As an occasional past subscriber and more regular buyer of The Spectator, my recollection of the magazine was that it had improved over recent years. Having bought the April 15 issue on impulse, though, I was really quite shocked at the poor quality of the main editorial, “Our Own Cuban Missile Crisis” (access requires subscription).
Although I tend to fairly strongly conservative (but anti-state) positions on many social and economic issues, I also have strong classical liberal positions on others, so there is nothing particularly surprising in a Spectator editorial with which I disagree politically. From past experience, upon picking up a new copy I would have guessed at roughly a 50/50 likelihood of finding that I broadly agreed or disagreed with the thrust of the editorial. In the latter case, however, I would have expected to at least be given a reasonably coherent and (superficially, at any rate) intellectually justifiable case to consider.
Not this time, it seems. On what is probably the single most important and urgent short-term issue of the day, The Spectator has served up a piece of nonsense, a collection of insupportable absurdities explicable only by profound stupidity or ignorance on the part of the author, or by a shameless intent to propagandize without concern for intellectual respectability.
The most important and urgent issue of the day, of course, is the U.S. government’s evidently ardent desire to attack Iran. War (for that is what bombing a sovereign nation is called, when honesty is deployed in place of the kind of mendacious Newspeak preferred by politicians these days) can never be of less than overriding importance. People are going to get blown apart. Property is going to be destroyed on a huge scale. Money raised by taxation for national defense is going to be spent in torrents. What, then, does The Spectator have to offer us on this grave subject?
The title of The Spectator‘s offering is, it has to be said, a bad start. Such a blatantly false analogy can, one supposes, only have been used with the intent of misleading by use of the most basic of propaganda tools that of playing upon the reader’s fear.
Not satisfied with this, the writer of the editorial launches into the piece with a self-serving contradiction: “Iran’s leaders may be crazed and dangerous fanatics, but they are not stupid.” Conveniently for the writer, we are apparently to believe that the rulers of Iran are just sufficiently “crazed fanatics” to be dangerously unpredictable (and therefore, implicitly, undeterrable), but cunning and pragmatic enough to be faced down if the U.S. and British regimes are firm in threatening them (for, as the editorial later asserts, “time is running out for diplomacy”).
The rest of the piece positively drips with affirmations of the threat Iran evidently poses in the mind of the writer to “us.” We ought to be able to assume the latter would be the citizens of the UK, where the magazine and the vast majority of its readership are located, but the content of the article suggests the author must have somebody else in mind. A reader ignorant of history, military matters, and foreign affairs would never suspect, from the content of this editorial alone, that the objective reality is that Iran poses no existential or even significant military threat whatsoever (1) to the UK, and is unlikely to do so in the near future. Nor is there any reason to suppose the Iranians have any wish to attack us, even if they could, unless we provoke them. Even the hypothetical (it would be nice to believe) reader of such profound general ignorance might, if gifted with reasonable intelligence and the minimum of geographical knowledge, feel some stirrings of suspicion when reading of the “intercontinental missile, the Shahab-3, with an 800-mile range,” which, we are breathlessly informed, the Iranian regime is developing. One might wonder about the urgency of the supposed threat, given that Tehran is several thousand miles from London (2,738, according to one Web site).
But of course, the author has covered that base with the allegation that Iran is “the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism the paymaster of among many others the Lebanese Shi’ite militants of Hezbollah (which Iran helped to found in the 1980s), the Palestinian terrorist group and now government, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and many of the barbaric terrorists who are murdering innocent Muslims every day in Iraq in an effort to destroy its first taste of freedom [sic!]” So we are to cower in fear at the possibility that Iran might after all have an effective delivery system for its weapons terrorists!
Of course, it would take some knowledge of foreign affairs for the reader to notice the common thread among all the “terrorist groups” mentioned (with the exception of the Iraqi resistance groups mentioned last, of whom more later). They all arose and exist to oppose Israel. They are not a problem for “us,” except insofar as “we” identify Israel’s interests with our own. For those of us who can see that Israel has made its own bed by its refusal to halt the occupation and colonization of the Palestinian areas taken in the 1967 war, and are quite willing to let Israel lie in that bed until it chooses to get out (by unilateral withdrawal of troops and colonists, if necessary), this is especially absurd. However, for anybody with anything other than a highly partisan pro-Israel attitude, there is no reason to regard Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as any more of a problem for us than the Chechen rebels or the Nepalese Maoists.
