Perhaps because St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, I’ve found myself rereading Edmund Burke and Conor Cruise O’Brien — and drinking Irish whiskey. I first became acquainted with these three sources of stimulation back in 1978. That also was my first brush with terrorism.
I was a young foreign correspondent sent to Northern Ireland to cover the “Troubles,” the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Republicans (Irish nationalists) and Loyalists (those favoring solidarity with the United Kingdom) that broke out in the 1960s and dissipated just before the turn of the century.
I spent many hours in pubs, listening to those on both sides of the divide tell me what they believed, whom they despised, and what acts of violence they would countenance — and in some cases carry out — to achieve their objectives.
In Ireland I also developed the habit of reading the important writers of every country I visit — as well as partaking of local libations. Burke, of course, was a great 18th century Irish author, statesman and political philosopher. An enthusiastic supporter of the American Revolution, he saw early on that the revolution in France was heading into darkness, including “La Terreur” — mass executions of “enemies of the revolution.”
The following year, 1979, I was sent to Iran to cover the Islamic Revolution. I don’t doubt that Burke influenced me. While most journalists regarded the regime that replaced the Shah as progressive, I saw ample evidence that the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers were dangerous fanatics.
Attributed to Burke is the perception that for evil to survive, all that is necessary is for good people to do nothing. Today, I’m afraid, in too many instances, passivity would be an improvement.
Recent examples: basketball star Dennis Rodman visiting with and heaping praises upon North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, and actor Sean Penn and the Rev. Jesse Jackson attending the funeral of Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez, an ally of the Iranian regime that did indeed turn out to be oppressive at home and the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism abroad, even as it illicitly develops nuclear weapons.
American policy, Vice President Biden said this month, “is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, period.” He added: “President Barack Obama is not bluffing.” Despite that, among both Democrats and Republicans in Congress there is concern that in the latest round of talks the administration’s negotiators offered to relieve the economic pressure on Iran without demanding a verifiable halt to its nuclear weapons program in exchange.
In an editorial last week, The New York Times essentially told Congress to shut up and stop interfering with such diplomatic “progress.” And in a Times op-ed, Ray Takeyh, of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that “Washington should be more cognizant of Iran’s security dilemmas.” This may require, he added, “a more imaginative re-conceptualization of the existing diplomatic paradigm.”
This is the sort of mush that used to infuriate the late Conor Cruise O’Brien, another great Irish writer, diplomat and — by the way — biographer of Burke. In 1994, he lashed out at The Economist, noting that the prestigious British journal had published dozens of pieces reassuring readers that “the sobering experience of government” had made “Iran’s revolutionaries ... noticeably milder in their foreign policy as well as in what they do at home.” O’Brien responded:
“This is the sort of thing that British and French devotees of appeasement used to write in the mid-Thirties. ‘Time, and the sobering experience of government’ were forever about to do wonders for Adolf Hitler, and we may be sure that these factors will exert an equally chastening influence on the character and disposition of Ayatollah Khamenei.”
In 1995, O’Brien wrote that the “jihad is at present raging in many parts of the world, and shaking many westernised and westernising regimes ...” But six years before 9/11, few good people were listening. Fewer still were eager to do anything. After 9/11, there was a shift. The evidence suggests it may not have been permanent.
On St. Patrick’s Day, I advise you to turn away from all this and just enjoy being Irish — whether or not you really are. Drink plenty of Irish whiskey (a better product today than it was in 1978, but that’s a story for another time). After the celebrations, read or reread Burke and O’Brien, and consider what is required of you, me and other good people if evil is not to survive and, before the end of this century perhaps, triumph.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.