America’s story in the Middle East is a tragic one, animated by a series of “original” sins. One can start history at the 2003 Iraq War, or one can begin earlier, with the first Bush administration encouraging Shias and Kurds to rise up en masse against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War in 1991, only to turn its back on them as they marched toward Baghdad. Saddam remained in power, and as many as 100,000 Iraqis fell victim to reprisal killings, many of which “were committed in proximity to American troops, who were under orders not to intervene.”
Or one can look still further into the past. In Iran from the 1950s through the ’70s, the United States supported the brutal repression of dissenters by the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. He was “our S.O.B.,” to borrow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous description of a different American-backed authoritarian. But before that, in 1953, Americans helped organize the overthrow of the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, which facilitated the conditions for the shah’s bid for absolute control; the shah’s excesses, in turn, are what made the Iranian revolution possible.
Even good things, like the notion that the United States should back dictatorships less and promote democracy more, have been tainted in the eyes of the left (and, for that matter, the right) by the second Bush administration’s rhetorical embrace of democracy promotion and the “freedom agenda.” But this is where U.S.-centrism becomes a blind spot. Not everything is about us. And not everything is primarily a question of whether the United States is using military force. Not every new crisis is about repeating the blunders of the Iraq War. Syria most certainly isn’t, and wasn’t, Iraq, and thinking that it is had a distorting effect on the Obama’s administration’s policy, with tragic consequences.
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The United States has done terrible things in the Middle East. To even casual observers of the region, this should be clear enough. That, however, doesn’t mean there is a moral equivalence between Iran and the United States. Elevating America as a somehow unique source of evil takes necessary self-criticism and turns it into narcissism. It insists on making us the exceptional ones, glorifying ourselves by glorifying our sins. To suggest that American officials are at the rarefied level of the deliberate, systematic mass murder and sectarian cleansing that Soleimani helped orchestrate isn’t just wrong; it’s silly.
Despite the blood on his hands, 1 million or more Iranians publicly mourned Soleimani’s death. Some commentators took this as evidence that Iranians, despite their differences, were uniting in solidarity with their slain hero. Already, it appeared, the United States was losing. The large crowd sizes were an odd thing for critics of the Trump administration to highlight, though; in the absence of additional context, the mass mourning of a ruthless killer could only have the effect of making the Iranian people look bad. But demonstrations, particularly in a dictatorship, aren’t exactly an accurate bellwether of public sentiment (that’s what elections are for). Iran has a population of more than 80 million. That about 1 million were protesting tells us that some people revered Soleimani or at least felt some instinctual nationalist attachment to him, but it doesn’t tell us much more than that.
To focus on the perceived victims of American might and aggression—and many ordinary Iranians no doubt have suffered from punishing sanctions—runs the risk of imputing moral superiority to the mere act of resistance to the United States. But suffering, or to resisting, is not quite the same as being right. The Iranian regime, and Soleimani first and foremost, have long demonstrated that the weaker party does, in fact, have agency and that the powerless can use their power to destructive effect.