Saturday, April 14, 2007

Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran

First a production note about these reviews. The main reason for switching to this blog-based approach is that the large single file was becoming too awkward to work with. Close to 300 KB now. Some secondary reasons are that the blogging approach is basically mechanically easy and that these reviews are essentially chronological, reflecting my mental model of that book at a certain moment.

Review of Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran by Barry Rubin

This is not a new book, but it certainly should have been on Dubya's required reading list before he started his little war against Saddam. It basically gives a lot of the background that led so many of the regional experts to oppose the little adventure. Though it was published in 1981 and therefore stops at that point, it still manages to lead toward a number of obvious lines of analysis that lead to unpleasant conclusions--which are now being proven valid. Sure, Dubya has found some new mistakes to make, but why did he have to repeat all of these old ones, too? As a result of reading this book, I feel like my thinking has developed along three major lines of analysis:
  1. Before reading the book, I thought the three-way partition of Iraq was basically inevitable as the natural least-effort solution that would come closest to satisfying the largest number of the most directly affected people. However, that was also based upon my belief that the Shia majority would think rationally about the costs of an extended civil war to impose their will on the old Sunni rulers and the Kurds. My main concern was the desire for revenge factor, but I thought that the Shia might be reasonable and let it go in exchange for the oil. This book led me to feel that the main religious leader in Iraq is quite probably trying to play the same game as Khomeini played so successfully in Iran, and that game included brutal and ultimately successful suppression of secessionist movements. From that perspective, the Shia leaders are only toying with the US, and using Dubya's incompetence for their own purposes--and there's quite a bit of evidence in favor of that theory.
  2. In many ways, there are strong similarities between Khomeini's religious-based philosophy and Dubya's proto-philosophic rantings. Unfortunately, where they differ, it seems that the ignorant and poorly educated Khomeini had the better grasp of reality.
  3. I wound up with a weird image of Saddam and the Shah of the Iran as the evil stepfathers of Iraq and Iran, respectively, with the US playing the role of some kind of wicked wizard. I guess that leaves the innocent people of those countries in the role of Cinderella or Snow White?

Not sure how to review the book in more detail... It is basically a historical account, and the early parts of the book seem very solid as background information. From the perspective of how things developed after 1980, I was looking very closely for mentions of Iraq. However, in the context of the times, Iraq is mentioned as a threat, but not a major one. The Soviet Union was taken much more seriously, and the author spends a lot of time trying to consider why the religious fundamentalists were basically ignored. I feel he does a pretty good job of covering the older history, and it's natural that he can't get the same degree of clear perspective on the more recent events. The book basically ends during the hostage crisis, though the final time line extends to the release of the hostages, so I think that was tucked in just as the book went to press. There are also some problems in the time line that may have been related to other last-minute additions.

Especially since the author has a name that sounds Jewish, I was looking carefully for pro-Israeli bias, but I didn't feel like there was much of that. It seemed like a very even-handed treatment, though I felt like the Israeli contributions to the broader regional mess might have been a bit understated. However, that does not seem unreasonable since the focus here is Iran, which hadn't had much involvement with Israel. (More recently, the Iranians have found it politically expedient to start beating on that drum, too... It would have been nice if the book had given some insight on the degree of their sincerity in attacking Israel, but I was left with the impression that they'll attack anyone if it suits their purposes, but their purposes are mostly focused internally towards maintaining their own power.)

The author does show some pro-American bias, however, basically assuming that America's motives are pure. That part looks rather naive from the current perspective. His presentation is that Carter was sincere in not wanting to interfere with Iran's internal affairs, and that the Iranian fears were falsely exaggerated to build up their domestic support. However, the Iranians are not going to interpret things that way in light of the war with Iraq that followed. Seems downright reasonable for them to feel that America was attempting to use Iraq to punish them, and America would have been glad if Saddam's efforts (while he was still America's friend and puppet) had resulted in the collapse and defeat of Khomeini's Islamic revolution. I suppose the Iranian's were especially angry that the Americans were providing weapons to both sides of that conflict and helping them to kill each other--and now there are reports the Iranians are supporting at least two of the sides in Iraq and helping them to kill each other--with the Americans in the middle of the mess.

The book had a lot of interesting background information on Ruhollah al-Musawi ibn Mustafa ibn Mustafa ibn Ahmad al-Musawi al-Khomeini, which is apparently Ayatollah Khomeini's complete name. It could have been deeper, but it did give a good overview of his religious philosophy and political strategies, both leading to the extremely confrontational approach he took against the Shah and against America. I was especially struck by this passage on page 275, which reminded me of some of Dubya's most extreme supporters: "Those who criticize or try to block this single voice, therefore, cannot be true Muslims: dissent equals treason." Later, on page 303, there is this sentence that reminds me of how many critics describe the Bush administration: "The concept of ideology first (in Maoist terminology, "politics in command") pervaded their thoughts and actions." However, this "their" was Khomeini and his followers, no matter how suitable it seems for Rove and Cheney.

I feel like I should include a brief overview of the history in terms of the blame for he mess, based on the impressions the book left me. That basically translates into how the relevant presidents steered American foreign policy vis a vis Iraq. My conclusion there is that there were basically two major sins of commission, one by Eisenhower and the other by Nixon, and a major sin of omission by Carter. The other presidents basically had a kind of skeptical attitude about the entire country and didn't want much to do with it. I think Truman probably gets credit for the only episode that really seems successful, which was getting the Russians out after WW II while not really increasing America's involvement. However, that minimalist approach could be linked to Eisenhower's mistake, which was also a kind of minimalist idea. Eisenhower wanted to leverage dissatisfaction with the Iranian nationalists and allowed the CIA to intervene at the critical juncture to overthrow that government in favor of the Shah--thus allowing the later Iranians to blame America for the Shah's incompetence and abuses. At the time, it looked like a bargain, with minimal American involvement for what seemed to be a preferable outcome. Nixon's mistake was to unleash the Shah, basically declaring him our best friend in that region and allowing him to buy any weapons he wanted (except for nuclear weapons). The Shah had always had militaristic leanings, and without the leash holding back his military spending, he managed to bankrupt the country in spite of all of the oil revenue. The book left me feeling like Carter must have made a sin of omission, but I also have to say that I'm not clear what it was. I guess my feeling is that if Carter had quickly realized that the Iran's problems were internal, then he could have applied more pressure for reforms that might have prevented Khomeini from taking over... However, the book actually provides quite a bit of defense for Carter, emphasizing how the intelligence community failed to assess the realities of the time, and it even suggests that America's external leverage was much more limited than many people, including many Iranians, believed it to be.

Not really sure what to offer as an overall conclusion. The book does have a lot of important background information, but it ends just when things are getting interesting, so to speak. Basically it leaves me wondering about how things turned out, and even though I know a few of the outcomes from the perspective of the quarter century since the book was written, I'd like to see a sequel or two. However, one thing seems absolutely clear: Dubya (and his handlers) never read it.

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