Years ago, during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, a colleague of mine and I took the train from Manhattan down to Princeton, New Jersey's Institute for Advanced Study, where we had an appointment with Bernard Lewis, the renowned, conservative Middle East scholar.
I don't recall much about the meeting but I do remember that at one point, we broached the much-discussed theory that part of the reason Iranian students had taken over our embassy might have been allegations that the United States had helped train the deposed Shah's secret police, the Savak, in methods of torture.
Lewis snorted disdainfully and remarked, "Saying we taught them torture is like saying we taught them how to weave rugs!"
Today, Bernard Lewis remains an intellectual fave of the neo-con crowd, a pal of Dick Cheney and Richard Perle, among others, who warns of Islam's "cosmic struggle for world domination" and urged this administration on as it planned the march to Baghdad.
Now, as the White House, with Cheney leading the charge, redirects its aggressive sword-rattling in the general direction of Iran, I often think of Lewis' words back at Princeton. It's that same combination of condescension and stagnant thinking, currently cross-pollinated by willful ignorance, that so dictates our disastrous policy in the Middle East. Just thinking about it makes me want to go screaming into the twilight of American exceptionalism.
As Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria wrote a few weeks ago, "The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality." He's worth quoting at length:
"Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?...
"We're on a path to irreversible confrontation with a country we know almost nothing about. The United States government has had no diplomats in Iran for almost 30 years. American officials have barely met with any senior Iranian politicians or officials. We have no contact with the country's vibrant civil society. Iran is a black hole to us --- just as Iraq had become in 2003."
And yet we seem to have no compunction about glibly comparing Iran to Nazi Germany, just as, such a short time ago, President Bush and Vice President Cheney compared Saddam to Hitler. "There is a desperate effort by Cheney et al. to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible," a former intelligence official told The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh last month. "Meanwhile, the politicians are saying, You can't do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated, and we're only one fact from going over the cliff in Iraq.' But Cheney doesn't give a rat's ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President."
What may in the end save us -- even the Republicans -- from yet another Mideast quagmire is the sheer logistics of taking action against Iran in the midst of all our other troubles over there. In this instance, at least, the military is the voice of reason, realizing far better than anyone else just how thinly stretched our armed resources really are.
"We're in a conflict in two countries out there right now," Admiral Mike Mullen, the new chairman of the joint chiefs, told the New York Times. "We have to be incredibly thoughtful about the potential of in fact getting into a conflict with a third country in that part of the world.""The military option is a last resort, he said, not the first.
His words were echoed last week by Admiral William Fallon, head of Central Command. In an interview with the Financial Times, he referred to "continuing stories that just keep going around and around and around that any day now there will be another war which is just not where we want to go.
"Getting Iranian behavior to change and finding ways to get them to come to their senses and do that is the real objective. Attacking them as a means to get to that spot strikes me as being not the first choice in my book."
Elsewise, we are headed into madness, like the nightmare experienced by the heroine of an Emily Dickinson poem I read the other evening, caught in a delirious funeral: "And then a plank in reason, broke, /And I dropped down and down/And hit a world at every plunge,/And finished knowing - then --"
Then - the precipitous fall, deeper and deeper into insanity.
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
copyright 2007 Michael Winship