Four Myths Government and Media Use to Scare Us About 'Dictators'

We have a basic mythology: Appeasement of dictators leads to war. The historical basis for this narrative is the "appeasement" of Hitler at Munich. It encouraged him to believe the democracies -- and the Soviets -- were weak and would not oppose him. That led him to attempt more conquests and engulfed us all in the Second World War.

If the other countries had stood up to him right away, the theory goes, he would have backed down. If he hadn't, they would have gone to war and nipped him in the bud, thereby preventing WWII, the Holocaust, the deaths of 60 million and all the rest of the horrors.

Now we are floating the story that Mahmoud Ahmenajad is a dictator (the new, new Hitler, after Saddam Hussein). If we "appease" him, it will only encourage him and that will engulf us in World War Three.

If we accept the myth as a gospel truth that should guide our political and military lives, and accept that description as true, it makes good sense -- it is even necessary -- to start another preventive war, like the one in Iraq, to stop him now! Let us examine the facts.

Fog Fact No. 1: The president of Iran is not a dictator.

He is not even the most powerful person in Iran.

The position of president used to be a figurehead, but recently it was combined with that of prime minister and now has much real power. However, he does not control the army and the intelligence and security services. He does not have the power to go to war.

The president is elected by direct popular vote. There have been five so far. None has served more than two terms. Ahmenajad is in his first term. His previous office was as mayor of Tehran. He is a loud mouth, jingoistic conservative, rather like -- dare we say it? -- the current incarnation of Rudolph Giuliani in his run for U.S. president.

The best way to grasp how Iran is governed is to take its name quite literally: The Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a theocracy, but within the bounds of that -- which are fairly strict bounds -- it is run by elected officials.

The man at the top is called the supreme leader. His constitutional title is "Leader of the Revolution."

The supreme leader is commander-in-chief, with control of the army and the intelligence and security services. He can make the decision to go to war. He has a great many additional powers, including control of the state radio and television networks.

The supreme leader is elected -- and can be dismissed -- by the Assembly of Experts. This is an 86-member congress. They, in turn, are directly elected by popular vote, but must be Mujtahids, Islamic scholars qualified to practice Islamic law.

The way all this is kept under proper Islamic Revolutionary control is that all candidates for everything have to be approved before they can get on the ballot by the Council of Guardians.

There are 12 members. Half are appointed by the supreme leader. The other half are elected by the Iranian parliament from a list supplied by the head of judiciary (who is named by the supreme leader). They are all clerics and scholars of Islamic law. In sum, it is a republic, with many checks and balances, and real elections within theocratic limits. Everybody in government has to be a respectably devout Muslim, with the exception that of the 290 members of parliament there are five representatives from the recognized minority religions (two Armenian Christian, one Chaldean/Assyrian Catholic, one Jewish, one Zoroastrian).

An Iranian, or some other opponent of the United States, might claim that the cost of running for office here creates a de facto council of the wealthy that vets all candidates, excluding anyone who would work against their interests. They might also note that the elected members of the U.S. federal government are 93 percent Christian (including Catholics and Mormons), 7 percent Jewish, with a single Muslim, no pantheists and no atheists, almost a religious mirror image, of the makeup of the Iranian political class.

Fog Fact No. 2: The "appeasement" in the myth is very specific and rather narrow.

It refers to one country taking over the territory -- or the whole -- of another country. Then the world allowing that to stand. In 1938, Germany under Hitler annexed Austria. Hitler had already remilitarized the Rhineland -- which was supposed to be a demilitarized zone protecting France -- and taken over the Saar, a small area rich with coal and iron. Then he took over the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia. Its population, which was over 80 percent ethnically German, desired the annexation. However, it contained most of Czechoslovakia's defenses against Germany, which meant that if Germany wanted to take the rest, it would be able to so at will.

England, France and the Soviet Union had treaties with Czechoslovakia that obligated them to come to its defense. But they all wanted to avoid, or at least delay, war. So they came to an agreement -- the Munich Agreement -- which allowed Hitler to keep the Sudetenland. In 1939 Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia.

It does not refer to "allowing" one country to posture, threaten, arm or rearm.

Generally, since WWII, when one country has invaded another country, they've either fought to a stalemate (Iraq -- Iran, China -- India, China -- Vietnam, India -- Pakistan), or the invaders put in a friendly regime and then left (Vietnam -- Cambodia, United States -- Panama, Grenada, Dominican Republic) or, with international approval, the invader was kicked out (Iraq -- Kuwait, North Korea -- South Korea.)

But there are some very significant exceptions:

Fog Fact No. 3: Sometimes "appeasement" works well; it was American policy for 50 years.

After the Second World War the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, part of East Prussia and part of Slovakia. Then, mostly through rigged elections, it turned Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into puppet states and used military force, when necessary, to maintain that status.

Neither the United States -- nor anyone else -- seriously challenged any of that.

Basically, we accepted that anything that happened inside the Iron Curtain -- formed by the positions where the Red Army stopped at the end of the war -- was inside its sphere of influence.

What Truman did do was adopt an active policy of containment. It opposed any attempt of the Soviets to go beyond those lines.

The Soviets did more or less the same. They accepted American hegemony where the American armies had stopped. They vigorously contested any efforts to go beyond that, especially anything that encroached on their sphere of influence. Anything outside those lines -- the Third World and the colonies that the Europeans had reoccupied -- was up for grabs, and all sorts of proxy wars were fought. But the Big One, a Third World War, was averted.

Under Nixon this had the formal name of "détente." There is no doubt that Iran is a "revolutionary" state, as it declares itself to be, and has "revolutionary" dreams, as the Communists used to. It believes that the whole world should eagerly throw off its secular chains and embrace the higher, holier order of Islam.

It wants things that we would prefer not to see happen.

It is also aware of its own physical and military limitations and don't appear to be suicidal.

So while it is prepared to use influence, money and propaganda, and to support violent people who believe as it does, or close to what it does, a reasonable prediction is that there are limits. It proceeds with caution.

It also has multiple interests and are flexible. At one point it offered to trade Al Qaeda terrorists that it was holding to the United States in return for anti-Iranian terrorists that America was holding in Iraq. The Bush administration never got around to replying.

Fog Fact No. 4: Nobody is speaking of what happens after a war with Iran.

The ultimate goal of the strategy of war is the shape of the peace that follows.

This is especially true of a war of choice. If someone attacks you, you fight back, and the goal is to stop them and be safe. But if it's a preemptive or preventive war, then a great deal of thought must be given to what happens after the attack. Will it make us safer? Stronger? More prosperous? How? And for how long?

It is clear that this administration did not give enough thought to that before the invasion of Iraq. There were plenty of dreams about the best-case scenario, but no plans for the worst, and the worst is what happened.

Now we are creating a new fog of mythologies -- about a "dictator" who isn't one, about "appeasement" that is completely inapplicable, about nuclear weapons that don't exist, about a country that is "evil" -- that make it seem like we must do something.

But what will the consequences of military action be? If we've learned but one single thing from the current war in Iraq it's that after we panic ourselves with descriptions of the worst that will happen if we don't act, we had better consider the worst that will happen if we do. And be ready for it.

That's a fact.


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