Friday, May 19, 2006

Revolutions devouring their own

In the Atlantic article I discussed yesterday, a name on the first page caught my eye: Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the Iranian foreign minister at the time of the hostage crisis.

Suddenly, although I hadn't thought of him in decades, the memory came back. Ghotbzadeh! I recall his sardonic, jaded, man-of-the-world expression--a strange combination of arrogance and weariness. As the spokesperson for the regime, he was featured often on TV (I think on the nascent "Nightline," then entitled "America Held Hostage"). As a visible and familiar figure, he became somewhat of a focus for my frustration and annoyance with the entire situation. Something about him seemed hollow, although he was clearly intelligent and articulate.

As events unfolded, it turned out that Ghotbzadeh was one of those cautionary figures, a man who was instrumental in planning a revolution that then got away from him and proceeded to devour him in the process. Like Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins; like Trotsky and so many other engineers of the Russian revolution who were slaughtered in the great purges; authors of violent revolutions often come to violent ends at the hands of their violent former comrades.

Thus it was with Ghotbzadeh. Here he is:

Ghotbzadeh was close to the Ayatollah Khomeini while both were in exile in Paris, and became one of his right-hand men back home in the early days of the revolution. He seems to have been motivated most strongly by hatred of the Shah's regime. But, paradoxically, his role in the hostage crisis was as a relative moderate (accent on the "relative;" moderate in comparison to what?). He seemed to be working for a diplomatic solution, and lost favor with the Iranian powers that be in the process.

Former hostage and Ambassador at the time, Bruce Laingen, has this to say about Ghotbzadeh:

I didn't like him at the outset for the role he played as Foreign Minister, but I sensed as time went on over those months, that he came to the conclusion, himself, fairly early, that this hostage business was counterproductive to the revolution and that it needed to be ended. I think he genuinely wanted to end it and was prepared to make some concessions to do that. And he stuck his neck out to do that. He showed some guts.

It all unraveled rather quickly:

Ghotbzadeh finally resigned in 1980 over the deadlock in negotiations. That year, after he was arrested and briefly detained after criticizing the ruling Islamic Republican Party, he retired from public life. In 1982 he was arrested on charges of plotting against the regime. Although he denied any conspiracy to take Khomeini's life, he apparently admitted complicity with Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariat-Madari in a plot to overthrow the government. Ghotbzadeh was convicted in August 1982 and executed the following month.

Did he really plan to end the Khomeini reign, and, if so, with what was he planning to replace it? Or were the charges trumped up, and was he forced to confess to crimes he didn't commit? At the time, I remember being astounded at the news of his startling reversal of fortune and allegiance; it was quite a switch from disliking him to feeling some sympathy for the man.

Guillotining having gone out of style, Ghotbzadeh was shot by a firing squad shortly after his trial. The revolution had eaten another of its own.

But not everyone connected with the early days of the revolution has met such a fate. Others connected with the hostage crisis have prospered. It's unclear whether or not the current Iranian President, our good friend Ahmadinejad, was one of those "student" hostage-takers, although several former hostages have identified him as such. But there's very little doubt about the identity of another former hostage-taker who's riding high at present: Hussein Sheikholeslam, recently an Iranian diplomat and legislator.

Why do I mention Sheikholeslam? Only because I came across an interesting fact about him, an indication of the sort of cross-fertilization process that seems to have been at work in the revolutions of the 60s/70s. Sheikholeslam may not have been an actual student at the time of the hostage-taking in Iran. But whether or not Sheikholeslam was a student at that point, he certainly had been a student earlier--at UC Berkeley, where he learned a thing or two:

UC Berkeley gained a reputation as a center of student anti-war protest during the 1960s and 1970s. During that tempestuous period, an Iranian student named Hussein Sheikh-ol-eslam attended Cal. He became fluent in English. He also absorbed the demonstrations criticizing American imperialism in Vietnam and other nations.

After Hussein returned to Iran, writes Mark Bowden in his new book, "Guests of the Ayatollah," his anti-Americanism planted deep roots in his Islamic religion. In late 1979, the tree connected to those roots bore ugly fruit.

The student protests of the 60s didn't actually revolutionize much in the political sense in this country. The "revolution" they began here was more cultural than anything else. But not so in Iran, where students who had learned the anti-American and propaganda lessons of the 60s used them later to great effect. Some forget that the 60s didn't just happen in this country; the protests occurred in Europe as well.

