Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Groundhog ministers

We are going to have to re-evaluate Michael Gove, never this Blog’s favourite columnist, but for once he has written an intelligent and thoughtful piece in The Times today - this one about the situation in Iran and the European obsession about demonising George W. Bush.

Gove starts off by mentioning my collegue Christopher Booker’s new book which he describes as "his new masterpiece." This is The Seven Basic Plots, Why We Tell Stories and, for that, Gove can do no wrong.

But the point Gove makes is valid. Every year, he writes, more than a million books are published, thousands of films are released and hundreds of new television series are aired. But behind all this creativity lies a wonderful simplicity. Apparently every story we tell can be classified as one of just seven archetypes. Christopher Booker painstakingly but compellingly explains why the power of the human imagination invariably finds its expression in variants of these templates.

Seven plots may seem a limited bank on which to draw, Gove continues, but today’s commentators on foreign affairs don’t need to stretch themselves even that far. In a world grown ever more complex and insecure, there’s still only one basic plot that they like to run. The Madness of George W:

Whatever the crisis, whichever part of the world our attention is grabbed by, whatever the range of options available, the same horror story is churned out. A peaceful world waits in fear for the next terrible attack perpetrated by the monster in the West Wing.
One does get terribly weary of this, watching day after day the tedious, stilted commentary, all directed towards that one theme, and Gove is right to draw attention to it. But he then links it with Iran. In the past week, he writes, attention has focused once more on Iran's drive to acquire nuclear weaponry. He continues:

In a saner climate, sober questions would now be asked about the danger posed by a state that already invests a hundred million dollars a year supporting the terrorists of Hezbollah getting its hands on nuclear devices. There would be a relentless focus on the requirement to ensure muscular action which could prevent the men who have put a price on Salman Rushdie’s head acquiring the means to terrorise millions more.

And there would an urgent analysis of the dynamics within Iran that allow a clique of Islamist hardliners to pursue their nuclear ambitions while the majority of their countrymen face increasing economic hardship and political oppression.

But instead of looking nervously towards Tehran, the leaders of Western opinion appear far more worried that America has noticed there is a problem. And may actually do something about it.The prevailing attitude among opinion formers is evident in the reporting of Jack Straw's visit to Washington, where it is apparently hoped that he will "exercise a restraining hand" on the US Administration.

The wishful thinking which attends the Foreign Secretary’s trip reflects the lack of sophistication in European thinking on international security matters.
On this Blog, we have questioned Straw’s drift towards the European camp, and the word in informed circles in Westminster is that Straw is not indulging in "wishful thinking". He is deliberately taking an anti-American line on this and on China to distance himself from the UK's support of Bush in Iraq.

This is a purely tactical - i.e., unprincipled - ploy to assuage the anti-war wing of his own Party, and to earn brownie points with anti-war campaigners out in the country. There is a general election to fight, after all.

Gove, however, notes that, "among Europeans it is a commonplace to assert that the Bush Administration is a crude beast, incapable of approaching any problem without either reaching for its Bible or its gun."

But, in truth, he says, "it is the Europeans who respond to every situation in clich├ęd fashion, while the American Government exercises both intellectual freshness and tactical flexibility. Europe’s principal negotiators, Mr Straw, Joschka Fischer and Michel Barnier are Groundhog Ministers, repeating the same policy of appeasing oppressors which has got us nowhere in the past, either with Tehran or with other tyrannies."

I do like that – "groundhog ministers". It fits so well.

"By contrast," writes our Gove, "in and around the US Administration there is a preparedness to appreciate both the urgency of the threat and the requirement to think imaginatively."

The energy with which oil and gas-rich Iran has pursued a uranium enrichment programme, as well as the persistence it has deployed towards evading scrutiny, not to mention the nature of the technology it has acquired, all point inescapably towards Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

But the automatic assumption that the lumbering Americans are now bound to react by crude military means reflects European prejudice more than global reality. America has to retain the capacity to act militarily, in extremis, but a far more promising route is the political path. Not the European option of political elite coddling political elite, but the more radical and hopeful course of encouraging democracy. Within Iran discontent with the mullahs is growing.
He points out that the Iranian people have been living with an Islamic revolution for the past 25 years and all it has brought is poverty, oppression and the crushing of the human spirit.

Yet, among the Iranian people there is a yearning to break free, expressed in surprisingly pro-American ways. There were spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity with the victims of 9/11 which were brutally put down by the ruling elite. But agitation for democratic change continues in the face of imprisonment and execution.

The advent of free elections in neighbouring Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the prospect that fellow Shias across the border, such as the moderate Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, can enjoy the fruits of democracy is profoundly encouraging for the Iranian opposition. And what is so profoundly depressing for them is the continued indulgence of their oppressors by the West.

That is why President Bush's inspirational inaugural address matters so much. Just as Ronald Reagan’s condemnation of the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire gave Soviet dissidents hope that they were not alone, and thus the courage to fight on, so America's delineation of Iran as an "outpost of tyranny" gives hope to the democratic opposition in that country. And we can give much more.

Broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe and trade union movements such as Solidarity, backed by the West, were instrumental in the fall of communism 20 years ago. In the past few years the West has directly encouraged nascent democratic movements in Yugoslavia, Georgia and Ukraine.

There are many routes we can follow to give hope to the people of Iran, remove the oppression they labour under and reduce the threat we face. Provided we remember the single most important story of our time. The same story we saw enacted in the shipyards of Gdansk and Wenceslas Square. The story which ended before it could even begin in Tiananmen Square. And the story which, after President Bush’s words last Thursday, has never been more relevant than now.
So says Gove and so say we all. A little less prejudice and a little more intelligence is called for and, as my colleague (Szamuley) has noted, it is about time we recognised who our friends really are.

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