St. Patrick’s Day with Edmund Burke
What Burke and Conor Cruise O’Brien can teach us about preventing the triumph of evil.

State of Edmund Burke at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland


Clifford D. May

The Obama administration has been clear, rhetorically at least: 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. The details of the proposal remain murky, but we do know that Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili has said that Americans are now “closer to the Iranian position.”

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, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that “Washington should be more cognizant of Iran’s security dilemmas,” while considering “what role Iran can play in its evolving Gulf security architecture.” That 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, at that point, “devoted more than 30 columns to a ‘survey’ on the subject of how to love fundamentalist Islam” with nary a word about the Iranian fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie to death for writing a novel that Iran’s rulers considered insulting to Islam.

Instead, The Economist reassured its 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.

To say that the Iranian regime has got “noticeably milder” is not just untrue; it is the reverse of the truth. The regime in Iran is getting noticeably more ferocious, as the recent bombings of Jewish targets in London and Buenos Aires attest. The Argentine authorities at least have no doubt as to the origin of the bombing that took the lives of nearly 100 people in Buenos Aires. They believe that the atrocity was planned in the Iranian embassy in the city, on the orders of Ayatollah Khamenei . . . .

No one has ever been prosecuted for this act of terrorism (nor for the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people in 1992) and, recently, the Argentine government announced that — surprise, surprise — doubts have emerged. Therefore it was joining with Iran to form a “truth commission” to find out who was really responsible for the 1994 terrorist attack. Eduardo Amadeo, an ex-ambassador to Washington and a member of the Argentine opposition, said: “We’re going to sell out the victims for a barrel of oil.”

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 prior to 9/11, few good people were listening. Fewer still were eager to do anything. After 9/11, there was a shift. It may have been short-lived.

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 much better product today than it was in 1978, but that’s a story for another time). After the celebrations, when you’ve sobered up a little, read or re-read 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.