As an occasional past subscriber and more regular
buyer of The Spectator,
my recollection of the magazine was that it had improved over recent years.
Having bought the April 15 issue on impulse, though, I was really quite shocked
at the poor quality of the main editorial, "Our
Own Cuban Missile Crisis" (access requires subscription).
Although I tend to fairly strongly conservative (but anti-state) positions
on many social and economic issues, I also have strong classical liberal positions
on others, so there is nothing particularly surprising in a Spectator
editorial with which I disagree politically. From past experience, upon picking
up a new copy I would have guessed at roughly a 50/50 likelihood of finding
that I broadly agreed or disagreed with the thrust of the editorial. In the
latter case, however, I would have expected to at least be given a reasonably
coherent and (superficially, at any rate) intellectually justifiable case to
Not this time, it seems. On what is probably the single most important and
urgent short-term issue of the day, The Spectator has served up a piece
of nonsense, a collection of insupportable absurdities explicable only by profound
stupidity or ignorance on the part of the author, or by a shameless intent to
propagandize without concern for intellectual respectability.
The most important and urgent issue of the day, of course, is the U.S. government's
evidently ardent desire to attack Iran. War (for that is what bombing a sovereign
nation is called, when honesty is deployed in place of the kind of mendacious
Newspeak preferred by politicians these days) can never be of less than overriding
importance. People are going to get blown apart. Property is going to be destroyed
on a huge scale. Money raised by taxation for national defense is going to be
spent in torrents. What, then, does The Spectator have to offer us on
this grave subject?
The title of The Spectator's offering is, it has to be said, a bad start.
Such a blatantly false analogy can, one supposes, only have been used with the
intent of misleading by use of the most basic of propaganda tools – that of
playing upon the reader's fear.
Not satisfied with this, the writer of the editorial launches into the piece
with a self-serving contradiction: "Iran's leaders may be crazed and dangerous
fanatics, but they are not stupid." Conveniently for the writer, we are
apparently to believe that the rulers of Iran are just sufficiently "crazed
fanatics" to be dangerously unpredictable (and therefore, implicitly, undeterrable),
but cunning and pragmatic enough to be faced down if the U.S. and British regimes
are firm in threatening them (for, as the editorial later asserts, "time
is running out for diplomacy").
The rest of the piece positively drips with affirmations of the threat Iran
evidently poses – in the mind of the writer – to "us." We ought to
be able to assume the latter would be the citizens of the UK, where the magazine
and the vast majority of its readership are located, but the content of the
article suggests the author must have somebody else in mind. A reader ignorant
of history, military matters, and foreign affairs would never suspect, from
the content of this editorial alone, that the objective reality is that Iran
poses no existential or even significant military threat whatsoever (1)
to the UK, and is unlikely to do so in the near future. Nor is there any reason
to suppose the Iranians have any wish to attack us, even if they could, unless
we provoke them. Even the hypothetical (it would be nice to believe) reader
of such profound general ignorance might, if gifted with reasonable intelligence
and the minimum of geographical knowledge, feel some stirrings of suspicion
when reading of the "intercontinental missile, the Shahab-3, with an 800-mile
range," which, we are breathlessly informed, the Iranian regime is developing.
One might wonder about the urgency of the supposed threat, given that Tehran
is several thousand miles from London (2,738, according to one
But of course, the author has covered that base with the allegation that Iran
is "the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism … the paymaster
of – among many others – the Lebanese Shi'ite militants of Hezbollah (which
Iran helped to found in the 1980s), the Palestinian terrorist group and now
government, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and many of the barbaric terrorists
who are murdering innocent Muslims every day in Iraq in an effort to destroy
its first taste of freedom [sic!]" So we are to cower in fear at
the possibility that Iran might after all have an effective delivery system
for its weapons – terrorists!
Of course, it would take some knowledge of foreign affairs for the reader to
notice the common thread among all the "terrorist groups" mentioned
(with the exception of the Iraqi resistance groups mentioned last, of whom more
later). They all arose and exist to oppose Israel. They are not a problem for
"us," except insofar as "we" identify Israel's interests
with our own. For those of us who can see that Israel has made its own bed by
its refusal to halt the occupation and colonization of the Palestinian areas
taken in the 1967 war, and are quite willing to let Israel lie in that bed until
it chooses to get out (by unilateral withdrawal of troops and colonists, if
necessary), this is especially absurd. However, for anybody with anything other
than a highly partisan pro-Israel attitude, there is no reason to regard Hamas,
Hezbollah, or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as any more of a problem for us
than the Chechen rebels or the Nepalese Maoists.
The other group mentioned is the Iraqi resistance. Of course, anybody who knows
anything about the region knows that Iran has strong connections with many groups
in Iraq. However, there is no reason to suppose Iran has any connection with
the people responsible for the acts most readers of the editorial will think
of in reference to "murdering innocent Muslims every day in Iraq in an
effort to destroy its first taste of freedom." Nobody (least of all the
writer of The Spectator's editorial, although the implication of his
confident pontificating on this point is that he knows better than everyone
else – U.S. military intelligence included) really knows for certain the particular
motives for most of the attacks in Iraq and the identities of those responsible.
