Thursday, September 30, 2010

A power triangle for a better future? -- U.S., Turkey and Iran

It's hard to say anything novel about the interaction of the United States with the Middle World, the vast area between Afghanistan and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It all seems such an irretrievable can of worms, this arena where the U.S. imperial interests in oil and control collide with cultures, histories and peoples of which we have little understanding or appreciation. But Stephen Kinzer thinks he can present a different future -- and I was surprised to conclude that he indeed has a glimmer in Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future.

Kinzer has been reporting for major media outlets like the New York Times and Boston Globe throughout a long career, mostly from the U.S. empire's hot spots. In the 1980s, he wrote about Central America (Bitter Fruit: The Story of an American Coup in Guatemala). This wasn't a bad background for his subsequent books, on Iran (All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror) and U.S. empire more broadly (Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.)

Kinzer hasn't given up on what I suspect people in the Middle World will think is excessive U.S. influence in the region, but he is able to envision a new shape to the relationship. To prepare people in North America who typically have little awareness of other people's histories to imagine a different relationship, he spends the bulk of Reset describing the history of Turkish and Iranian struggles toward creating popular democracy over the last century. It's fascinating stuff -- and a surprising number of U.S. adventurers and diplomats played supportive roles back before World War II when the U.S. was not yet reigning world empire.

He believes this history implies that a new "power triangle" consisting of the U.S., Turkey and Iran should emerge, though all three countries would have to undergo significant changes before such a development could flower. The glue that would bind the three powers would be an attachment to democracy. Here's a sample of his thinking:

A century has passed since Iran and Turkey turned toward democracy. It has been a century of unsteady progress. The Iranians and the Turks have won epochal victories but also suffered bloody defeats. From their long struggles, both peoples have developed an understanding of democracy, and a longing for it, that makes them good soul mates for Americans.

The stories of modern Turkey and Iran suggest that democracy can take root anywhere, but only over the span of generations. It cannot be called to life simply by proclaiming a constitution or holding an election. Democracy is not an event but a way of facing the world, an all encompassing approach to life. Only long years of experience can make it real. In the Muslim Middle East, just two countries have this experience: Turkey and Iran.

Romantic? Utopian? Maybe, but learning the history and applying imagination sure beats the current stagnation.

Recent initiatives from Turkey, such as joining with Brazil to lessen the Iranian nuclear reprocessing impasse or supporting humanitarian aid deliveries to Israeli-controlled Gaza, demonstrate that Turkey is very much on the path that Kinzer expects.

Democracy's future in Turkey and Iran will depend on those peoples themselves. So will the future of democracy -- not by any means a certainty -- in the United States depend on our citizens. Kinzer may be right that we have more in common than we realize.

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