Paul Ryan's Middle East muddle: why this is nothing 'like 1979 Tehran'
This week, GOP vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan topped off a critique of President Obama's response to violent demonstrations at American embassies across the Middle East by saying that because of the president's policies, the Middle East "looked like 1979 Tehran" – when demonstrations by Iranian student revolutionaries culminated in the invasion of the US embassy and the taking of 50 hostages in a stand-off that would endure 444 days. It has become all too easy for opponents of Ryan and his boss, Governor , to level zingers at their foreign policy bloopers, and I had mine all ready: all this does is remind us that Ryan, who was born in 1970 and has no national security experience other than, as he has said, "voting to send our troops to war", has no idea what happened in Teheran in 1979.
But dismissing this soundbite misses the chance to consider two serious assertions that underlie it: first, that what we are seeing in the Middle East right now is a collapse of American policy and interests on a par with how the fall of the Shah and his eventual replacement by a hostile theocracy, the hostage-taking, and the failed rescue effort damaged the US in 1979-80. And second, that it is 1980, "morning in America" again, and Mitt Romney is and Barack Obama is Jimmy Carter.
Take the defeat-and-collapse theory of world affairs first. Romney sounded this call while protesters were still massed in Cairo, Tunis and Khartoum, worrying that violence demonstrated that the Arab Spring would turn into an "Arab Winter". :
"Regardless of its origins, the ongoing violence is stark testimony to the failure of the outreach to the Muslim world that lay at the heart of Obama's Middle East policy."
"burning our flag in capitals all around the world" with 1979 in Tehran. A note I can't resist here: I am just two years older than Ryan. In 1979, my middle-school social studies teacher in South Burlington, VT, decided it was important we learn about what was going on in Iran, even if we hadn't the slightest idea why it was happening, or what it had to do with us. So I can still rattle off names like Shahpour Bakhtiar, briefly prime minister between the Shah's overthrow and the ayatollahs' ascension. I'd be delighted to learn that Ryan has similar memories.
But for those of you who stuck with the regular curriculum, or were still watching Sesame Street, let's compare and contrast then and now:
1979: A key US regional ally, held in place with US military and economic support, is overthrown, leaving an enormous hole in US Middle East policy.
2012: No governments are overthrown; several governments restate their commitment to improved ties with the US.
1979: A specific US decision – admitting the deposed Shah for medical treatment – enrages Iranians across the political spectrum.
2012: A noxious video clip with no connection to the US government enrages Muslims, generating small demonstrations a fraction of the size of those in recent years.
1979: An interim government that is angry at US policies but seeking democracy and broad ties with the world is overthrown by radicals, empowered among other forces by anti-Americanism.
2012: Demonstrations bring out radical forces that seek to challenge governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan. No governments fall. In fact, in one Libyan city, residents band together and drive a radical group out of its headquarters.
1979: The loss of a key US ally, the exposure of the extent of the Shah's violation of his citizens' rights, and perceived US weakness in the hostage-taking and subsequent rescue attempt – plus the installation of an inward-looking, radical government sustained by anti-Americanism – has consequences that linger to this day.
"The end of this crisis matters more than the beginning … America navigating this turbulent environment will depend in part on bipartisan consensus about the importance of promoting democratic reform in the Arab world. The has maintained its poise through a difficult week, despite the crisis abroad and the partisan polemics at home."
As in 1979, Americans must learn all over again that we do not control the pace or direction of events in the Middle East. But unlike the downward spiral of 1979, we have not lost all capacity to influence – and the governments of the region, despite considerable public anger, have not lost interest in working with us.
Why would Romney and Ryan, who say again and again that they want more US engagement for economic and political freedom in the Middle East, dabble in a narrative that says all is lost there?
This brings us to the second dynamic underlying Ryan's apparently casual comment. Since the summer, Romney's campaign and have tried to fit this election into a Carter-Reagan narrative. "the most anti-small business president I've seen probably since Carter". ? "Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order." Romney's struggle to gain a lead in the polls? . (.)
Political scientists note that US elections are more polarized now than they were then, and that Carter at the time was a more beloved figure, even among those who did not vote for him, then either Obama or Romney is now. And it hardly needs saying that Reagan's charm and political skills are lacking this cycle. So the good news, surprisingly, comes from the Middle East: it's not 1979. Or 2006, when the Bush administration faced widespread and ugly protests, put down by our undemocratic allies, over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed – and a Palestinian election that didn't produce the results they'd hoped for.
Arguably, there is no moment like this in Middle Eastern history. If it's too much to hope that such a realization, which clearly animated the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleagues, transcends American politics, at least we might expect that our parties would compete to see who can get it right – rather than pre-emptively declare that it has all gone wrong.