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America’s Foreign Policy Phobias Are Overblown

Posted on Jun 10, 2009
AP photo / Ben Curtis

A young supporter of Iranian presidential challenger Mir Hossein Moussavi flashes the victory sign at a nighttime street rally in Tehran.

By William Pfaff

Three recent developments in the Muslim Middle East and Central Asia challenge Washington’s conventional assumptions about Pakistan, the Taliban, Lebanon and Iran.

The first is the revolt of tribesmen against the Taliban in part of Pakistan’s northwest tribal area, including the well-known tourist region of the Swat Valley, where the “students of religion” recently infiltrated and seized power from the Pakistani authorities and police. This provoked alarm there and in the United States that the religious extremists are a menace to Pakistan.

This fear was exaggerated from the start; Pakistan has a serious government and army. Now, popular anger at Taliban abuses and imposition of unacceptable religious and social norms has erupted among tribesmen and traditional leaders. The formation of popular militias has resulted in expulsion of the Taliban from the positions they have taken, while Pakistan’s army has successfully retaken territories further south, at a cost to the population of tens of thousands of refugees. These refugees are a grave problem for a government under stress.

The significance of all this is major: The Taliban with their religious rigor do not automatically win converts among their own people.

However, a second lesson is that American bombing operations in the tribal areas remain the principal force behind the earlier Taliban successes. The important conclusion is that foreign intruders should let the Pakistanis settle their own problems, as they now are doing.


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The second highly interesting development has been the spectacular presidential election campaign in Iran. The vote takes place this Friday. The battle against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his politically conservative and culturally reactionary backers has turned into an unprecedented brawl.

Ahmadinejad’s leading opponent, Mir Hossein Moussavi, who led the country during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, attacks Ahmadinejad for “adventurism, illusionism, exhibitionism, extremism and superficiality,” including his notorious Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, all disgracing the country internationally.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters attack Moussavi because his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a university professor of politics, has assumed a public role at her husband’s side in the campaign and demands expanded higher education for women. They are also attacking corruption amid Moussavi’s establishment backers.

The campaign has included dramatic television debates on usually forbidden issues of policy and religion, and has taken to the streets in a way that Western correspondents compare with raucous and acrimonious Western presidential campaigns.

There are nightly street demonstrations and weekend stadium rallies with tens of thousands of young participants. To quote The New York Times, “Every night, parts of the capital become a screaming, honking bacchanal.” This is unprecedented in modern Iran—and surely not the conduct of the “false democracy” that Washington likes to call Iran.

It is true that these are public manifestations that both reveal and conceal shifting rivalries and alliances among the senior clerical forces who intend to have the last word (one more time?). But this is again an affair in which the U.S. will profit from keeping its distance.

The last item of interest has been the unexpected defeat of the Hezbollah-led coalition in Lebanon’s parliamentary election last weekend. The winner was an American-supported alliance of familiar conservative Sunni forces with rightist Maronite Christians, including the Phalangists of former President Amine Gemayel.

America’s support, which included Vice President Joseph Biden’s hint last week that if America’s friends did not win, U.S. financial aid would be ended, caused scandal, and was expected by many to backfire.

That it did not was a surprise of the election. Another was the success of the alliance with Hezbollah of a part of the Maronite Christian electorate, led by Gen. Michel Aoun, a commander during the civil war, when he was a fierce opponent of Syria.

A reason for his new alliance with the Syrian-supported Hezbollah is that his intransigent opposition to all foreign interference with Lebanon’s independence has led him to see this independence now mainly endangered by America with its Saudi Arabian allies, together with the major Maronite Christian formations, which include elements that have collaborated with past Israeli efforts to install a puppet non-Muslim regime in Beirut. He no longer thinks Syria and Iran are the major threats to Lebanon. Instead he thinks the danger comes from Wahhabi fundamentalism, backed by the Saudi Arabians, fueled by oil money and the U.S., and hostile to all Christians.

