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The US And Iran

This essay, by Professor Norman Birnbaum ’46, was originally published in the Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung (taz) as >>Krieg gegen Teheran?<<.

The Iranian leadership is learning, haltingly, the aggressively manipulative flexibility occasionally shown by the USSR in relations with the west. When, under Khrushchev especially, it indicated a willingness to discuss a western proposal, the western capitals became confused, even panicked. The Iranian offer to discuss uranium enrichment abroad has provoked the US and the ever dutiful Europeans to denounce Iranian deceit. There is no western strategy for Iran—only non-negotiable demands, and condemnation, provoking Iranian erraticism.

The US has three immediate options with respect to Iran. The unilateralists nostalgic for the ideological simplicity of Bush and Cheney and,the Israel lobby (it could be renamed the Likud lobby, as signfiicant segments of American Jewry doubt the competence of the Israel politicians now in power) propose to attack Iran, with no delay, after demanding instant cessation of Iran’s nuclear projects. That Iran is developing nuclear weapons is an item of faith for those who make no apologies for using falsified evidence to justify war on Iraq. For them, a prior attack by Israel is neither necessary or desirable. The Israel elite doubts that Israel by itself can successfully attack Iran, and prefers to let the US do so. The previous Israel Chief of Staff, the air force general who led the inconclusive war with Hezbollah, has just warned his nation against over estimation of its capacity to strike Iran.

The second course is the one now being pursued, by Obama. His apparent wavering results from the pressure of the Likud lobby, internal differences in the habitually uncoordinated military-political apparatus, and his being distracted by the economy, and the fall elections. He seeks to defer an attack indefinitely, while giving the impression of pursuing strenuous sanctions.

This approach has an advantage. The US military believes that we cannot attack Iran without incurring disaster when our forces are embattled in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Many officers doubt that any attack on Iran can succeed. The drive for sanctions is compensation for the weakness of our military position, about which both the military and the White House prefer not to speak. The military fear being asked what they are paid for. The White House is afraid of being charged with lack of will, however rational restraint might be. Since conflict in the Gulf would raise the world oil price, that is another ground for prudence.

The trouble is that sanctions are chimerical. China (newly offended by arms sales to Taiwan, an absurdity if it is intended to enlist its cooperation) will not participate, and Russia is recalcitrant. In a phantasmagoric escape from this dilemma, some in and out of the government advocate US pressure for “regime change.” Those who do so are, usually, devoid of any knowledge of Iran. Strenuous US isupport of the Iranian opposition, covert asssistance to it, will fortify the regime. The rest of the world will recall the US attachment to the Shah, encouragement or toleration of tyranny across the globe. One does not have to be as ignorant as Governor Palin to advocate regime change. The experienced and reflective ex-diplomat Richard Haas has just reversed his own position arguing against it, to knowing comprehension in Washington. He is being considered for a post in the government and as President of the Council on Foreign Relations, may in any event wish for rapprochement with estranged donors responsive to Israel.

Curiously, the policy of regime change, for those who wish to avoid war, is as good as the futile pursuit of sanctions. Since it is unlikely to work, it can be prolonged for a long time with the promise that success is just over the historical horizon. The danger, of course, is that the Iranians might recur to their ample capacity for retaliation, and so precipitate conflict.

Obviously, the wisest course for the US is to finally come to terms with Iran’s demand for recognition of the regional power status it already possesses, cure our anti-Islamist obsession, reduce consumption of oil, diminish our swollen presence in the Mid-East, and reduce as well our hypertrophied military budget. We could encourage the Europeans to autonomous policies in the region, and with them, compel Israel to abandon its illusions of omnipotence.

That would require a US President capable of constructing and maintaining a new majority. That was Obama’s initial vision. The west Europeans are of no help to him,. The German Chancellor, Defense Minister cand Foreign Minister endlessly repeat the most banal of Washington cliches. Does no one in Berlin realize that Obama called off his Madrid trip because he was tired of European “friends” who did not grasp how desperate his struggles in the White House? If, by whatever means, he can avoid armed conflict with Iran he will have performed a considerable service to the US, Europe, and the rest of the world. Much of American opinion refuses to recognize that we are no longer uniquely dominant. It is not too late for some European pedagogy.