Khomeini spent some of his exile in France, but I was surprised to learn (from Wikipedia, so this could be taken with a grain of salt) that the French were not necessarily simpatico to him during his rather short sojourn there:

In 1963, [Khomeini] publicly denounced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was thereby imprisoned for 8 months, and upon his release in 1964, he made a similar denunciation of the United States. This led to his forced exile out of Iran. He initially went to Turkey but was later allowed to move to Iraq, where he stayed until being forced to leave in 1978, after then-Vice President Saddam Hussein forced him out...after which he went to Neauphle-le-Château in France. According to Alexandre de Marenches (then head of the French secret services), France suggested to the Shah that they could "arrange for Khomeini to have a fatal accident"; the Shah declined the assassination offer, arguing that this would make him a martyr.

[NOTE: My post about Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, is relevant here. Nafisi, an Iranian national, likewise fell in with other radical Iranian students while studying in this country. Then, when she returned to Iran, she saw quite a few of those former associates imprisoned--and in some cases executed--by their former comrades-in-arms.]


At 2:03 PM, May 19, 2006, Blogger Doug said...

Another figure that shows up all over the place in Bowden's book is Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran's current vice president. Americans became familar with her because she was the spokesperson for the "students" in NBC's first interview with a hostage, on Dec 10 1979, although she was identified as "Mary" at the time.

In Bowden's epilogue, he returns to Iran and interviews many of the hostage takers. A surprising number of them have subsequently run afoul of the Mullahs, further evidence for Neo's thesis in this post.

At 3:41 PM, May 19, 2006, Blogger nyomythus said...

Speaking of Danton….

Danton (1983) Directed by Andrzej Wajda with Gérard Depardieu playing the part of Danton, I give very high recommendations. The movie is in French, but is nonetheless absolutely riveting; acting and suspense, and historical setting of the Reign of Terror.

…Which is what awaits we neo-con in a worst case scenario.


At 3:54 PM, May 19, 2006, Blogger MikeZ said...

"Then, when she returned to Iran, she saw quite a few of those former associates imprisoned -- and in some cases executed -- by their former comrades-in-arms.]"

That is so reminiscent of early Communist Russia. The first thing that came to mind was "Darkness at Noon" (Koestler).

At 5:40 PM, May 19, 2006, Blogger Elmondohummus said...

Movements, as much as any war does, tend to turn it's members into distressingly fungible commodities. You truly turn into a cog in a machine, sometimes even more so than soldiers in most western armies. Given the ostensible goal of many such movements being the freedom from oppresion for its participants, it's odd that so many end up being so terribly abused, and even openly oppressed by the very movements they enthusiastically worked for.

I recall reading somewhere that much of the movement to overthrow the Shah was, in fact, not Islamic, but secular (I need to find that article again...). Some people involved were simply tired of corruption. Some military officers involved were either trying to preserve the country or, on the flip side of morality, were just looking out for themselves and wanted to be on the winning side. Many other classes of folks, too, participated. I don't remember the relative numbers -- for all I know the Islamicists might have well been a majority -- but the point is that, at the very least, a sizeable majority of the participants were not in it to impose a strict theocracy in the Shah's place. What they ended up with they didn't end up caring for; Neo, that Salon article linked in your "Debacle, indeed" post is a perfect illustration of that. As an independent example, Babalu Blog had a post on this very subject here, saying:

"(People who rebelled against Batista) ...led an armed attack onto palacio on their own, because they wanted him out and wanted DEMOCRACY reinstated in the island. The rebellion was of a political nature, it was to again bring elections and an elected president instead of a power hungry and rights abuser dictator. Ironically, so much was the hate for Batista and tan fuertes las ganas de sacarlo that Cubans were not able to see beyond their noses, and were duped into supporting a tyrant."

(Emphasis is my own, not the original author's).

Such movements, such revolutions, tend not to be the wonderfully exciting, meaningful, free places that participants imagine, but coldhearted, calculating monoliths of purpose unimagined by the individual participants caught up in the heady romance of the moment. The place you thought you had in the movement ends up being so diminishingly small you wonder how you valued it so in the beginning. You as a participant end up being diminished. It takes an incredibly self sacrificing individual to accept without irony or outright cynicism a trinket of a medal and a pat on the back as thanks in exchange for blood, toil, tears, and sweat, not to mention sacrifice, danger, and heartrending loss of friends. It takes an incredibly dedicated -- or misled! -- person to accept being ignored, or worse yet, punished for offenses as something that's deserved. But to be openly abused, jailed, even executed... merely being perfunctionally thanked, then ignored is bad enough. Being beaten, direly insulted, having purpose taken away from you is nearly unimaginable. Such a betrayal... yet, time and time again, you read of people in Ghotbzadeh's shoes, true believers chewed up and spit out by the momentum of the movement, a mere commodity to be used to the movement's own ends. As macabre sounding as Neo's phrase is -- the revolution "eating it's own" -- it is terribly descriptive and sadly accurate. Revolutions, movements, causes that don't have level-headed, sensible leaders and participants caring for both the means and the results, watching out for the people as well as the cause tend to go to extremes and "eat their own".

