That's the case with looking back at the elections last year and considering our present. What if John McCain had won? What would our stance toward the disputed Iranian elections be then?
One question you'd have to answer first is whether there'd even be a dispute. Would the people of Iran see the US as a potential partner or as an enemy? And, if it were the latter, would they have voted for the reformer or the hardliner?
We don't have the answers to those questions. We can make educated guesses, but we can't know. It may be that the situation facing President Obama would never have happened at all under a President McCain. All we can really do is look at the way things are now and see how McCain reacts to this situation. That's as close as we'll ever come and as close as we'll ever know.
What we can learn from this time machine game is that McCain would've been... let's say "incautious." Where Obama has an end-game in mind for Iran -- one that doesn't really depend on the name of Iran's president -- McCain's the guy who takes the pawn because it's unprotected, mistaking a game of chess for an exercise in destruction, rather than as a constructive process.
In the protests over Iran's election, McCain believes he smells blood in the water. Now is the time to attack. He watches Obama pass up the unprotected pawn, sticking to his original strategy, and is enraged by it. We get a glimpse of what President McCain would've looked like.
[USA Today's The Oval blog:]
On NBC's Today show [Tuesday] morning, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called on President Obama to make a forceful declaration about the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"He should speak out that this is a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election," said McCain, Obama's opponent in last year's presidential election. "The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights."
"I think it's possible to engage. But item number one is giving the Iranian people a free and fair election," he said.
Here's a question; Obama says Iran just had "a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election" and then what happens? Does Iran reverse itself because of criticism by the American president? Because that never happened with George W. Bush. If I remember right, no matter how big a dick Bush was toward Iran, it really didn't have any effect on them. They did whatever they wanted to do, regardless. McCain suggests (demands, actually) that Obama give up on his long-term strategy in order to take advantage of an opportunity to criticize Iran.
"For two years now, John McCain has been entirely consistent on Iran: every last statement he's made--at least, those that I've seen--has been (a) fabulously uninformed and (b) dangerously bellicose," writes TIME's Joe Klein. "...There is no question that President Obama's more prudent path is the correct one right now. There is also no question that the neoconservatives are trying to gin up this situation into an excuse for not engaging with the Iranian government in the near future -- and also as a rationale for their dearest, looniest dream, war with Iran."
Actually, "their dearest, looniest dream" isn't going to war with Iran, it's that we're already at war with Iran. As anti-Iran wingnut Michael Ledeen once put it, "Washington diplomats have steadfastly refused to see the Iranian regime for what it is: a relentless enemy that seeks to dominate or destroy us. This blindness afflicted the first American negotiators shortly after the 1979 revolution, and has been chronic ever since, even though Iran declared war on us in that year and has waged it ever since."
Iran? Destroy us? You know, that'd be a pretty good trick. Incredibly, this is an operating assumption in neocon circles -- that we're at war with Iran and that they could win.
Freaked out by the possibility of a world dominated by Iran (laugh if you want, it is absurd), they see the protests in that country as the big opportunity to get rid of the regime once and for all. And that thinking gives rise to crazy assumptions.
"To start with, the BBC, long considered a shill for the regime by most Iranian dissidents, estimates between one and two million Tehranis demonstrated against the regime on Monday," Ledeen wrote early this week. "That’s a big number. So we can say that, at least for the moment, there is a revolutionary mass in the streets of Tehran. There are similar reports from places like Tabriz and Isfahan, so it’s nationwide."
Wait a second, "revolutionary mass?" What evidence is there that this is some rebellion in its cradle? The opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was cleared by the clerics who really run Iran. He might've been set up to lose, but they were damned sure he wasn't going to say anything counter-revolutionary on the campaign trail. He differs from Amadinejad in many ways, but he's just as much of a supporter of the Iranian system of government. If he wasn't, he wouldn't even have been allowed to be on the ballot.
And are the people on the street talking revolution? Not if you ask them.
[New York Times:]
"These people are not seeking a revolution," said Ali Reza, a young actor in a brown T-shirt who stood for a moment watching on the rally's sidelines. "We don't want this regime to fall. We want our votes to be counted, because we want reforms, we want kindness, we want friendship with the world."
What neocons see when they look at Iran is what they want to see. They want to see a revolution, so a contested election becomes a revolution. It pays to remember they also want to see a threat on par with the USSR during the cold war -- as ludicrous as that comparison actually is.
If we went back in our time machine and changed the outcome of the US elections, it's impossible to say whether we'd be talking about protests in Iran or President McCain's reaction to it. The only thing we could really count on would be that President McCain's stance on Iran wouldn't be realistic or constructive.
After all, he's got his own time machine and, in his alternate reality -- where he lives every day -- we've been at war with Iran since 1979.
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