Few events have so encapsulated the Funhouse Mirror aspect of American political debate as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York. According to the Chicken Little Brigade in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the bearded little fellow in the bad suit is only the latest in a succession of freedom-hating "madmen" bent upon destroying what the old Superman comics called "Truth, justice, and the American way."
So many would-be Hitlers, so little time remaining to smite them. In reality, Ahmadinejad's more a Persian George Wallace, a petty demagogue. Even as he made a fool of himself at Columbia University, giggling like a schoolboy at the idea of Iranian homosexuals, neoconservative ideologues urged the president to launch another "pre-emptive" strike against Iran.
(Actually, according to Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd, Ahmadinejad didn't claim Iran has no gays, just no "homosexual culture." Maybe because no doubt to the envy of radical cleric Pat Robertson, homosexual acts are punishable by death there. Even so, irreverent Iranian bloggers offered to guide Ahmadinejad to Tehran parks to meet boys dressed as girls. But I digress.)
Norman Podhoretz, deepest of all neoconservative thinkers and adviser to Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign, recently had an audience with Bush. The author of "World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism" (Doubleday, 2007), thinks he talked the president into it. "I believe President Bush is going to order air strikes (on Iran) before he leaves office," Podhoretz said. Other True Believers have echoed him.
The sheer unreality of political debate in this country has become almost impossible to overstate. Time was when taking America to war was a grave and agonizing matter. Today, it's a kind of televised spectator sport to pundits and self-styled intellectuals who expect to be very far away when the killing and dying start.
The neocons have been spoiling for war with Iran since years before Bush or Ahmadinejad came to power. A 2000 "Project for a New American Century" position paper signed by Cheney, Rummy, Wolfie, etc., advocated forcibly rearranging Iran's government to our liking. These characters are never more solemn than when they can't even trouble themselves to be serious.
Did you know, for example, that Iran's president has no authority whatsoever over its armed forces? Even if Ahmadinejad wanted to commit national suicide by attacking Israel or the United States, he couldn't. The real power belongs to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself constrained by a Shiite religious hierarchy somewhat resembling the 16th Century Roman Catholic College of Cardinals. Khamenei consistently denies aggressive intentions.
The semi-hysterical media response to Ahmadinejad verged on self-parody. "THE EVIL HAS LANDED," headlined the New York Daily News. Grabbing the spotlight, Columbia President Lee Bollinger performed the difficult feat of making the little jerk look good by making an even bigger jerk of himself. Yes, Iran's government is an intolerant theocracy. Yes, political dissenters are often jailed.
Calling Ahmadinejad "a petty and cruel dictator" while taunting him for his party's losses in recent elections, however, required real creativity. Both things can't be true. Indeed, Columbia students are far from the first to confront him. Students at Tehran's Amirkabir University shouted Ahmadinejad off the podium earlier this year.
Indeed, the most penetrating critique of the Iranian president's juvenile and offensive Holocaust denial came from a Tehran blogger. "When you, the Iranian president, don't understand how to criticize Israel and Zionism so your criticism is taken seriously, and not ridiculed by all, what kind of treatment do you expect from others? … I know that you really meant that the Holocaust should not be used as an excuse to oppress the Palestinians. But if you expected others to grasp your meaning, you should have just said it plain and simple."
Would anybody listen? Getting even the most basic facts through the incessant barrage of neocon propaganda can be hard. Most Americans' knowledge of Iran dates to the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis — during which, it's worth recalling, nobody died. To Iranians, the CIA-sponsored 1953 coup that installed the corrupt, dictatorial Shah remains a bitter memory. Not to mention Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's brutal invasion during the 1980s, which cost millions of Iranian lives. Then, the United States backed Saddam's play.
Even so, as former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee pointed out, "When we first invaded Afghanistan, Iran helped, especially in dealings with their ally, the Northern Alliance. They wanted to join us in fighting Al Qaeda. … The CIA and State Department supported a partnership. Some in the White House and beyond did not. And when President Bush included Iran in the Axis of Evil, everything went downhill pretty fast."
Iran is four times larger than Iraq. The same jokers who predicted a "cakewalk" there now say that bombing Iran would cause its people to rise up and install a U.S.-friendly government.
What's worse? If they actually believe that, or if they don't?
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.