Poor thanks for a poor victim.

But, as sad as that sounds -- and I don't mean to be coldhearted by saying this -- just about all of those victims did join of their own free will. Many feel they had no choice, and unfortunately, many truly don't. And I don't want to blame the victim for what others in the movement do to him or her. But, as much of a victim as these people are, it's a sad truth that they did have a hand in their own future, that they did, to a degree, bring around the circumstances that led to their own fate.

I have no real lesson to draw from that, other than that participants should understand history, and know what such causes, such movements have done to people in the past. The American Revolution worked out, in spite of it's costs, and led to the country we know today. The Orange and Cedar revolutions have the potential to be among the exceptions and be true, freedom inducing causes. But the Cuban anti-Batista and Iranian student revolutions?... What cost, rebellion? They're eating their own. Even to this day, they're eating their own.

At 9:22 PM, May 19, 2006, Blogger chuck said...

Speaking of Robespierre, this looks to be an interesting book; I read the ending in the bookstore and am going to buy it. Much of the crazy left wing rhetoric of the last century seems to have found its first expression in the mouth of Robespierre.

At 10:45 PM, May 19, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

chuck: I was doing a little reading on Robespierre in preparation for this post, and it turns out that he, in turn, got most of his ideas from Rousseau.

At 11:25 PM, May 19, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I think he genuinely wanted to end it and was prepared to make some concessions to do that. And he stuck his neck out to do that. He showed some guts.

When you're riding the tiger, the only way you're going to get off is when you land in the tiger's stomach.

Ghotbzadeh was convicted in August 1982 and executed the following month.

That was fast. Guess they weren't worried about Ghot becoming a martyr, eh? Where are his followers, eh?

It's unclear whether or not the current Iranian President, our good friend Ahmadinejad, was one of those "student" hostage-takers, although several former hostages have identified him as such.

Bowden doesn't seem very unsure about this fact. The writer, not the commenter.

France suggested to the Shah that they could "arrange for Khomeini to have a fatal accident"; the Shah declined the assassination offer, arguing that this would make him a martyr.

Right, another "martyr" argument that leads to death and destruction. Same thing was said about Fallujah, Osama, and Sadr. Just get rid of these people, you'll be sorry if you don't.

Elmondo brings up an interesting point. It relates to why I say that revolutions don't have a good track record and how revolutions always end up purging the revolutionary grass roots membership. A lot of it has to do with populism. The dangers of populism

I remember the union protests. One specific incident involved the steel workers union fighting Carnegie, the owner of the steel mills. The unions just wanted better terms. Carnegie's negotiation team specifically set out to put the terms so low that they would never be accepted. Carnegie was out to break the unions. So what did the unions do? The unions broke into the steel mill after Carnegie closed it, and had a shoot out with the strike breakers that was being brought in at a private river port inside the steel mill perimeters. In the end, the National Guard arrested the union leader and members. Why? Because regardless of the justice of their cause, they trespassed on someone's private property.

The principle of human rights, is tenuous and vulnerable. Once a bloody revolution violates the "rules", there is nothing there to stop the cycle of violence. The United States has had the chance to grow and improve because the military was always there to crush "populist" uprisings that used violence or violated the laws. This is why non-violent revolutions are much more successful.

The military can't crush "too many" uprisings of course, given the 2nd Ammendment. So what we have is a deadlock, a balance, the only thing that can allow for civic improvement. A Mexican standoff is always better than people shooting at each other. Hopefully the standoff will evolve into the relationship we have today.

Violence doesn't solve your political problems as easily as you might imagine. Presumably because if you can overthrow the Man, why can't someone else overthrow you? If the United States can throw off the shackles of Briton, why can't the South secede from the Union? These are the questions that face a nation. And the track record for movements and revolutions that use violence to solve their problems is less than 1 out of 10. America is a charmed land, where a "civil war" ended up with a more united and more powerful nation than before. When a "Revolution" ended up with the first democratic experiment. America is downright weird, historically speaking. A freak of history.

I cannot remember the last time that an armed and violent revolution brought about a progressive/positive ending. OH ya, Fox is reporting that HAMAS got caught trying to smuggle 815k to Gaza from Egypt. Abbas confiscated it, heh. Now Hamas wants their dough back. It just gets better and better for the cash strapped terroist organization after Israel, America, and Europe finally cut off terroist funding.