Gen. Aoun’s movement wants to end the system of sectarian allocation of political offices in Lebanon, and wants a secular state. The French analyst Nicolas Dot-Pouillard writes in Le Monde Diplomatique that Lebanon’s political scene is revolutionized by this alliance of a mass movement of Christians willing to collaborate with the Islamist, nationalist and anti-American Hezbollah.

The alliance won enough votes to continue to play a big role in the national assembly, but neither of the two major coalitions has a mandate to govern alone, so not much short-term change can be expected. If there is change, it will be caused by whatever happens in the present clash between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu over Israeli action on settlements and on a Palestinian state. Lebanon may want to stay on its own course, but it is not in a neighborhood where small countries find that easy.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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By Sepharad, June 14, 2009 at 12:10 am Link to this comment

ardee, one reason to worry about government control when we do it ourselves is that we can talk back to a website that censors comment and maybe even get results. Also, most of what we post on these webs isn’t going to get us arrested. I understand the need for defending government systems from unfriendly hacking, but there’s the rub: the “need” makes the means irreproachable, at least to most people.

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By Virginia777, June 13, 2009 at 10:45 pm Link to this comment

Yeah well, Truthdig’s latest “ear to the ground” pieces on China and Iran,

aren’t helping this HUGE problem one bit!!

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By ardee, June 13, 2009 at 6:10 pm Link to this comment

Sepharad, June 13 at 7:12 pm #

ardee, too true, free speech is not free.

I see the beginnings of restrictions on internet discourse even here. Today I found a website that cannot have its URL listed here in a post! A comment came up about a “blacklisted website”??!

Why worry about govt controls when we do it to ourselves? This makes me wonder , not for the first time, the actual reasons such forii exist. Less about free speech and political debate than data mining methinks.

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By Sepharad, June 13, 2009 at 4:12 pm Link to this comment

ardee, too true, free speech is not free. But it’s essential for a democracy to function at home though it can make it hard to prevail in the world at large. Am waiting to see where the battle lines in cyberterrorism are going to be drawn in the end.

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By christian96, June 13, 2009 at 7:22 am Link to this comment

How broad is the definition of “foreign policy?”
I just spent an hour watching “Deep Science” on
The National Geographic Channel.  Is exploration
of space considered “foreign policy?”  If so, I
wish to exercise my right to “free speech.”  I just
watched Astrophysist from NASA and California Institute of Technology use a lot of phrases like
“could be”, “what if”, “it may be”, etc. to describe
how the universe is going to end.  What a WASTE of
time, money, and intellectual resources which could
be used to try to correct so many problems and
injustices existing right here on earth.  Is their
anyone in our govermental system that controls
priorities concerning how time, money, and intellectual resources will be utilized?  In conclusion, the time, money, and intellectual
resources could have been saved and redirected to
more needed areas if the Astrophysists had just
read the Bible.  2 Peter 3:10 reads: “The Day of
The Lord WILL COME as a thief in the night; in
which the HEAVENS shall pass away with a great noise,
earth also and the works that are therein shall be
burned up.”

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By ardee, June 13, 2009 at 4:43 am Link to this comment

Sepharad, June 13 at 3:56 am #

I’m for free speech, and agree with the ACLU’s motto that what is done to one can be done to everyone, but didn’t want to be in the position of enabling such people ever again. Literally made me sick.)

Free speech is not free, as the old saying notes.

I applaud your work in that area and especially that you stuck it out until the verdict was reached. I believe the ACLU one of the most important and necessary groups extant today. One that makes few friends in fact, yet stands between society and a dark and treacherous place.

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By Sepharad, June 13, 2009 at 12:56 am Link to this comment

This isn’t one of TD’s best articles. Lengthy analysis pieces in the NYTimes have been more complete, more nuanced, and probably more accurate in their interpretations. Re Lebanon, I would guess that Hizbullah is surprised and less than satisfied, based on Mr. Nasrallah’s comments, which are not gloating and grandiose as they tend to be in his more optimistic frames of mind.

ardee, thanks for the disquisition on the Brandenburg standard. Definitely hard to meet. In fact it aided the ACLU’s case in the early ‘70s, arguing for making Pacific Bell reverse its refusal to allow a Nazi/white supremacist group to use the telephone line as the medium for their hate-filled message. (I ran that case with an ACLU lawyer, and quit my job with the ACLU the day after we won our case. I’m for free speech, and agree with the ACLU’s motto that what is done to one can be done to everyone, but didn’t want to be in the position of enabling such people ever again. Literally made me sick.)

