Suppressing Reality-Based Analysis: Chomsky, the Leveretts, and America’s Iran Debate

By | January 8, 2020

Mainstream reaction to our new book, Going to Tehran:  Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, underscores some important realities about America’s Iran debate—and about the political and cultural obstacles to truly constructive change in American foreign policy.  Flynt addressed this point last week on “The Monitor,” a news analysis program hosted by Mark Bebawi and Otis McClay for KPFT, Pacifica Radio’s Houston station.  (To listen to the interview, click here; Flynt is the second half of the program, so those who want to go directly to him should scroll forward to just slightly past the halfway mark.)

In his first question, Mark Bebawi underscores that both of us are people who have spent “a lot of time in the institutions of power,” with connections to “all sorts of fairly well respected within the mainstream” organizations (e.g., the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and, at various points, prominent Washington think tanks).  He commends Going to Tehran as “full of logical thinking based on history.”  He notes, though, that because the book’s analyses and arguments are “going against the tide,” mainstream reaction to Going to Tehran is “full of all sorts of accusations about what your motives might be” for having written itincluding “everything from accusations of being agents of the Iranian government to being a disgruntled employee.”  Flynt responds,

We are taking on a very well entrenched mythology about Iran—about its foreign policy, about its internal politics, about how the United States deals with it.  Particularly in the post-Cold War era, America has embraced some very, very dangerous mythologies about different parts of the world, about America’s role in the world—I think that’s an important part of how we got into the terrible blunder and crime of the Iraq War.

My wife and I watched that one from the inside, when all the institutions that Americans are supposed to rely on to push back against bad policy ideas, against bad analysis, against bad arguments—institutions like Congress, media, think tanks, public intellectuals—with a few honorable and courageous exceptions, those institutions basically rolled over for the executive branch.  And we were determined that, this time around, someone was going to ask the hard questions, make the kind of countervailing arguments that should have been made before the Iraq invasion, but weren’t.

But if you’re going to take that task on, you’re going to be confronting, as I said, a lot of well entrenched myths, with some very powerful constituencies and groups and interests that are identified with those myths.  And they will come at you with everything they’ve got.

The interview goes on to consider whether American policy toward Iran has changed very much during Barack Obama’s presidency, to dissect some of the specific myths that distort America’s Iran debate (on Israel, nuclear weapons, and terrorism), and to explore why America’s Iran policy continues on such a dysfunctional course.  We, however, want to focus on Mark’s initial question on mainstream reaction to Going to Tehran and what it says about the obstacles to really serious debate over American foreign policy.

In this context, we also want to highlight a brilliant piece by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian last month, “How Noam Chomsky Is Discussed,” see here.  Glenn argues that “one very common tactic for enforcing political orthodoxies is to malign the character, ‘style’ and even mental health of those who challenge them…as a means of impugning, really avoiding, the substance of the critique.”  As Glenn lays out in compelling detail, “Nobody has been subjected to these vapid discrediting techniques more than Noam Chomsky.”

To illustrate his thesis about mainstream media treatment of dissident voices, Glenn dissects The Guardian’s own reporting on Prof. Chomsky’s recent Edward W. Said Lecture in London; the address, “Violence and Dignity—Reflections on the Middle East,” focuses to a considerable degree on Iran as a target of U.S. and Western efforts to dominate the region.  Glenn aptly describes The Guardian’s reporting on the speech as

“infused with these standard personality caricatures that offer the reader an easy means of mocking, deriding and scorning Chomsky without having to confront a single fact he presents.  And that’s the point…[for Chomsky] rationally but aggressively debunks destructive mainstream falsehoods that huge numbers of people are taught to tacitly embrace.  But all of that can be, and is, ignored in favor of hating his ‘style,’ ridiculing his personality, and smearing him with horrible slurs (‘self-hating Jew’).”

Though Glenn does not include it in this litany, Chomsky has also periodically been pilloried as an “apologist” for various resistance movements and non-Western leaders who displease the United States.  Glenn goes on to comment,

“What’s particularly strange about this set of personality and style attacks is what little relationship they bear to reality.  Far from being some sort of brutal, domineering, and angry ‘alpha-male’ savage, Chomsky—no matter your views of him—is one of the most soft-spoken and unfailingly civil and polite political advocates on the planet.  It’s true that his critiques of those who wield power and influence can be withering—that’s the central function of an effective critic or just a human being with a conscience—but one would be hard-pressed to find someone as prominent as he who is as steadfastly polite and considerate and eager to listen when it comes to interacting with those who are powerless and voiceless…

What is at play here is this destructive dynamic that the more one dissents from political orthodoxies, the more personalized, style-focused and substance-free the attacks become.  That’s because once someone becomes sufficiently critical of establishment pieties, the goal is not merely to dispute their claims but to silence them.  That’s accomplished by demonizing the person on personality and style grounds to the point where huge numbers of people decide that nothing they say should even be considered, let alone accepted.”

