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Jeb Bush’s review of our role in the Mideast omits a big event

Bush decided to start his assessment of U.S.-Iranian relations after the United States helped snuff out the only brief outbreak of democracy in Iran’s history.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks to The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in Chicago on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Jim Young

Undeclared presidential candidate Jeb Bush spoke in Chicago Wednesday, outlining the arguments he will make, mostly about foreign policy, after he formally enters the race.

Compared to some of the craziness we will hear from some of the other candidates, Bush came across as sane and measured. He clearly would associate himself with the chief complaints that righties have employed against President Obama’s conduct of foreign policy — that Obama is weak, vacillating, “feckless” is a favorite word, and even that Obama doesn’t believe that the United States is an unmitigated and unselfish force for good in the world. But he kept it dignified.

Bush won’t literally be running against Obama, who has a Constitutional excuse not to seek a third term, but if Bush makes it to the general election he will likely face a former Obamian secretary of state, so dissecting Obama’s alleged foreign policy failures will be relevant.

Nothing concrete

Bush owes us a clearer outline of what he would do differently. As of Wednesday, he committed himself to nothing very concrete but implied that he has ways of reducing the chaos in the Mideast.

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In outlining a return to proper American conduct, Bush certainly hewed to the self-serving, Manichean view that U.S. political rhetoric generally embraces to convert the complicated century-plus track record of U.S. domination of smaller powers into a simple tale of freedom and democracy versus dictatorship and oppression.

“In the post-World War II era, [Bush said Wednesday without anyone acting surprised] the United States has helped hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, secured liberty for an equal number, and has been a force for peace and security. This has happened because our presidents, both Republican and Democrats, have accepted the responsibilities of American power in the world with the belief that we are a force for good. I have doubts whether this administration believes American power is such a force.”

That last line borders on slander per se, although it may also contain a grain of truth. Obama has at times seemed to differ from other presidents in his assumptions about the unarguable “force for goodness” of every U.S. invasion or bombing attack, and that drives some of his critics slightly nuts.

Here’s an example, which I’ve cited before, but which is freshened up by Bush’s treatment Wednesday. (You’ll see in the excerpt below that Bush made a momentary slip of the tongue, saying “Iraq” when he meant “Iran,” which some are tongue-clucking over, but I am not. I’m going to a different place). Said Bush in Chicago:

“We’ve had 35 years of experience with Iraq — excuse me — Iran — 35 years experience with Iran’s rulers. They have attacked the United States and American troops directly and through their surrogates. They have used terror as a tool of intimidation.”

During those 35 years, I would note, the United States also attacked Iran, as when the Reagan administration armed and sided with Saddam Hussein during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. But that’s not my main point in this passage.

Why choose to start the history of U.S.-Iranian relations 35 years ago? That was the year religion-crazed Iranian mobs overthrew the Shah of Iran, who had run the country under U.S. protection and in accordance with U.S. policy for the preceding 26 years? Sure, it’s nice to have friends running important countries, and even nicer when they produce a lot of oil, although a little less nice when you fancy yourself the global arsenal of democracy and you cozy up to a monarch, just as the United States has done before and since with the nearby monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, etc.

Siding with monarchies is not the best feature of our “force for good” and “arsenal of democracy” pitch, even worse when then monarchies (like the Saudis) impose laws that led to the public flogging of bloggers.

What happened in Iran

But the case of Iran is much, much worse than the U.S. willingness to cozy up (and really much more than cozy up) to an unelected monarch. That’s  nothing. The United States, via the CIA and other assets, actually overthrew the only truly democratic government that ever held power in Iran. That was the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1952 and who had committed the unpardonable sin of nationalizing Iran’s oil and attempting to use the revenues from the sale of that oil for the benefit of the Iranian people.

I’ve written the story of that CIA-orchestrated coup before, including here. But it’s impressive how seldom the story makes into any general public discussion of the history of U.S.-Iranian relations.

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No one can with certainty say that, absent that U.S.-organized coup, Iran would have developed into the model of a democracy in a Mideast Muslim country that would have changed everything. No one can say that it wouldn’t have. The Shah was not a monster on the Saddam Hussein level, but employed secret police and tortured his critics and Iranians knew that he worked for the Americans. 

So Jeb Bush has decided to start his review of U.S.-Iranian relations after the United States helped snuff out the only brief outbreak of democracy in Iran’s history and after the U.S. ally who replaced that democratic government had been overthrown, and he finds it to be a tale of good Americans and evil Mideasterners.

No U.S. president ever publicly mentioned the U.S. role in overthrowing Mossadegh until Obama, during his first year as president, on a trip to Egypt said:

“For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is, in fact, a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” 

So yeah, I guess it’s true as Jeb Bush suggests, that Obama doesn’t hew as closely to the traditional all-party line about the United States as an unflagging defender of peace and spreader of democracy.