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By Charley, June 12, 2009 at 9:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was a fan of Phil Donohue and was energized by his accomplishments using free speech.  He allowed free speech on his program including some reprehensible white supremists.  He gave them time to speak and while he asked questions he was careful not to be confrontational.  Montys later he invited the very same people back to recite what happened to them after the first appearance.  They heard themselves say things out loud which they were appalled at.  They viewed themselves on tape and witnessed their insane arguments.  They yhemselves came to realize just how hateful they had been and vowed to change.  All because of free speech.

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By ardee, June 12, 2009 at 5:05 am Link to this comment

Me again…

I think that the italicized portions of the above citings make the case against Mr. Harges’ sophomoric contention, but then again all reasonable folks here understood , I believe, that his point was not truth or honesty, but disparagement and ‘winning’.

Which brings me to the reasons folks come to such political forii as this one. In any political debate in which varying philosophies and opinions are aired, especially when people are passionate about their own views, there is bound to be friction, even vituperation from time to time. A not unexpected consequence of such discourses I think.

While opposing views are acceptable, no , necessary to a lively and possibly productive debate, there is one type of poster , the detritus one gets when a public forum is the venue, that needs exposure. One who fails to read or consider the meaning of the expression of others, one whose only desire is to ‘win at all costs’, even at the cost of his own repute or the debate iteself.

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By ardee, June 12, 2009 at 5:04 am Link to this comment

While I consider the twisting of the meaning of my words by Mr. Harges to include them as ‘hate speech’ in order to win his silly argument ( can you have a one man argument?) rather childish, it did have the benefit of sparking my curiosity about the definition of such speech:

–noun speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.
Cite This Source |Link To hate speech
hate speech  
n.  Bigoted speech attacking or disparaging a social or ethnic group or a member of such a group.

Unique among courts in the world, the Supreme Court has extended broad protection in the area of hate speech —abusive, insulting, intimidating, and harassing speech that at the least fosters hatred and discrimination and at its worst promotes violence and killing. The justices have consistently held that statutes punishing speech or conduct solely on the grounds that they are unseemly or offensive are unconstitutionally overly broad. Only by protecting all forms of speech can the public be assured of uninhibited, vigorous, and wide?open debate.

Still, many Americans argue for speech codes as a way of limiting hateful expression. During the 1980s and 1990s many college campuses passed these regulations as a way of protecting historically underrepresented groups. To support their position they invoked the fighting words doctrine articulated by Justice Frank Murphy’s unanimous opinion in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942). Murphy defined fighting words as those that neither contributed to the expression of ideas nor possessed any social value in the search for truth and that incited an immediate, violent response.

With the Chaplinsky exception in mind, the Court has generally given broad scope to speech that some would classify as hateful. In Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), the justices per curiam opinion upheld the right of the Ku Klux Klan to call publicly for the expulsion of African Americans and Jews from the United States, even though the speech in question intimated the desirability of using violence. The justices held that unless the speech was intended to cause violence and had a high likelihood of producing such a result imminently it was protected by the First Amendment. “The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press,” the Court wrote, “do not permit a State to forbid or prescribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless actions and is likely to incite or produce such action” (pp. 571–572).

The Brandenburg test has proven nearly impossible to meet. For example, in the famous Skokie cases of 1978, the justices denied a writ of certiorari from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that had affirmed the right of Nazis to march on a public street in a community populated with World War II concentration camp survivors. And the Court in R.A.V.v. City of St. Paul (1992) invalidated an antibias ordinance under which several teenagers were convicted of burning a cross on an African?American family’s lawn. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a unanimous Court, reasoned that “[t]he First Amendment does not permit St. Paul to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored subjects. … In its practical operation, moreover, the ordinance goes even beyond mere content discrimination, to actual viewpoint discrimination” (p. 391).