By referencing Glenn’s article here, we do not mean to compare ourselves to Noam Chomsky—among other reasons, whatever abuse we have suffered from our critics hardly comes close to the accumulated ad hominem vituperation directed at Prof. Chomsky for decades.  But we want to make the analytically crucial point that  much of the critical reaction to Going to Tehran and our other work on Iran and U.S.-Iranian relations—including attacks on our character, our motivations, our personalities, our “style”—is, in important respects, reminiscent of the assaults launched against Prof. Chomsky over the years.  And such attacks are directed against us for much the same reason that they have been directed against Chomsky—as Glenn puts it so well, to enable “the substance of [our] critique to be avoided in lieu of alleged personality flaws.

Consider just a few examples of mainstream media treatment of us and our book:

–Expatriate Iran “experts” whose own analytic records are marked by serial misreadings of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and internal politics are given platforms in mainstream outlets like The New Republic, Survival (the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies), and the Wall Street Journal—not to take on, in any intellectually serious way, our historically documented, thoroughly referenced assessments of these matters, but to dismiss us as “morally deformed” and “apologists” for evil.  (Anti-Islamic Republic Iranian expatriates aren’t the only ones to label us as “apologists.”  No less than Dennis Ross describes us this way—and, to be fair, what American knows more about explaining away another country’s crimes than Dennis Ross—as has The New Republic in its own editorials.)

–Because Hillary is Jewish, interned at AIPAC as a young student, worked at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy early in her career, but has clearly moved far beyond the pro-Israel mantras that warp America’s Middle East debate, Jeffrey Goldberg opined in The Atlantic that she has “lost her bearings.”  Not content to go after us with unfounded assertions about our mental health, pro-Israel publications and Iranian expatriate opponents of the Islamic Republic also claim that we are somehow cashing in by arguing for a fundamentally different U.S. strategy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran (another lie that has been given wider circulation by Jeffrey Goldberg).

–The New York Times assigned its “review” of our book to one of the leading journalistic cheerleaders for the Green movement which, after Iran’s 2009 presidential election, was romanticized by Western pundits as a mass popular uprising poised to sweep away the Islamic Republic, perhaps within a few months.  The mainstream commentariat has never forgiven us for our utterly accurate appraisal of the Greens’ weaknesses and our spot-on assessment that, even at its height, the movement never represented anything close to a majority of Iranians living in their country.  The Times review would have readers think that, by being right when everyone else (including the reviewer) were spectacularly wrong, we are morally dubious “partisans” whose analyses shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Those specimens all come from our declared intellectual and political enemies.  One of the more remarkable aspects of critical reaction to Going to Tehran is how even some commentators who profess openness to the basic idea of “engaging” Iran want to read us out of proper policy debate because we refuse to endorse conventional but ill-informed and un-nuanced criticisms of human rights conditions in the Islamic Republic.  So, for example, the National Journal’s Michael Hirsh writes,

“Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, husband-and-wife renegade former officials in the George W. Bush administration, have an idea.  President Obama should execute a Nixon-in-China approach with Tehran:  Leap 180 degrees from a policy of isolation to all-out engagement…Maybe they have a point, but the Leveretts don’t stop there.  They say accommodation is imperative because Tehran is gaining strength (despite the imminent loss of its only ally, Syria’s besieged Bashar al-Assad); the legitimacy of the regime is unquestioned (the once-powerful ‘Green’ democracy movement was always marginal, they say); and Washington has no choice but to embrace the mullahs.  Besides, are the mullahs really so much worse than we are?  ‘The U.S. government simply has no credibility to address human-rights issues in Iran,’ Flynt Leverett said.  It seemed a bit much.”

“It seemed a bit much.”  Notwithstanding pages of analysis of Iran’s regional position and strategy, notwithstanding the reality that Assad’s government isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, notwithstanding a whole chapter with reams of actual data on the 2009 election and the Greens’ brief rise and rapid fall—all that is dismissed with five words:  “It seemed a bit much.”  Likewise, the sad reality that the United States, as a matter of policy, is only interested in the selective, instrumental leveraging of human rights concerns to undermine governments it doesn’t like has been very clearly documented.  Washington has co-opted—and corrupted—the human rights agenda; that’s why it has no credibility to address human rights in Iran.  Those who believe that, as long as America is running a dirty war against the Islamic Republic (including economic warfare, cyber-attacks, and support for groups doing things inside Iran that, most other places in the world, Washington would condemn as “terrorism”), it can credibly champion human rights there are deluded.  But this, too, seemed a bit much for Hirsh.

