One particularly distasteful aspect of the recent neoconservative attacks on President Obama’s cautious strategy regarding the Iranian protests has been the incredibly smug self-assurance with which they assert that they know vastly more about what participants in movements for social justice are thinking and what they really need then does the “naïve” and “gullible” Barack Obama.
This is, to say the least, a somewhat odd view because not a single one of the leading neoconservatives – not a single one – has ever walked a picket line, much less felt what a policeman’s nightstick feels like when it cracks the thin layer of skin on the top of your skull and sends blood pouring into your eyes. Not a single one of them ever served in any position of any kind in the leadership or even the rank and file of any movement for social justice. Even in the privileged ivory-tower world in which they live, not a single one of them has ever published an article which seriously analyzed the strategy and tactics of any popular mass movement for social justice or basic democratic rights.
But this doesn’t seem to bother them at all. In their view, leading a mechanized tank brigade into battle is a complex task that requires a tremendous amount of specialized knowledge, field experience and study. Advising movements for social justice, on the other hand, is like Karaoke singing – some people may happen to be better at it than others, but anyone has a right to grab the mike.
Several days ago this arrogant attitude reached its intellectual reductio ad absurdum with the publication of an op-ed piece by John Bolton advocating the Israeli bombing of Iran’s nuclear installations. It contained the following assertion:
Significantly, the uprising in Iran also makes it more likely that an effective public diplomacy campaign could be waged in the country to explain to Iranians that such an attack is directed against the regime, not against the Iranian people. This was always true, but it has become even more important to make this case emphatically, when the gulf between the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the citizens of Iran has never been clearer or wider. Military action against Iran’s nuclear program and the ultimate goal of regime change can be worked together consistently.
Bolton is not alone in this view. Writing in Commentary magazine, Max Boot quoted this precise paragraph, describing Bolton’s article as a “compelling and courageous analysis.”
Most people’s first reaction to this notion is a kind of mental double-take. What? Wait a minute — is he really saying he thinks Iranians can be “effectively” convinced to accept the bombing of their country as something that is not directed at them and is even ultimately done in support of their struggle for democracy?
One possibility, of course, is that neoconservatives don’t honestly believe this idea at all. They consider the bombing of the Iranian nuclear sites to be necessary regardless of any collateral consequences it may have and they are simply tossing this notion out to deflect one major objection.
Unfortunately, that’s the optimistic scenario.
Even worse is the possibility that they actually do believe that Iranians can be convinced to view the bombing of at least some 6-14 major nuclear installations – many within 150 miles of Tehran – as ultimately supporting and helping them in their struggle to win greater democracy.
To get some sense of how wildly implausible this notion actually is, it is only necessary to read any of a number of recent commentaries that detail the extraordinarily complex divisions within Iranian society that have emerged since the recent election. These divisions include those within (1) the clerical establishment, where there are at least four major divergent political forces at work, (2) the regular military, elite military, paramilitary and police forces (3) the business community (4) the young (5) the secular nationalists, (6) the urban working class (whose level of support for Ahmadinejad now much less certain than before the election) as well as other social groups and then to try to imagine how the bombing of their country by Israel would strengthen or weaken the position of each of these groups in the struggle for democracy.
Second, to get some sense of how successful social movements struggling for basic democratic rights actually do work and succeed, a good beginning is the chapters on Birmingham in Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King and the autobiographies of Andrew Young and John Lewis. These books describe the complex planning, infrastructure building and strategy that lay behind the campaigns in Birmingham and elsewhere – the creation of “freedom schools” and non-violent training sessions in hundreds of churches across the south and the instruction and matriculation of several thousand civil rights organizers. They also detail the subtle strategic maneuvers by King and his lieutenants in Birmingham – maneuvers that exploited fissures between the white business and white political elites, that applied boycotts and other forms of economic warfare to complement street demonstrations, that recognized the critical importance of maintaining continuing negotiations with the white power structure even at the most explosive moments of the campaign and that underlay the excruciatingly difficult decisions regarding when to call for demonstrations and when to cancel them and at what point to compromise and negotiate an agreement.
This information can then be supplemented by reading Gandhi’s writings on the struggle for independence in India and the extensive international comparisons of nonviolent movements presented in Dr. Gene Sharp’s magisterial studies “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” and “Waging Nonviolent struggle – 20th century practice and 21st century potential”. What quickly becomes clear is that analyzing the differences and similarities between, for example, Gandhi’s successful strategies in India and Martin Luther King’s in the American south is every bit as intellectually challenging and demanding a task as comparing Napoleon’s use of the “central position” at Austerlitz and Rommel’s exploitation of interior lines at the Kasserine Pass.
Obama actually knows the literature on social movements intimately. He has cited Branch’s work on King and King’s own books many times in his interviews and speeches, he has referenced the tactics and strategy of Caesar Chavez, the woman’s suffrage movement and the American trade union movement in his explanations of his own political strategy and he extensively studied the strategic conceptions of Saul Alinsky during his work as a community organizer in Chicago.
The neoconservatives, in contrast, have never seriously studied how real social movements work – a tradition of willful ignorance that can be traced back to modern conservatism’s founding leaders – Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and William Buckley. All three of these men publically opposed the 1963 March on Washington, denounced the civil rights movement as subversive and destructive and described Martin Luther King as, at best, a hopelessly naïve preacher who was only making things worse for his people. Later, when social pressure finally forced conservatives to praise King as a great “moral leader” (although never as a great political strategist or social thinker — as with Obama, they never stopped thinking of King as basically gullible and naïve) they still maintained an essentially comic book conception of the civil rights movement – Martin Luther King gave some beautiful speeches, lots of Black people marched in the street, nasty police dogs bit them on national TV and southern segregation collapsed.
This same comic book level of understanding is also applied to the social movements in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In this vision – one that is frequently cited by neoconservatives as a model for Iran today — Ronald Reagan increased the US military budget and called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.” Poland promptly exploded in protest and Russia obligingly collapsed (Oddly, it is never mentioned that the Polish strikers sang “We Shall Overcome” as they marched, not “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, that the documentary film “King – Montgomery to Memphis” was shown in Polish shipyards as source of inspiration, not Reagan’s “evil empire” speech and that Gene Sharp’s books are the sources most frequently cited by Soviet and East European protesters for their strategic thinking).
As a result, it is not really accurate to describe neoconservatives as ignorant about how social movements work because this substantially overstates the level of comprehension involved. It is not just that they lack specific knowledge and first- hand experience in this field but that they also lack many of the fundamental conceptual building blocks that are necessary to understand anything at all about how movements for social change succeed or fail. It is — in a very non-trivial sense — comparable to asking an 8 year old child to conduct a psychotherapy session for an abusive husband and battered wife. When asked for advice, he might easily suggest that the couple should go out to have ice cream together, or play “Hungry, Hungry Hippo” in order to share a good time. Within his limited conceptual framework, these ideas might actually seem to make sense.
Of course, if you also asked him for advice about whether to bomb Iran, he might also agree that the Iranians might not really mind as long as we said we really and truly weren’t mad at them personally and that we actually wanted to help them have free elections just like we do here in America. To him, this idea also might actually seem to make perfect sense.