While the Court has not ruled specifically on campus speech codes, the precedent of R.A.V. makes clear that the justices are unlikely to disturb a host of lower court rulings that have struck down these regulations.

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By ardee, June 12, 2009 at 3:34 am Link to this comment

Ed Harges, June 11 at 12:53 pm

I cannot decide whether you have no conscience or no deductive reasoning. You equate the hate speech and actions directed at or by religious beliefs, color, culure et al with political statements about public figures. You do so, not to be truthful I fear, but to “win” an argument.

Silly of you.

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By Virginia777, June 12, 2009 at 1:45 am Link to this comment

Ed - I have been an eye-witness to horrible abuse of “Free Speech”, rabid racism directed at children,

I don’t want political speech controlled, but I don’t know how to stop Anonymous hate-speech on the internet, that can be spewed without accountability, and cause real harm.

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By matti, June 11, 2009 at 9:30 pm Link to this comment

So in Iran they can have “raucous”, politically motivated street demonstrations in the capital city night after night without severe police repression?

I mean, like the kind of police repression that has become commonplace in response to much “milder” gatherings in the U.S.?

I’m getting confused, which place is the “free country” again?

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By Ed Harges, June 11, 2009 at 9:53 am Link to this comment

Purple Girl, freedom of speech - especially political speech - has to protect all but the most extreme and direct incitement, or else we don’t really have freedom of speech.

For example, Ardee wrote in one of his posts that Obama is a “front man for fascism”. Conceivably, if someone really believed this, that person could get angry enough to go shoot somebody. I mean, it’s an extremely harsh, one could even say demonizing accusation. But that’s what Ardee believes, and it’s absolutely vital in a free democracy that he be able to say it. (I think he’s wrong, by the way.)

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By Paul_GA, June 11, 2009 at 7:44 am Link to this comment

But what is “incitement to violence” and what is not, Purple Girl? Trying to define that term is a slippery path down which I would not wish this country to proceed. Virtually anything a person disagrees with, for reasons of political correctness, could be declared “incitement to violence” in an America such as you might envision. Those controversies could conceivably include the right to keep and bear arms, wishing to audit/abolish the Fed, advocating smaller central government and greater power for the states and people, advocating an end to the American Empire, advocating an end to the entangling alliance with Israel, etc. Add anything else you wish.

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By Purple Girl, June 11, 2009 at 6:53 am Link to this comment

We have our Own ‘Guns and God’ terrorist Radicals to contend with- lets focus on stablizing our own house instead of nosing around others anymore.
Frankly I am far more terrified of our own groups of domestic terrorists killing people in line at McDonalds than I am any dialysis patient cowering in a cave 1/2 a world away.
Truely tell me the difference between the Far Right ‘Christian’ Groups and the islamic extremeists? Both demand subjugation of the masses under their strict religious fanaticism. Both have some Reward Driven concept with instigating ‘End of Times’ through some ‘Holy’ War.And recent events have proven invoking fear is their main battle plan, as well. Both work diligently to block Womens rights and degrade any form of education they have achieved (or wish to). and not a sliver of light between their attitudes towards homosexuals. Regardless of the emblem or the book they claim to follow- these are exactly the same groups merely cloaked in different colored sheep clothing.
Let’s once again lead by example- lets round up and prosecute our own domestic terrorist-‘Christian’ Jihadists, violent anti gov’t Extremeists- and let those other countries handle theirs.
Freedom of Speech does NOT protect inciting violence.

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By ardee, June 11, 2009 at 3:13 am Link to this comment

Mr.Pfaff seems surprised that the realities within nations do not mirror American foreign policy assumptions. I have no idea why he should be surprised when the USA has a long and tarnished history of wrong decisions and incompetent actions.

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