Perhaps because St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, I’ve found myself re-reading Edmund Burke and Conor Cruise O’Brien — and drinking Irish whiskey. I first became acquainted with these three sources of stimulation back in 1978. That was also my first brush with terrorism.
I was a young foreign correspondent sent to Northern Ireland to cover the “Troubles,” the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Republicans (Irish nationalists) and Loyalists (those favoring solidarity with the United Kingdom) that broke out in the 1960s and dissipated just before the turn of the century. I spent many hours in pubs, listening to those on both sides of the divide tell me what they believed, whom they despised, and what acts of violence they would countenance — and in some cases carry out — to achieve their objectives. In Ireland I also developed a habit I’ve since kept of reading the important writers of every country I visit — as well as partaking of local libations. Burke, of course, was a great 18th-century Irish author, statesman, and political philosopher. An enthusiastic supporter of the American Revolution, he saw early on that the revolution in France was heading into darkness, including la Terreur — mass executions of “enemies of the revolution.” The following year, 1979, I was sent to Iran to cover the Islamic Revolution. I don’t doubt that Burke influenced me. While most journalists and diplomats regarded the regime that replaced the Shah as progressive, I saw ample evidence that the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers were dangerous fanatics. (One small but significant data point: a memo, slipped under my hotel-room door on March 27, 1979, asking me and other guests for our “kind cooperation, in not using even your own alcoholic beverages, since the Management would be in serious trouble if not keeping to the rules and the Hotel Inter-Continental Tehran could not be hold [sic] responsible for any unpleasant occurrence toward our guests. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation.”) Attributed to Burke is the observation that for evil to survive, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing. Today, I’m afraid, in too many instances, passivity would be an improvement. Recent examples: basketball star Dennis Rodman visiting with and heaping praises upon North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, and actor Sean Penn and the Reverend Jesse Jackson mourning Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez, an ally of the Iranian regime — which did, indeed, turn out to be not just oppressive at home but also the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism abroad, and is even now illicitly developing nuclear weapons, the better to intimidate neighboring Arab states and threaten the single Jewish state with genocide. During a visit to Tehran in July 2006, Chávez told a crowd that his country and Iran share a goal: to “put an end to the U.S. empire.” Chávez has said, too, that capitalism and imperialism may have ended life on Mars. In their discussions of his life and legacy, few mainstream media outlets thought this worth noting. But Saturday Night Live did — writer/performer Seth Meyers emphasized that this was no joke. Kudos to SNL for its superior news judgment. Nicoloás Maduro, likely to be Venezuela’s next ruler, has accused the U.S. of murdering Chávez, apparently by infecting him with cancer. That slander seems not to have troubled Penn and Jackson, who were among those attending Chávez’s funeral in Caracas last week along with Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad. Like all members of Iran’s ruling class, Ahmadinijad is a follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who as early as 1942 wrote that those “who study jihad will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. . . . Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers.” The Obama administration has been clear, rhetorically at least: American policy, Vice President Biden said this month, “is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, period.” He added: “President Barack Obama is not bluffing.” Despite that, among both Democrats and Republicans in Congress there is concern that in the latest round of talks the administration’s negotiators offered to relieve the economic pressure on Iran without demanding a verifiable halt to its nuclear-weapons program in exchange. The details of the proposal remain murky, but we do know that Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili has said that Americans are now “closer to the Iranian position.” In an editorial last week, the New York Times essentially told Congress to shut up and stop interfering with such diplomatic “progress.” And in a Times op-ed, Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that “Washington should be more cognizant of Iran’s security dilemmas,” while considering “what role Iran can play in its evolving Gulf security architecture.” That may require, he added, “a more imaginative re-conceptualization of the existing diplomatic paradigm.” This is the sort of mush that used to infuriate the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, another great Irish writer, diplomat, and — by the way — biographer of Burke. In 1994, he lashed out at The Economist, noting that the prestigious British journal had, at that point, “devoted more than 30 columns to a ‘survey’ on the subject of how to love fundamentalist Islam” with nary a word about the Iranian fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie to death for writing a novel that Iran’s rulers considered insulting to Islam. Instead, The Economist reassured its readers that “the sobering experience of government” had made “Iran’s revolutionaries . . . noticeably milder in their foreign policy as well as in what they do at home.” O’Brien responded:
This is the sort of thing that British and French devotees of appeasement used to write in the mid-Thirties. “Time, and the sobering experience of government” were forever about to do wonders for Adolf Hitler, and we may be sure that these factors will exert an equally chastening influence on the character and disposition of Ayatollah Khamenei. To say that the Iranian regime has got “noticeably milder” is not just untrue; it is the reverse of the truth. The regime in Iran is getting noticeably more ferocious, as the recent bombings of Jewish targets in London and Buenos Aires attest. The Argentine authorities at least have no doubt as to the origin of the bombing that took the lives of nearly 100 people in Buenos Aires. They believe that the atrocity was planned in the Iranian embassy in the city, on the orders of Ayatollah Khamenei . . . .
No one has ever been prosecuted for this act of terrorism (nor for the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people in 1992) and, recently, the Argentine government announced that — surprise, surprise — doubts have emerged. Therefore it was joining with Iran to form a “truth commission” to find out who was really responsible for the 1994 terrorist attack. Eduardo Amadeo, an ex-ambassador to Washington and a member of the Argentine opposition, said: “We’re going to sell out the victims for a barrel of oil.” In 1995, O’Brien wrote that the “jihad is at present raging in many parts of the world, and shaking many westernised and westernising regimes.” But six years prior to 9/11, few good people were listening. Fewer still were eager to do anything. After 9/11, there was a shift. It may have been short-lived. On St. Patrick’s Day, I advise you to turn away from all this and just enjoy being Irish — whether or not you really are. Drink plenty of Irish whiskey (a much better product today than it was in 1978, but that’s a story for another time). After the celebrations, when you’ve sobered up a little, read or re-read Burke and O’Brien, and consider what is required of you, me, and other good people if evil is not to survive and, before the end of this century perhaps, triumph. — Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.