Initially, the U.S. military claimed they were mostly "Saddam die-hards"
and "foreign fighters" – the latter being Sunni volunteers fighting
the U.S. occupation forces and their Iraqi allies. Sadly for The Spectator,
Iran is probably more hated by and opposed to these two groups than even the
U.S. government (which supported both Saddam and Sunni jihadists in the past).
Iran supports Shi'ite militias within Iraq, but they have hitherto mostly been
de facto allies of the U.S. occupation, and when they haven't (for instance,
when Sadr's Mahdi Army has clashed with U.S. occupying forces) they have engaged
in guerrilla attacks on military forces rather than attacks on civilian targets.
The exceptions to the above, even more embarrassingly to The Spectator,
have been the sectarian killings generally thought to have been carried out
by Shi'ite extremists within the occupation government's police and security
forces. Although these probably mostly come from the Iranian-backed SCIRI/Badr
group, they were as likely as not armed and trained by the U.S. as part of the
very government instituted following the U.S./UK invasion (i.e., Iraq's "first
taste of freedom").
Of course, the vast majority of The Spectator's readers do not have
sufficient knowledge of the real situation to recognize the inaccuracy of the
editorial's depiction, and will come away with the simple (and incorrect) idea
that Iranian interference is responsible for the car bombs and other atrocities
occasionally seen on their television screens (when there's insufficient domestic
news to keep it out of the headlines, that is). How unfortunate that the editorial
writer (who, we must hope, has some actual knowledge of the real situation)
should inadvertently mislead his readers in this way.
Such an editorial would not, of course, be complete without some ad hominem
smears of those who oppose aggression against Iran. Thus the reference to "some
secretive neoconservative plan to control the world," as if "full
spectrum dominance" and the Project for a New American Century were some
modern-day equivalent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, rather
than public pronouncements by some of the most senior figures in the Bush administration.
The "liberal-left commentariat in the West" is guilty of "evading
the principal problem" (i.e., the mythical "immense threat from a
militant and increasingly emboldened Iran") because of its "increasingly
irrational hatred of U.S. foreign policy and the Bush White House." Of
course, hatred of a policy that has resulted in tens or hundreds of thousands
of innocents' deaths and trillions of pounds of waste and destruction so far
could only be irrational, could it not? Needless to say, in a publication such
as The Spectator, with an avowedly conservative readership, associating
the opposition with the irrational liberal-left commentariat can be counted
upon to generate a knee-jerk spasm of agreement, without any need for actual
Many of the other simply incorrect assertions present in the piece result from
the false premises upon which it is based, but these are generally unstated
or unexplored, of course. Thus: expert predictions that Iran will not be ready
to produce a bomb (even if left undisturbed) for three to 10 years "miss
the real point … [ b]ombing an active reactor would result in radioactive fallout,"
which simply assumes that the sensible alternative of just leaving Iran to develop
nuclear power is ruled out a priori. And: "There is no magic bullet
to solve the mounting Iranian crisis" is simply false because it likewise
ignores the obvious magic bullet that would solve the crisis overnight – leaving
Iran alone to develop nuclear power as it is entitled to do. Nowhere, of course,
does the editorial writer confess to the truth that he has no way of knowing
the Iranian regime is actually seeking nuclear weapons, as opposed to nuclear
power. This is also presented (laughably) as an a priori assumption.
Hence the conclusion of the editorial is as flawed as the premises upon which
it is based:
"[T]ime is running out for negotiations. The regime must be told in
unambiguous language that the West is absolutely serious in its determination
not to allow an unreformed Iran to go nuclear; the possibility of military action
as a last resort [sic!] must not and cannot be ruled out. Unless the
West is ready to show the mullahs that we are deadly serious, what is now a
dire situation will eventually turn into the worst crisis in international relations
since the Cuban missile crisis. How to deal with Iran is our biggest test since
the Cold War; we must not allow the voices of appeasement or our troubles in
Iraq to threaten our clarity of purpose."
It may be that some of The Spectator's readers share the absurd premises
on which this editorial is based: the identification of Israel's interests with
our own, the presumption that international laws and sovereignty are only applicable
in favor of the U.S. and UK and those nations with regimes approved by them,
and the convenient belief that Iranian leaders are just fanatically religious
enough to be dangerous and undeterrable, but simultaneously just pragmatic enough
to respond to threats (and, incidentally, to ignore the clear statements of
their religious authorities against the ownership and use of nuclear weapons).
However, those who don't accept those premises are surely entitled at least
to a more sophisticated attempt to frighten them into supporting (or at least
not strongly opposing) the unilateral use of force by the U.S. (and the UK's
complicity in such). Sadly, this kind of misleading propaganda dressed up as
editorial content is all too common in the mainstream Western press and media.
(1) This is predicated, obviously, on the assumption (which
ought to be safe, but sadly happens not to be at the moment) that we are not
interfering in the Middle East and thereby simultaneously putting ourselves
within reach of Iran's military and giving them a reason to want to attack
us. Of course, the first solution is to cease the aforementioned interference
forthwith. We have no interests in the Middle East that require a military presence.