Moses Maimonides, the famous Jewish physician and theologian of Medieval Cordoba, had a tendency to refer to the Muslim Prophet Mohammad as “the madman.” Maimonides had reasons abundant to use this term. The Jews of Cordoba lived for a long time as dhimis before being forcefully expelled by their Islamic rulers. Granted, had he lived a few centuries later on the Christian conquerors would have given him much the same choice as the Almohades: conversion, exile, or death. He traveled across Africa, to the Holy Land, and eventually ended up under the protection of the remarkably tolerant Kurdish Sultan of Egypt, Saladin.
I think Maimonides may have given a similar nickname to the current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jeffrey Goldberg has a good round-up of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statements on Israel. The “Madman of Tehran” has a nice ring to it, and Maimonides would be quite correct in leveling at him were he with us today.
October, 2005: “Our dear Imam said that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map and this was a very wise statement. We cannot compromise over the issue of Palestine… I have no doubt that the new wave that has started in Palestine, and we witness it in the Islamic world too, will eliminate this disgraceful stain from the Islamic world. But we must be aware of tricks.”
October, 2006: “This regime (Israel) will be gone, definitely…”You (the Western powers) should know that any government that stands by the Zionist regime from now on will not see any result but the hatred of the people…The wrath of the region’s people is boiling… You should not complain that we did not give a warning. We are saying this explicitly now…”
October 5, 2007: “Canada and Alaska have vast lands, why don’t you relocate them over there and keep helping them over there with (aid of) 30 to 40 billion dollars per year for building a new existence over there?”
And there’s much, much more. Diplomat he is not. Orator and propagandist, certainly. His demagoguery, however, is of the blatant and – quite frankly – laughable variety. Madman, perhaps, but also national buffoon. He is one of those men who can stir the embers of national discontent but is otherwise generally harmless. The blustering and bloviating are fit more for conservative talk radio than any substantive national platform. Like many of his contemporary demagogues, he is mostly boring.
Besides that, he is little more than a figure-head; a dancing puppet for the Supreme Leader. Inasmuch as he speaks for Khamenei, Ahmadinejad is dangerous. Mostly, however, he plays the part of PR man, or prancing monkey. Few take him seriously, and even his hard line on nuclear weapons is not too terribly out of line with Iranian popular opinion. It is his views on Israel that are so extreme, and though they are reflective of Iranian popular opinion, it is nevertheless likely that normalized relations with the United States could ease this up a great deal – leading maybe not to Iranian/Israeli friendship, but perhaps at least a cold peace.
Diplomacy is not quite a lost art. There is time yet to normalize relations with Iran, though it must be done with delicacy and care. There are more than a few problems when negotiating with a prancing monkey, a clerical despot, and a nation whose security apparatus is wound up with at least a few terrorist and nationalist movements across the region; all of which doesn’t even speak to the fact that Iran is a clear and present danger to virtually all of its Arab neighbors, many of whom are our allies.
Nevertheless, it must be done. We may not be at a point where reigning in the Persian Bomb is even possible. It is likely only a matter of time now. But normalized relations could prevent a war between Israel and Iran (and possibly the United States, threadbare as our military may be). Nothing perfect comes from diplomacy, of course. It’s doubtful the unwinding of Iran’s many militant ties would be at all swift; even more doubtful that the over-the-top rhetoric against the United States and the “evil Zionists” would die down very quickly.
The sad truth is that all of this could have been achieved more easily with Obama in office, a man obviously committed to serious diplomacy; but there is little doubt that the ascension of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman in Israel will muddy this process. The two may not be able to match Ahmadinejad in demagoguery, bluster for bluster, but they are both much more dangerous. Lieberman’s no puppet and despite his divisive politics, he’s secured a good deal of real power, especially with Netanyahu at the helm. Neither man seems at all committed to dismantling the settlements, and both view the use of unrelenting force as the answer to the Israel/Palestine territorial dispute. Lack of resolve in their predecessors, they believe, is largely responsible for the current state of affairs. Whether or not they are right or wrong on this point is immaterial: times have changed, and the time for the sort of bold, cruel action that could indeed have put an end to all of this years ago – say, the expulsion of the Arabs entirely from the occupied territories and Israel – is past us now.
America needs stability badly at this point, as does Israel. The unrest, missile tests, and economic crisis are all illustrations of exactly why we need this stability. And bloating our defense budget and stretching our forces out is not the best way to achieve this. We are incapable of fighting all the bogeys we believe are out to get us, no matter how many billions we pour into our defense budget. We can barely keep the seems together in Iraq; in Afghanistan, despite the promised troop influx, our efforts are faltering; and regardless of what foreign policy experts may have to say about North Korea, it would be pretty difficult to finish the two wars we’ve already begun and take on the full might of the North Korean military – especially if we become entangled, at the behest of Israel, in a fight to the death with Iran. All of which misses the larger points – 1) Pakistan is the real nexus of global insecurity right now; and 2) we’ve got more than enough to keep ourselves occupied at our own southern border. None of this is for lack of funding, I’m afraid.
All these madmen and dancing fools are just distractions, and meeting them with force is a mistake. We’re being hoodwinked by the hawks and idealogues. This extension of force is unsustainable and puts us in a much weaker, less defensible position. Let’s look to America first for once, and not fall once again for this neoconservative vision of an American Century. Obama’s liberal military globalism has the potential to be just as disastrous as his predecessor’s, should he choose that course instead. The time for diplomacy, no matter how futile it appears now, is upon us.