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#1 Comment By kthomas On February 14, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

Rather than address the issues directly, I would begin by presenting the second paragraph, in its (original?) — as it was published in German:

Den USA stehen in Bezug auf Iran derzeit drei Optionen offen. Erstens könnte man den Unilateralisten folgen, die sich nach der ideologischen Einfachheit von Bush und Cheney zurücksehnen. Gemeinsam mit der israelischen Lobby schlagen sie vor, den Iran mehr oder weniger unverzüglich anzugreifen, nachdem das Land mit aller Schärfe aufgefordert worden ist, seine nuklearen Projekte einzustellen. Diese Israel-Lobby sollten wir inzwischen allerdings besser als Likud-Lobby bezeichnen. Denn viele amerikanische Juden hegen starke Zweifel an der israelischen Regierung.

#2 Comment By kthomas On February 14, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

And we could begin then with the first sentence:

Den USA stehen in Bezug auf…

#3 Comment By Jr. Mom On February 14, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

Professor Birnbaum,

Thanks so much for your astute commentary regarding the situation in Iran, which is, that until we can wean ourselves from the oil teat and arrive at more balance with our Israeli policy, there is not much we can do. At least we have leadership that recognizes what needs to be done. Unfortunately, accomplishing it is an entirely different matter.

#4 Comment By Dick Swart On February 14, 2010 @ 9:56 pm


I am very interested in your analysis of the subtlety of the translation of Prof Birnbaum’s article.

This is assumed in the simultaneous translations at the UN. That the translator will find a suitable image, metaphor, or idiomatic expression that works from the speakers language into the language assigned to the translator.

My request is not to preclude comment on Birnbaum’s points, but rather to ask of someone fluent in both languages: does it work in German?


#5 Comment By kthomas On February 14, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

“Today, the US has three options with respect to Iran…”

Is this what German says?

“Ich stehe in Bezug…”

Was bedeuten diese Worte? — What do these, particular, words, ‘mean’?

#6 Comment By Ronit On February 15, 2010 @ 12:38 am

I enjoy analysis of German words more than root canals.

#7 Comment By Ronit On February 15, 2010 @ 3:03 am

Much of American opinion refuses to recognize that we are no longer uniquely dominant.

Indeed. The Byzantines, who knew a thing or two about dealing with Persia, and about projecting power in ways other than military, may be worth studying at this juncture of US history.

#8 Comment By kthomas On February 15, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

@Dick Swart:

Dick: the short of it:

It comes off well in German. Whether it comes off, as exactly the same, or substantively the same, is another story.

I do not know the production or collaboration process, and haven’t had time to formulate an inquiry to Prof. Birnbaum.

But just to start: in our version we have:

Much of American opinion refuses to recognize that we are no longer uniquely dominant.

and in taz:

Ein erheblicher Teil der Öffentlichkeit in den USA will nicht einsehen, dass wir nicht mehr die einzige Großmacht sind.

Which I might just as well translate as:

A great part of the public in the United States, is not willing to see that we are no longer the only superpower.

Well that’s quite different, isn’t it? It is indeed “a different way of seeing things,” with quite different implications of the US ‘no longer being uniquely dominant’ versus ‘no longer being the only superpower.’

Do we still have a world of superpowers — or a different form of global power politics, for instance?

The second paragraphs in each version differ significantly in ordering (look at where the words “Likud Lobby” appear), presentation, and logic.

In the German version we have “Nachhilfe,” which is not usually “pedagogy,” more often “tutoring,” and in this context, implies “help after the fact” or “cleanup”– perhaps that the Europeans need to come in and fix the mess that the Americans have gotten themselves into, via their ignorance.

That’s hardly what the English says! though each of these differences, could be concessions to audience– the Germans still having the idea of being a superpower, close to many of their hearts– they could also reflect, attempts to reframe the issue in a manner closer to the translator’s way of looking at things.

Nonetheless, all that aside, if we work through some of these particular issues, we at least see, some of the larger issues and dangers, which lie around translation and translations.