To further discredit us, Hirsh compares us and our book—and he doesn’t mean it as a compliment—to John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and their The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.  Like Chomsky, Mearsheimer and Walt have by-now considerable experience with people attacking their characters, motives, and personalities rather than dealing with the arguments they raise in their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.  For the record, while we disagree with a few specific points in their book, we admire its authors tremendously not just for their courage, but also for the bounty of important insights their book offers.  We are proud and humbled to be compared with them; we hope that Going to Tehran might contribute as much as their book to opening up additional intellectual space for serious discussion of what’s wrong with America’s Middle East policy.

We should perhaps credit Hirsh with using more than five words to dismiss us.  He also describes how, a few days after hearing us talk about Going to Tehran, he saw the debut of Maziar Bahari’s new movie, Forced Confessions—which, according to Hirsh, “describes how secret police have turned Iran into a brutal world of Kafkaesque detentions and tortured confessions.  Bahari was put on public display in 2009 and forced to state that foreign agents incited the Green movement—evidence the regime was actually terrified of the uprising.”  But the most damning part?  “Flynt and Hillary did not attend the screening.”

That’s right—probably because we’re too busy trying to keep our country from starting another strategically and morally calamitous war to indulge an expatriate Iranian-Canadian dissident with a burning desire that the Islamic Republic fall and Iran become a secular liberal state, even if that’s not what most Iranians living inside their country want.  More broadly, Hirsh’s rejection of our argument for strategically-grounded engagement with the Islamic Republic (an argument for which he professes sympathy) because we won’t pay obeisance to Washington norms requiring those advocating better relations with Iran to modulate their advocacy with periodic expressions of disgust with human rights conditions there highlights a powerful barrier to a more rational Iran debate.  For Hirsh is not alone.  We’ve had any number of people—including some for whom we have great respect and even affection—privately counsel us, before Going to Tehran was published and after, to moderate our “tone.”  For some, this meant fewer references to “the Islamic Republic” and more to “Iran.”  For others it meant regular acknowledgement, even if only in passing, of various “deplorable acts” by Iran’s government.

We have declined to follow such advice, regardless of how well-intended we knew it to be from some of its sources.  We haven’t followed it because doing so would mean buying into and advancing a narrative crafted (whether everyone espousing it realizes or not) to delegitimize the Islamic Republic of Iran and, ultimately, to take America to war against it—a point that Chomsky, in his own way, has also made.  Overwhelmingly, the available evidence indicates that the majority of Iranians in Iran support the basic model of the Islamic Republic, which has delivered vastly better lives for most Iranians than was possible at the time of the Iranian Revolution.  A significant number of Iranians may want the Islamic Republic to evolve in important ways—but they don’t want to get rid of it entirely.  To suggest otherwise is both intellectually and morally irresponsible.

Those who believe they can indulge self-gratifying criticisms of human rights conditions in Iran while continuing to insist that they are opposed to American military aggression against the Islamic Republic are, in some ways even more dangerously deluded.  You can’t have it both ways.  For in the narratives Americans construct to justify their wars, the United States does not go to war to defend its interests; it does so to liberate othersUntil those trying to have it both ways understand that they can’t, too many of those who claim to oppose a U.S.-initiated war against Iran will, with their facile criticisms of “human rights” there, be making such a war more likely.

Similarly, those who think Washington can somehow “engage” Tehran but make human rights and secular democratization a core part of the diplomatic dialogue are also dangerously deluded.  For what political order—especially one focused on restoring and protecting its country’s independence and effective sovereignty after decades of Western domination—would agree to negotiate its internal political transformation with the leading Western powerTo avoid war, the United States will have to pursue rapprochement with the Islamic Republic as it is, not as some wish it to be.  And this means accepting the Islamic Republic as, for most Iranians, a legitimate (even if flawed) state.

In closing, we are very pleased to note that we will be taking part in an event, “Iran and American Foreign Policy:  Where the US Went Wrong,” with Noam Chomsky at MIT next month, sponsored by MIT’s Technology and Culture Forum.  We are excited at the prospect and grateful to Professor Chomsky.  We hope that this event will contribute to expanding the range of “acceptable” debate about Iran in American political discourse.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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