Monday, November 26, 2007

The Little Ingenue Could

We Americans can be so narcissistic that we expect leaders from other parts of the world to be actually talking to us when they're talking to us. We interpret their words and styles in terms of what those things would mean if we did them. This is a dangerous habit. Because those leaders often know that "addressing the Americans" gives them a forum in front of the rest of the world that they'd otherwise never have. Bin Laden seems to know this. And because "addressing the Americans" is itself more than a forum, it is an act of political expression in the eyes of the rest of the world. How you carry yourself and what you say to our faces or in our houses resonates everywhere else, even if we hardly notice you or don't get it.

This tour through modern Iranian politics makes a case that Ahmadinejad is a far more successful figure than we give him credit for. He is not complex -- rather the opposite. But he's found a good game and he sticks with it. And it's one that we're challenged to beat him at. Until we recognize it for what it is, we don't have a chance. He knows that, and no doubt it pleases him.

Ahmadinejad has turned many things to his advantage, but neither Israel, nor the Holocaust, nor Iran’s nuclear program figured in his presidential campaign. Ahmadinejad was brought to power by his ability to understand and connect with the poor. He had mastered—in his words and deeds, his gestures and dress—a kind of populism that plays on fears and anxieties, especially among Iran’s poor. Not only did he do well in the poorer sections of the cities, he also easily carried the countryside. Even some from the middle class, unwilling to vote for Rafsanjani, voted for Ahmadinejad. To appeal to their technocratic impulses he uses the title of doctor, received when he finished his graduate studies in traffic engineering. Moreover, after Khamenei’s “suggestion,” the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, along with their families, voted in the millions for him.

In interviews and speeches in Iran, he uses vernacular expressions and street idioms. He nearly always wears his uniform—an oversize jacket (or tunic), baggy pants, and a baggy shirt (Islam forbids any clothing, on men or women, that might betray bodily curves), all invariably light in color. He never wears a tie—the unmistakable sign of modernity. And since Islam forbids the frivolous sensation of a razor blade on a man’s face, Ahmadinejad’s beard is also part of his persona. All aspects of his appearance are intended to signal the sharp tension between moderns and traditionalists.

He heads a nation where provoking the U.S. and Israel is almost a prerequisite of political seriousness. Like Antaeus, every time we think we've thrown him down, he seems to be strengthened. In cases like his, the most successful countermeasure is likely to be counter-intuitive. And what seems to us to be the treatment that satisfies us most may be what strengthens him where it matters most to him.

P.S.: I titled it that because I couldn't think of anything else.