There is also Stevenson’s famous quip– “don’t wait for the translation!” — which also has its implications, here.

But– in any case– my instinct is that if we keep looking closer, and with some analytical precision, we might find things that are both interesting, and highly relevant to the situation at hand.

“Root canal” or not.

#9 Comment By Jr. Mom On February 15, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

Well, I have never had a root canal, so I can’t compare, but I find your language notes really interesting, Ken. I don’t speak German, but have enough fluency in a couple of romance languages to recognize that the arrangement differs fairly significantly, but appreciate your ability to get more specific.

I would like to hear from Professor Birnbaum about the process of translation, and if in fact, he is fluent in german. The comments in the link, would be interesting to translate as well….get a gander of what is on the minds of those blogging abroad.

I enjoyed Ronit’s link as well. This bit of Byzantine-inspired strategy made me think of Obama’s efforts at diplomacy, and how they differ from the mentality of Bush/Cheney.

Strive to end wars successfully by recruiting allies to change the balance of power. Diplomacy is even more important during war than peace. Reject, as the Byzantines did, the foolish aphorism that when the guns speak, diplomats fall silent.

#10 Comment By kthomas On February 15, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

We might then narrow our focus, and concentrate our attention on a single word in the first sentence of the second paragraph, in its German rendition–

Bezug. The United States stands in Bezug auf Iran— but what does this mean? What is this situation, this thing, this occurence, in historical time, which the United States is standing in?

Bezug. What is this word? What does it mean?

#11 Comment By Norman Birnbaum 1946 On February 16, 2010 @ 9:33 am

Es ist sehr Einfach. It is simple enough: I saw that the translation was approximate but when it was sent back to me did not have the time to rework it. Sometimes I write these things in French or German myself, with plenty of orthographic and grammatical mistakes but the temper remains authentic. In this case, as approximate as the translation was, it did convey the main message—that the German government by its acceptance of the role we usually assign to our allies (with us or against us) was ignoring its own possibilities and those of Europe. One problem is that the Chancellor, for all of her many talents, remains someone who grew up in the Soviet bloc, in what was Communist Germany, where she was neither a Communist or a dissident but a dutifully conforming scientist who found her niche in a laboratory. Her enthusiasm for US leadership is not only late, it comes at a time when we would be well advised to shed its burdens in the forms in which we practise these (eg Hillary Clinton exposing us to derision by criticising Iranian dictatorship and then visiting our close ally, His Royal Highness, the King of Saudi Arabia.)

The other reason for Germany’s present lack of profile and weight is that the Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, thinks he can restore the sinking standing of his party, the Free Democrats (the coalition partner of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) by rhetorically loud and strenuous attacks on the German welfare state–which evoke the opposition not only of the three opposition parties (the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens) but of major parts of the two sister Christian parties, which hold to Christian social teaching and are as much in favour of the welfare state as the opposition. All of that diverts Westerwelle, to the despair of his very competent diplomats and the dismay of many of the other Europeans, from doing his job as Foreign Minister of a substantial middle sized power with potentially far more influence in the EU than it now has….by the way, by depicting our President as trying to stave off demands for an attack on Iran from Israel (where Jewish intelligence, as reduced as it is these days, might be sufficient to preclude a reckless move) and the American imperial party, I hope that I did not pay him an unjustified compliment.

In any event, I am grateful to Keith Thomas and the others for their philological-political comments.

#12 Comment By Ronit On February 16, 2010 @ 10:05 am

@Norman Birnbaum 1946: thanks for your clarification & v. interesting notes about Westerwelle and Merkel.

@Jr. Mom: here’s Google’s rendering of the comments thread in English. Not great, but good enough to get the point if you read the machine’s output charitably.

#13 Comment By Jr. Mom On February 16, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

Professor Birnbaum,

Today’s news, regarding Clinton and Iran, took on a bit more poignancy as a result of your post. It appears things are escalating, but with what end in sight?

And thanks for the notes about the translation process. I found the translated comments (Thank you, Ronit!) to your German post, eye-opening as well. They point up much of what you say, and give even more breadth to that which “American opinion refuses to recognize”.