracking Iran's steady drive towards nuclear capability for years. So where's the coverage? This has to be one of the most underreported crises in history. While the televisions and newspapers have been saturated with coverage of the death of 12 miners in West Virginia for the last week, I can't recall reading a single serious analysis of the imminent Iranian threat during the same period. No panel discussions on the Sunday political shows, no table-thumping on the Op-Ed pages of the major papers. To quote Bob Dole, "Where's the outrage?"

Doing some digging, I did find a transcript from Hugh Hewitt's radio show on Thursday, in which Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist James Lileks made essentially the same point that occurred to me. Here are the relevant parts of that interview (I have put the most important parts--for which you can read "the parts I particular agree with"--in bold):

JL: I downloaded some mp3's of Hitler, of all people, in an old radio newsgroup. And you can really understand the quality of the evil when you listen to them. I don't know what he's talking about. All I know is that it's just not good for me and children and other living things as the fatuous poster used to say. And if we could hear that stuff coming out of Iran...I mean, we are hearing that stuff coming out of Iran. But if every night, they were playing translated verses of what this fellow is saying, and juxtaposing it with what he is capable of doing, or will be capable of doing very soon, I think people might be a little bit more upset. But it's almost as though he's this Krusty the Clown figure.

HH: A cartoon. I was about to say he's a cartoon.

. . .

JL: All jokes aside, when you have a man saying this nature of things, it's not as though his behavior is Hitler-esque. He's saying things right out of Mein Kampf. . . .

. . .

HH: And I began to think you know, Americans just don't have the imagination to cope with that. They don't have the imagination to cope with Ahmadinejad, either.

JL: No. I don't think so. And it's going to take something catastrophic for it to happen, for it to penetrate people's skulls. It's stunning. But again, Hitler had a big run-up. I go back to the newspapers of the 30's, at the paper where I work, and I like to go back and look at the microfiche, and see what they felt the 30's looked like. And Hitler was on the front page all the time, regarded with a mixture of distaste and horror and low comedy. But this guy is not on the front page all the time. He may make A-6 when he has some intemperate statement. But you don't get the same sense of gathering threat as you did in the 30's.

HH: But you know what we also get? We also get the discounting of his importance. I have been reading analysis that's saying oh, Ahmadinejad is making us look bad, and the mullahs are unhappy. Nonsense. He's the president of the state.

JL: I know. Yes. But the most important thing, the president of a state that is actively pursuing, if they have not already obtained, nuclear weapons, and who have vowed to wipe Israel off the map, and spoken of the United States in the same terms. Now if the United States or Israel attempts to take out a portion of the Iranian nuclear facilities, there's going to be a great hue and cry in this country, and lots of castigation about how could we, in a sovereign state, and all that, and blah, blah, blah, which again stuns me, because I perhaps am stupid enough to take this man at his word. And it doesn't seem to be that the media in general is. I mean, given a choice between doing endless stories on a West Virginia coal mining disaster, or something like this, which has the potential to make a disaster like that look like a hangnail, of course they're going to go with the stuff that's current and domestic. There's this blinkered inability to see what's coming. And it...again, that's why I have to pinch myself and say all right, you know what? Maybe I am crazy. It's a beautiful day outside, let's go sledding with my daughter. But I fear for what's coming up.

HH: I actually think that this will be the year in which seriousness fights its death match with frivolity. Who's going to win, James?

JL: I think that seriousness is going to force the issue.

HH: I have to agree. That's why actually I think American politics is going to be very different from what people expect. It's not going to be about Abramoff and assorted Redskins tickets.

In the latest development, Iran announced today that it is resuming its nuclear research project, to the "surprise" of the EU body charged with safeguarding us all from its nuclear ambitions. And the IAEA's predictably useless response is to consider imposing sanctions at its next scheduled meeting in March. Do you think it might be possible to speed up that meeting? (Not that sanctions will actually be applied--there would have to be several rounds of referrals to the U.N. first, followed by predictable objections and vetoes.) I know there are yakfests with preening NGOs to attend and international awards to pick up, but if the IAEA can't get excited about a terrorist state on the brink of nuclear armament, then it is all but assured that, when push comes to shove, the UN, the EU, and other toothless talking shops will again be left on the bench while it falls to serious states to disarm the rogues.

I will end this post with a quote from James Robbins's recent article, which captures my concern, and offers a plausible explanation for the media's antipathy (though I think that its focus on "liberals" is unnecessarily narrow--I would apply it to the vast majority of the West, regardless of political bent):

[One of my rules when looking at the world strategically] is to give credit to people that they are sincere in their beliefs. Western liberals, who prize reason, are subject to the tendency to explain away beliefs they consider unreasonable. Progress and freedom are inevitable because they are the natural courses of history. Ideologies that do not fit our predetermined vision of the future are not worth taking seriously. Extremism cannot triumph because it does not make sense. Therefore, the Bolsheviks and their successors were not really after global Communist revolution, even though they said they were. The Nazis would not really commit armed aggression and genocide, even though they advocated both. And while Khmer Rouge military leader Khieu Samphan's 1959 doctoral thesis identified the urban bourgeoisie as a parasite class that had to be removed to the countryside, they wouldn't really empty Phnom Penh of its 2.5 million citizens and subject them to collectivization, reeducation, and execution, would they? Isn't that just plain crazy?

So when a freshly ambitious Iran claims it has "the inalienable right to have access to a nuclear fuel cycle," and radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies that Iran seeks to build nuclear weapons, states that Israel must be "wiped off the map," should we be concerned? Perhaps "concerned" is an understatement.

(On the other hand, why worry. The spreading avian flu will probably get us first!)