The other group mentioned is the Iraqi resistance. Of course, anybody who knows anything about the region knows that Iran has strong connections with many groups in Iraq. However, there is no reason to suppose Iran has any connection with the people responsible for the acts most readers of the editorial will think of in reference to “murdering innocent Muslims every day in Iraq in an effort to destroy its first taste of freedom.” Nobody (least of all the writer of The Spectator‘s editorial, although the implication of his confident pontificating on this point is that he knows better than everyone else U.S. military intelligence included) really knows for certain the particular motives for most of the attacks in Iraq and the identities of those responsible. Initially, the U.S. military claimed they were mostly “Saddam die-hards” and “foreign fighters” the latter being Sunni volunteers fighting the U.S. occupation forces and their Iraqi allies. Sadly for The Spectator, Iran is probably more hated by and opposed to these two groups than even the U.S. government (which supported both Saddam and Sunni jihadists in the past). Iran supports Shi’ite militias within Iraq, but they have hitherto mostly been de facto allies of the U.S. occupation, and when they haven’t (for instance, when Sadr’s Mahdi Army has clashed with U.S. occupying forces) they have engaged in guerrilla attacks on military forces rather than attacks on civilian targets.
The exceptions to the above, even more embarrassingly to The Spectator, have been the sectarian killings generally thought to have been carried out by Shi’ite extremists within the occupation government’s police and security forces. Although these probably mostly come from the Iranian-backed SCIRI/Badr group, they were as likely as not armed and trained by the U.S. as part of the very government instituted following the U.S./UK invasion (i.e., Iraq’s “first taste of freedom”).
Of course, the vast majority of The Spectator‘s readers do not have sufficient knowledge of the real situation to recognize the inaccuracy of the editorial’s depiction, and will come away with the simple (and incorrect) idea that Iranian interference is responsible for the car bombs and other atrocities occasionally seen on their television screens (when there’s insufficient domestic news to keep it out of the headlines, that is). How unfortunate that the editorial writer (who, we must hope, has some actual knowledge of the real situation) should inadvertently mislead his readers in this way.
Such an editorial would not, of course, be complete without some ad hominem smears of those who oppose aggression against Iran. Thus the reference to “some secretive neoconservative plan to control the world,” as if “full spectrum dominance” and the Project for a New American Century were some modern-day equivalent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, rather than public pronouncements by some of the most senior figures in the Bush administration. The “liberal-left commentariat in the West” is guilty of “evading the principal problem” (i.e., the mythical “immense threat from a militant and increasingly emboldened Iran”) because of its “increasingly irrational hatred of U.S. foreign policy and the Bush White House.” Of course, hatred of a policy that has resulted in tens or hundreds of thousands of innocents’ deaths and trillions of pounds of waste and destruction so far could only be irrational, could it not? Needless to say, in a publication such as The Spectator, with an avowedly conservative readership, associating the opposition with the irrational liberal-left commentariat can be counted upon to generate a knee-jerk spasm of agreement, without any need for actual truth.
Many of the other simply incorrect assertions present in the piece result from the false premises upon which it is based, but these are generally unstated or unexplored, of course. Thus: expert predictions that Iran will not be ready to produce a bomb (even if left undisturbed) for three to 10 years “miss the real point [ b]ombing an active reactor would result in radioactive fallout,” which simply assumes that the sensible alternative of just leaving Iran to develop nuclear power is ruled out a priori. And: “There is no magic bullet to solve the mounting Iranian crisis” is simply false because it likewise ignores the obvious magic bullet that would solve the crisis overnight leaving Iran alone to develop nuclear power as it is entitled to do. Nowhere, of course, does the editorial writer confess to the truth that he has no way of knowing the Iranian regime is actually seeking nuclear weapons, as opposed to nuclear power. This is also presented (laughably) as an a priori assumption.
Hence the conclusion of the editorial is as flawed as the premises upon which it is based:
“[T]ime is running out for negotiations. The regime must be told in unambiguous language that the West is absolutely serious in its determination not to allow an unreformed Iran to go nuclear; the possibility of military action as a last resort [sic!] must not and cannot be ruled out. Unless the West is ready to show the mullahs that we are deadly serious, what is now a dire situation will eventually turn into the worst crisis in international relations since the Cuban missile crisis. How to deal with Iran is our biggest test since the Cold War; we must not allow the voices of appeasement or our troubles in Iraq to threaten our clarity of purpose.”
It may be that some of The Spectator‘s readers share the absurd premises on which this editorial is based: the identification of Israel’s interests with our own, the presumption that international laws and sovereignty are only applicable in favor of the U.S. and UK and those nations with regimes approved by them, and the convenient belief that Iranian leaders are just fanatically religious enough to be dangerous and undeterrable, but simultaneously just pragmatic enough to respond to threats (and, incidentally, to ignore the clear statements of their religious authorities against the ownership and use of nuclear weapons).
However, those who don’t accept those premises are surely entitled at least to a more sophisticated attempt to frighten them into supporting (or at least not strongly opposing) the unilateral use of force by the U.S. (and the UK’s complicity in such). Sadly, this kind of misleading propaganda dressed up as editorial content is all too common in the mainstream Western press and media.
(1) This is predicated, obviously, on the assumption (which ought to be safe, but sadly happens not to be at the moment) that we are not interfering in the Middle East and thereby simultaneously putting ourselves within reach of Iran’s military and giving them a reason to want to attack us. Of course, the first solution is to cease the aforementioned interference forthwith. We have no interests in the Middle East that require a military presence.