Sunday, October 30, 2005

Presidents Ahmadinejad and Bush are a Lot Alike in Their Tactics (AgenceGlobal)

Presidents Ahmadinejad and Bush are a Lot Alike in their Tactics

William O. Beeman

The President was demonstrably losing ground with his own people, and in particular with his own constituents. So when he made public pronouncements that pleased his hard-core supporters, he seemed to care little that the world outside his country rose in anger to denounce him.

This description applies equally to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and President George W. Bush of the United States. These two implacable enemies are political brothers underneath the skin, and they are in remarkably similar political straits today.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s troubles have been growing ever since his election last summer. He was not the first choice of the clerical establishment in Tehran in the Iranian presidential elections last summer. He raised uncomfortable questions about the clerics' commitment to the ideals of the Revolution of 1978-79. However, Ahmadinejad was propelled into office because he appealed to the Iranian public with revolutionary ideals concerning redistribution of income and attention to the needs of the lower economic sectors of the population. These economic issues had increasingly been ignored by the clerics, who had grown richer and richer to the chagrin of the Iranian man on the street.

But this didn’t help Mr. Ahmadinejad with the political leadership in Tehran. A civil engineer, Mr. Ahmadinejad was out of his depth as an international leader. Though sincere and pious, he came across as naïve and inexperienced in his public dealings. The Iranian parliament rejected four of his picks for his cabinet, and gave him a hard time on others. His appearance before the United Nations in September was widely viewed as a failure, not so much because of the two speeches he gave, but because of his inability to handle informal interactions and press conferences. His political rival for the presidency, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who retained his post as head of the “Mediation Council” began to assume foreign relations responsibilities soon after Ahmadinejad’s return from New York.

However, Mr. Ahmadinejad was not without resources in protecting his presdency. The "Day of Jerusalem," traditionally the last Friday in Ramadan, the month of fasting in Islam, which fell on Oct. 28 this year is an opportune occasion to remind Muslims of the importance of this city, which is sacred to Islam as well as to Jews.

Mr. Ahmadinejad chose this occasion to play to his “base” by invoking another hallmark of the Revolution of 1978-79—opposition to Israel. He did this in a particularly effective way, by quoting the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini regarding the “Zionist regime,” which Khomeini had said should be “wiped off the map.”

So, Mr. Ahmadinejad did not, as was widely reported in the international press, personally call for Israel’s destruction, though he obviously agreed with that sentiment. However, more important for his political life, he reminded his core constituents that he was a true son of the Revolution of 1978-79. The ploy worked. He got a political boost for his efforts, and put his detractors in the Iranian government on the spot. They spent several days backpedaling, trying to soften the effect of Ahmadinejad’s remarks.

The international reaction to his remarks was explosive, with denunciations of the offensive remarks coming from every part of the world. (Never mind that the rhetoric about Israel is offensive blather and little else). However, the counter-reaction in Iran was equally explosive with loud and vocal street demonstrations. Although “rent a demonstration” is a common political tactic in Iran, the public reaction could not entirely be explained by mere bribery; many Iranians were genuinely furious at the international reaction to Ahmadinejad’s remarks.

One might think that Mr. Ahmadinejad had learned his political tactics at the feet of George W. Bush. For President Bush as well, “All politics is local.” President Bush frequently makes remarks out of ineptitude and naïveté that infuriate the international community, and when the world reacts with disapproval, he merely makes jingoistic statements to his “base” and regains his “political capital.”

Americans need to understand that political capital is a concept that knows no particular boundaries. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rapid loss of political ground may well be made up by this kind of appeal to his populist base. We can expect similar behavior from President Bush as he tries to recover from the disasters of the past several weeks—the scandalous government responses to natural disasters on the Gulf coast, the abortive nomination of Harriet Miers to the supreme court, and the slowly growing anger of American citizens as they realize that they were royally duped into supporting a war without end in the Iraqi quagmire.

Indeed, President Bush has already started. His weekly radio address on October 29 said nothing about any of the disasters facing his administration that have appalled the American electorate, and for which they are demanding answers. His speech was pure jingoistic invective: a bathetic justification of the American presence in Iraq and an attack on Islamic forces “with their twisted perversion of the Muslim faith” that oppose the West.

William O. Beeman is Professor of Middle East Anthropology at Brown University. He is the author of The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other, published in September, 2005.