Populist revolutions don't work unless you have the Socialist, Leftist, and Rich class with you. It is those people that you need to purge afterwards. Remember Cuba? Ya, that was just like Iran. Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan... the list just goes on and on and on.

At 7:59 AM, May 20, 2006, Blogger Ron said...

Ghot looks like Christopher Hitchens in that picture...

At 11:20 AM, May 20, 2006, Blogger chuck said...

The genocidal aspects of the French revolution are often overlooked, with an emphasis on the rather small number, numbering somewhere between 15,000-40,000, who died on the quillotine in the Place de la Revolution, but that was just a small part of the whole. There were plans to exterminate the german speaking population of Alsace-Lorraine, finishing the shift of population started by Louis XIV after the thirty years war, and the slaughter in the Vendee claimed some 200,000. Here:

General Westermann eventually reported to the welfare committee: "There is no more Vendee, my republican fellow citizens! It died beneath our sabers along with its women and children. I just buried them in the swamps and woods of Savenay. According to your orders, the children were trampled to death beneath the hoofs of our horses; their women were slaughtered so that they couldn't bring any more soldiers into the world. The streets are full of corpses; in many places they form entire pyramids. In Savenay we had to make use of massive firing squads because their troops are still surrendering. We take no prisoners. One has to give them the bread of freedom; however, mercy has nothing to do with the spirit of the revolution." Westermann, however, soon met his nemesis; he was guillotined a short time later with his friend Danton.

The French revolution was an intellectual and cultural disaster for European civilization whose malign influence underlay the totalitarian genocides of the twentieth century. It was the beginning of the end for Europe; the working of the poison was slow but sure and continues to this day.

One wonders what recovery will look like. For history is long and eventually there will be a recovery.

At 6:37 PM, May 20, 2006, Blogger stumbley said...

According to that great philosopher, Pete Townshend:

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss..."

-The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again"

...but people do, time and time again...

At 11:48 PM, May 20, 2006, Blogger douglas said...

Those who seek power will always be fearful of those beneath them, and often rightfully so. Those who seek some kind of ideological 'purity' will never find it, so they will scrub to the bone... and it gets bloody.

At 2:13 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Daniel in Brookline said...

It does indeed seem to be the tragic fate of most revolutions, as Neo says, that they eventually devour their own. This makes it all the more remarkable, and puzzling, when we see a revolution that does not.

As Ymarsakar points out, a successful revolution often begets further attempts. If the wicked old regime could be overthrown, why not the wicked new regime? (By way of analogy, think of mutineers; Fletcher Christian reportedly slept with one eye open after his successful mutiny on the HMS Bounty, and with good reason. Revolution is mutiny writ large.)

For a revolution to refrain from eating its own, it must get past this particular trap somehow. The former revolutionaries who are unsatisfied with the revolution's results -- and, human nature being what it is, there will always be such malcontents -- must be dealt with... and it must be an overwhelming temptation, for the new regime, to ignore the rule of law and simply dispose of them.

(The United States, cited multiple times here as a successful revolution that did not eat its own, had to pass this test too. Remember the Whiskey Rebellion, in which sitting President George Washington led the troops to put down the insurrection; it is to Washington's credit, and the country's, that he resisted the temptation to become a tyrant. The War Between The States, 1861-1865, was a different sort of test entirely, and a very near-run thing it was at times; there too, the United States came close to tyranny, but resisted the temptation.)

Israel comes to mind as another, mostly-successful revolution. The Jewish population of Palestine (called the Yishuv) sought to get rid of the occupying power of the British Mandate; and, through a combination of diplomacy, guerilla warfare, and an unbelievably short-sighted British foreign policy, the Yishuv succeeded, and Israel was born.

And here we see another crucial element of successful revolutions -- the willingness of the military elements to lay down their arms when the battle is won, transforming themselves from warriors to politicians. (Menachem Begin, leader of the guerilla Irgun Tzvai Le'umi, did precisely this. After a bloody showdown with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, he announced that the struggle would continue, but it would henceforth take place at the ballot box. Civil war was thus averted.)

Can even a new society's malcontents, who fight the new regime without respect for its institutions, be vanquished by those same institutions? Historically, this is rare indeed... and the results all the more precious when the effort succeeds.

Daniel in Brookline

At 8:50 PM, May 22, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

I notice how the Left talks up a shitstorm about the "cycle of violence" and then they go starting up the cycle of violent Revolutions without a drop of guilt. What a bunch of human wastes.


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