Lunch Beyond Good and Evil: Around a Table with Michael Ledeen

The International Roundtable at Macalester is one of the biggest annual events on campus. This year, (Sir) Ahmed Samatar of the International Studies department managed to corral three leading intellectuals into speaking: super-leftie Tariq Ali, historian of the British empire Niall Ferguson and mega-neoconservative Michael Ledeen. (Right now the Mac Weekly site is not showing my story that was published on Friday. I emailed the webmaster about it, so that should be cleared up.)

As a senior, I was invited to the Roundtable lunch. Things just went from there. The following was my editorial on what happened:

With the election scorching our brains, the future has seldom looked less certain. A small network of ideologues, analysts and bureaucratic adventurers known as neoconservatives have shaped our strange generation in ways unimaginable only a few years ago. As Washington reporter Josh Marshall put it, the war in Iraq will forever be known as the war that neocons agitated for, framed, planned (poorly), and finally carried out, by persuading a trusting American public with fake intelligence, over the resistance of the vast majority of the world. Thomas Friedman stated that this war could never have happened without a couple dozen in the capital leaning on the levers of power.

At this precipitous, binary moment in our nation’s history, either we are about to reach the High Noon of an eight-year Bush presidency, or we are tripping through its final days. If Bush is finished, the psychopathology of individuals like Michael Ledeen will be digested for decades. If the smirk-in-chief is just settling in, we’d better figure out these people’s motives, and quickly.

After Tariq Ali’s Friday morning session, where Ledeen perused a book for long stretches, the speakers, and some seniors and professors retreated to the Weyerhauser Boardroom. I asked Dhruva Jaishankar to save me a seat at some table. I built a croissant sandwich, and I suddenly discovered that Dhruva had landed at Ledeen’s table. He saved me the chair on Ledeen’s left. I thought, “What the hell? Let’s do it,” and sat down with the grim scholar of war.

How do I converse with a genuinely diabolical person, especially one about to speak before the whole campus? I thought, chewing my sandwich, can I just bitch at the man holding the American Enterprise Institute’s ‘Freedom Chair?’

Parsing my words, I asked him if the Middle East was a fundamentally inscrutable “wasteland of mirrors,” a phrase I erroneously thought he’d used. No, the Middle East was pretty easy to figure out, he said.

Ledeen has staked everything on the belief that the fundamentalist Iranian leadership will nuke Israel or the U.S. once they have the bomb. Thus, for him, their downfall is among the highest of priorities. He has fought within what he deemed Washington’s “chaos” of policymaking to go after Iran. But the neocons tend to get carried away with rhetoric for its own sake: witness how State Department Undersecretary John Bolton has threatened the sensitive North Koreans right before negotiations just for the hell of it. So I asked him, if the regime in Iran is highly unpopular, how can he be sure that they aren’t exaggerating their intentions, hoping to goad the United States into overreacting and threatening them, so that they can turn around and tell the Iranian opposition that they must unite to fight the external threat?

Ledeen, a Machiavellian to the core, said that this was much too convoluted for him. He said that he was a historian of the twentieth century who’d read a great deal of fascist rhetoric, and those people were very serious about killing the Jews. Likewise, he said that former President Rafsanjani stated he would nuke Jerusalem despite the losses from a counterattack, because it would benefit Islam to take out a huge proportion of the Jews while only a small proportion of Muslims would get killed in return.

I asked why the Iranians would bomb Jerusalem if it would kill so many Muslims. He said that the Iranians murderously hate Arabs and kill them all the time. In fact, he said, the Iranians are killing “hundreds” of Arabs in Iraq today, sending in money and munitions.

His scheme to free Iran was to supply the opposition with the tools to destabilize the regime, “but not a single bullet.” I have a hard time believing he could resist arming the Iranian opposition. In fact, many say that the Pentagon, administered by Ledeen’s allies, has courted a weird, cultish anti-regime Iranian guerilla group based in eastern Iraq called the Mujahideen al-Khalq. If Bush wins, it’s quite unlikely that the neo-cons will be able to resist using forces like these to harass Tehran, but we have no idea what sort of reaction this would provoke from the highly mobilized, nationalist Iranians.

Trying to avoid provoking more mobilization, I asked Ledeen what sorts of places he got his information. “Never watch television,” he told the students at the table. He’d also given up on The New York Times. He surprised us when he said that he really likes reading online blogs, in particular Iranian and Iraqi blogs. Iranian blogging has snowballed into a serious trend, providing a sizeable young population with the means to skirt government censorship. Ledeen said that once you’d been reading a source for a while, you can get a feeling for their perspective and veracity, something I agree with.

He kept muttering little statements, preparing himself for the dramatic speech to follow. In particular, at both the lunch and his speech, he referenced sliding over the “border between manic depression and genius,” while he later admitted that writing about Iran was his therapy.

More than anything else, this explains the neoconservative agenda in a way that has eluded me during this bizarre presidency. Ledeen’s power in Washington has shaped not just their unresolved debate over Iran. More importantly, his militant myopia has fed the government’s racist, irrational and self-destructive tendencies. Yet Ledeen admits he has an anarchic streak inherited from his Russian anarchist Uncle Izzy. He also admits to a Trotskyist belief in perpetual global revolution. He said that America’s government was a “chaos,” but a better, more productive chaos than others. America is a revolutionary power, he argues, that crushes ideas before it makes a new order. Strip out Trotsky’s stuff about proletarians, swap bourgeoise for ‘terror master,’ and you’ve got a recipe for everlasting wars.

After I got away from that table, my little moral universe was bent. I hadn’t confronted the man like I would have a year ago; I hadn’t hacked the bristly defenses raised so harshly in the talk that followed. I didn’t get to the bottom of their motives. Did I, of all people, make a good impression on a man who wants to crush everything I stand for? Was that the wrong thing to do?

Commenting on this Story is closed.

Tags for Lunch Beyond Good and Evil: Around a Table with Michael Ledeen