Thursday, July 07, 2005

Those Pollyannas on the Potomac
Those Pollyannas on the Potomac

Thursday, July 07, 2005

There must have been a conference of conservative writers a few years ago during which Karl Rove sneaked a lifetime dose of Prozac into the after-dinner drinks. I wasn't invited and I have therefore retained a healthy skepticism about the Bush administration's efforts to remake the Mideast in its image.

The great mass of conservative pundits, however, seem to have lost their critical faculties in this regard. The great William F. Buckley, for example, had a column the other day in which he asked the question "Was it worth it?" about the Iraq war. I expected an analysis in which the usually acerbic Buckley would point out that prior Republican presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, had vanquished much deadlier enemies with negligible American casualties and at minimal expense.

But no, Buckley answered his own question by quoting Charles Krauthammer, the formerly rational inside-the-Beltway pundit who has of late taken on the aspect of a Dr. Strangelove. Krauthammer opines that we should "be doing everything in our power, both overtly and covertly, to encourage a democratic revolution in Iran, a deeply hostile and dangerous state, even while trying carefully to manage democratic evolution in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan."

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Iran already had a democratic revolution. Back in 1979, the masses arose and ousted the Shah. Iran then held a referendum on the question of whether the country should become an Islamic Republic. Eighty-five percent said yes. The margin of approval is down these days but only slightly. Given a choice between a moderate and an Islamic fundamentalist last month, 62 percent of Iranians chose the fundamentalist. Maybe I need some Prozac, but I can't imagine how things would turn out differently if elections were held in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

Americans are inherently optimistic, however, even those who call themselves conservatives. A far more realistic view of what is euphemistically called the "developing" world comes from V.S. Naipaul. The Nobel Prize-winning Naipaul is of Indian descent, grew up in Trinidad and is based in London. Shortly after the Iranian revolution in 1979, Naipaul did a tour of Islamic nations that he documented in his 1981 book "Among the Believers."

It was a masterpiece of pessimism, and that pessimism came from his examination of the rise of political Islam, which he described as "rage, anarchy." In a 1981 interview about the book, Naipaul talked about the mistaken Western view that Iranians saw what was happening as a tragedy.

"The tragedy is only in the eyes of the outside beholder," he said. "On the inside, local people are quite happy with the killing. Persians do like blood, blood of martyrs."

You're not supposed to say that sort of thing in polite society, and the proper writers of London were appalled. In a review of the book, one prominent writer took a more optimistic view of the prospects for democracy in the Islamic world. This writer complained that he could find "no hint in these pages that the new Islam there is a good deal more than Khomeinism, or that the mullocracy's hold on the people is actually very fragile."

This writer held out the hope that "moderate" Muslims in exile in Iraq would eventually lead Iran to "a multi-party democratic system of government." Who was that bright-eyed optimist who in 1981 had the same views the Bush administration is propounding in 2005? None other than Salman Rushdie, the writer who a few years later learned that not even the Muslim masses in Britain were moderate in their beliefs. Many of them called for his head after that infamous fatwa from the ayatollah. Rushdie was forced into hiding.

For all his claims to religiosity, President Bush seems to miss a key point here: Some people who claim to believe in absolutes really do believe in absolutes. Bush has predicated the foreign policy of this country on the rather shaky theory that there is a majority -- a silent one, no doubt -- of "moderate" Muslims in the Mideast. Like Rushdie in 1981, Bush believes the rise of these moderates is just around the corner.

Naipaul says the situation is much worse than most Americans can grasp. In a recent interview, he described perfectly the rather naive American view of the 9/11 attacks:

"People could deal with it as an act of terror, but the idea of religious war is too frightening for people to manage. But religious war is so threatening to the rest of us that it cannot be avoided. It will have to be fought ... there are certain countries which foment it, and they probably should be destroyed, actually."

He then listed Saudi Arabia and Iran as among those countries. Somebody should get that guy some Prozac. Or take it away from everyone else.

Paul Mulshine is a Star-Ledger columnist. He may be reached at