The recent joint press conference by American President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair exposed the differences between the two men. Bush, in an uncharacteristic moment of clarity, expressed regret at his abrasive language (“Bring ’em on” and “Dead or Alive”) over the course of the post-9/11 administration and seemed to acknowledge for once that the Iraq war has been blundered on several fronts, including Abu Ghraib. Don’t confuse this with any great epiphany on the part of Bush; it is a calculated move by pollsters and Republican strategists to begin bringing Bush’s numbers back up:
“No question it’s created consternation here in America. When you see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country.” (Forbes, 5/26/06)
Blair, on the other hand, is resolute in his belief in the British efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq and has not backed down a bit from his stance on tough talk against terrorist networks:
“I know the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was deeply divisive for the international community. And there’s no point in rehearsing those arguments over and over again.
‘But whatever people’s views about the wisdom of that decision, now that there is a democratic government in Iraq, elected by its people, and now they are confronted with those whose mission it is to destroy the hope of democracy, then our sense of mission should be equal to that.” (Forbes, 5/26/06)
This is because Blair recognizes that he won’t last another full term and is cementing his legacy as an unpopular prime minister in a difficult time. What is interesting, however, is that Blair has been called at various points a lap dog to Bush, a partner with the American president, and now a companion on the way to the political bottom. The recent dust up with Iran, however, has shown that Blair and Bush are on different trajectories and that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is more similar to President Bush than Tony Blair could ever be.
This thesis may appear radical on its face, but a deeper examination shows that Iran and the United States have undergone a similar change in political power. Tony Blair’s own party, the Liberals, as well as the opposition Conservative Party has wrested control from the beleaguered minister and are fighting over the direction of Great Britain. America and Iran, on the other hand, have seen an unprecedented growth in executive power under the guise of ruling more efficiently in times of crisis (for both, the Iraq war and increased tensions in the Middle East). George W. Bush has used executive privilege to prevent investigations of his own staff and to investigate security issues by wiretapping the phones of Americans. The recent defense of wiretaps by the National Security Agency by Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, as well as the clarion call for using any means necessary to defend freedom, has moved Bush into the historical territory of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt in terms of expanding power. As well, Bush has not been shy about backing conservatives like Dr. David Horowitz, whose diatribes against “liberal” university professors Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has supplanted Ayatollah Khameni, the leading cleric in Iran, as the source of political authority in Iran by eliminating the influence of past presidents like Alik Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami and taking control of vital government resources (i.e. research facilities and universities). This type of executive proliferation of power is unique in Iranian history, considering the Islamic Republic’s constitution of 1979 called for a weak executive and a significant amount of power placed in the hands of ulamas and clerics. Khameini, the successor to revolutionary cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, is now seen by many observers as a rubber stamp for the increasingly powerful president.
Both Bush and Ahmadinejad have used the idea of populist revolt against the wealthy to ignite their bases. Bush campaigned as an “outsider” in the 2000 presidential elections and has said repeatedly that the American public should be given more economic power through tax cuts and deregulation. As a former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, whom led Iran throughout the 1980s, and mayor of Teheran, Ahmadinejad has been a social conservative and populist who has often used his humble upbringing and piety as a symbol of what Iran can do as a nation. However, they differ on this commitment as Bush’s Republican Party is funded by wealthy donors and patrons and Ahmadinejad has shunned such control by the wealthy over the political process. Finally, both presidents have attempted to take a softer stance on international affairs while wielding a big stick on the campaign trail. In Ahmadinejad’s letter to Bush and his recent statements, there is a willingness to speak on issues of international security. While the letter, unusual in the relationship between the two nations, does feature healthy doses of religiosity and Muslim conservatism but has an underlying attempt by the author to reach out to the West and avoid an Iraq-like show down. However, this is belayed by the fact that Bush is campaigning for targeted Republican seats in 2006 on international security toughness and Ahmadinejad has traveled to Indonesia and the Middle East speaking against Western infiltration of Arab nations.
The most significant similarities between the two leaders (and Blair, for that matter) are the troubles that their nations face. America has experienced a recent rebound in the economy, but there are major issues over health care, border security, and social security that have yet to be answered while reactionaries on both sides deal with nonsense issues like gay marriage and flag burning. Ahmandinejad is facing a lagging economy, ethnic strife, rising unemployment, and a failure to achieve the promises that won him election. Both have to contend with religious conservatives that are closely tied to their governments and both certainly need the Iran versus World standoff to end peacefully or the future of their nations will be in jeopardy. Neither leader can play their favorite brand of politics, reactionary conservatism, in this case because it would lead to the antithesis of their desired end.
The attempt by the various neighboring parties, like Russia, China, and the European Union, to broker peace with the help of the United States show that there has been perhaps a lesson learned from the struggles in Iraq. While the United States and Iran posture publicly for the higher ground in the eyes of the world, both Bush and Ahmadinejad are working to avoid a massive de-stabilization of the Middle East by using intermediaries to act as moderating forces. It is a peculiar consequence of history that the Americans and the Iranians need to act civil to each other in practice and act as adversaries in rhetoric. However, it seems unlikely that this dance will end anytime soon. There are still significant elements of the Reagan administration within the American government (including Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Richard Perle) that fought the Iranians at the end of the Cold War. The Iranians still have many of the same conservative Muslim codes and laws that Ayatollah Khomeini ushered in twenty-five years ago and Ahmadinejad’s political career was born of the 1979 revolution. These two nations are going to go in circles for the next two years and more than likely will continue into another American presidency, because there are very few viable candidates who would back down to Iran or lead the nation into another costly war. The parallels of history are too strong a force to prevent these nations from doing anything but what they have done in the past: sit and wait.