Once upon a time, in a valley far, far away, I was an anti-communist, and for fun, I mapped Soviet advances through the world in tints of red. They completely controlled 8 other countries; 6 more they ruled by proxy; over 15 were solidly under their sphere of influence; a dozen or so were struggling against communist-funded insurgencies; 10 had signed mutual cooperation treaties, and a few, which I festooned with pink candy stripes, were teetering on the fence. I was among the last crop of prospective Cold Warriors, when the Soviet Union was at its largest and all foreign policy exercises were performed with red magnifying glasses, so we could cast a leviathan into something pythonically vast.
Every graph, every veracious view proved the pernicious, creeping ideology of the Enemy was jeunesse doree, about to break through and burrow like syphilis into our closest allies and dearest resources. Above all, it was impossible to argue with the maps, which responded to questions and had inexhaustible vocabularies of 3 words: you...are...losing. The maps were all-pervading, and if you asked your professors or classmates, "So...what are Malaysia's prospects," they would refer to the arbiter of all things geopolitical and it would say, "You are losing." You could ask the map any question at all, such as, Is Greece really still in the balance? "You are losing." Will I get an 'A' in this class? "You are losing." Was the movie 'Red Dawn' made by homosexual communist sympathizers? "You are losing."
Panic is a conventional wisdom. Few wiser heads dared predict or intuit how quickly and soon the Red Tide would recede, and given that, you'd think forgiving the people who came to be called Neocons would be easier. It is not, no, decidedly not. In no small part that's because they're still wonderfully positioned to screw up the world yet more, are collectively unrepentant and unreformed, and have always been transparent fools. No one seems to even understand what they are or where they came from, and although the stars of their uber-nationalist lunacies may be setting, they might not be, and are still high in the sky. Why were such twittering machines, these ungainly and vacuous intellectual monstrosities, ever allowed to ascend so far?
There's a story, of course. The far right, having shot itself in the foot, ever-desperate and facing irrelevance, searched for a magical narrative. Once they found it, they became the loudest voices in American anti-Soviet policy circles, drumbeating the idea that strong religions, whether Christian or Muslim or Jew, were the best way to thwart communist threats. Surprisingly, amongst much that was ludicrous, this was not. The Soviets were quick to compete with and suppress religions, being structures inimical to themselves wherever they went, so the idea had solid on-the-ground basis.
For example, the Catholic Church was playing a strong, probably indispensable role in Poland's Solidarity movement, eventually tempting the Vatican into a radical departure from tradition by naming its first Polish pope. Hence, it was understandable the US would embrace fundamentalist Muslims and Jews as anti-communist, pro-stability allies, particularly when newly vertiginous waves of Christian fundamentalism were swelling, and I rode their crests and troughs off the strongest American point-break.
Reagan was the embodiment of pro-religious foreign policy prescription, so his sympathizers engaged with the Iranian mullahs well prior to his election to strike deals: arms for the return of American government hostages, to be consummated after his victory, and access for selected companies. They found much to like, and each side immediately shared an intuitive understanding of the other, not perhaps as fondly as Republicans would get along and actively cooperate with al-Qaeda operatives and Muslim Brotherhood surrogates during their formation in Pakistan, but the mullahs and the Reaganites were deeply religious social radicals who had wandered long in their respective wildernesses, outcasts who were brought back in triumph by resounding activism and majorities.
Few in wider policy circles cared much about Iran beyond its oil, and it was always Jimmy Carter's misfortune to take the phrase "we will not negotiate with terrorists" seriously. The mullahs had been toughened by austere decades of Western repression, any human rights issues were not a concern, nor were the finer points of comparative religion. By contrast, Carter and the Democrats had probably set events in faster motion by regularly undermining Iran's Shah over human rights abuses. With the proxy overthrown, from a Reaganite viewpoint and from nearly everyone else's it was better to have unpredictable Khomeinist mullahs in charge of Iran than an unpredictable, democratic, Bambi-tastic government within easy reach of Russian weapons and aid. The mullah regime could be relied upon to quickly purge the communists, and Reagan policy was to leave it alone until further notice. As for the Shah, Beverly Hills had always suited him best.
Under Reagan, rapprochement with pious forms of islam was followed through on as policy all over the Mid-East, most aggressively under Bill Casey in the mid-1980s. The notion was seen as straightforward and sensible, and it was (so to speak) orthodox. It was pointless to argue against, and even if a far-right insurgency were not in the middle of joyously taking over a government, it's always hard to argue against the quick fix.
With monacle-wearing hindsight, it's easy to see predictable consequences of encouraging the rise of disparate theocracies in whereabouts considered absolutely critical to US interests. And it's easy to notice that the stage set of "Dances with Mullahs" is where the struggling Neocons and their simple-minded Kantian philosophical frameworks of aggression first responded to a casting call and won some parts in a major play, 'Morning in America.' It's where they learned their lines, fine-tuned their performances, and were richly rewarded. When the show closed down, they departed to work on another production, which I'll pick up on in Part Two. Say what you want about Neoconian acting quality, but those stage props, sheesh!--they're to die for.