Hammering Out the Cabinet

There’s been a lot of hoopla over the past few weeks as the Obama administration has started to propose Cabinet secretaries and various “left-of-center” groups have expressed dismay over:

  • Iraq war supporter Hillary Clinton as proposed Secretary of State;
  • Bush administration Defense Secretary Robert Gates continuing for an indefinite period;
  • Deregulation proponent Larry Summers advising Obama as the Director of the National Economic Council;
  • Dissent-intolerant Eric Holder for Attorney General;
  • And whatever else…

Over and over progressives are told that it doesn’t really matter who gets nominated and to just shup and stop whining. Obama will give his Cabinet their marching orders and they will follow them to the letter. Presumably, the concept of “plausible denaiability” is out with this administration, and if anyone did something wacky like, say, selling arms to a country considered an enemy to fund “freedom fighters” in another country, there isn’t going to be the hemming and hawing about how Obama was “out of the loop” or that the whole thing was “compartmentalized” for his safety. Nobody’s going to do anything he doesn’t approve of and the only things they do are going to be things he approves of.

I was thinking of this while reading a section of Hooman Majd’s book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. Majd, the Iranian-born and Western-educated son of a Shah-era diplomat writes of a visit to the Iranian Foreign Ministry shortly after the 2006 conference on the Holocaust. The conference invited former Ku Klux Klan leader and Louisiana politician David Duke to speak, along with a crew of Holocaust deniers.

Majd met with Deputy Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mohammadi, the actual organizer of the conference (on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s order), and discusses with him the fact that Duke wasn’t simply anti-Semitic but promotes the concept of the inferiority of people like Iranians and Africans. The conversation wanders away from the subject then is brought back up by Mohammadi himself as Majd is about to leave.

“On the Holocaust, by the way, you should know that I conducted my own very extensive research into it. You know I’m a scholar, of course.”

“Really,” I said, a little surprised that he’d want to revisit the topic.

And I discovered the truth.” he continued proudly. “There was no Holocaust.” He gave me a knowing smile. “Sure some people died,” he carried on, perhaps because of my hanging lower jaw and dead stare, “but you see, there was an outbreak of typhus in the prison camps, and in order to stop its spread, the Germans burned the corpses. All told, something like three hundred thousand people died from typhus.” Mohammadi smiled again, a little triumphant smirk.

I stood still in disbelief, not knowing what to say. In the space of minutes he had gone from being Holocaust agnostic, like his president, to a full-fledged denier, like Duke.

Majd mentions in the text that if Mohammadi had simply gone back in records of the ministry he belonged to he could have found the stories of Iranian diplomats in Paris issuing passports to Jews escaping “the very Holocaust they were aware of, but that he now denied.”

I felt relieved to be out of his presence, and as I walked across the perfectly manicured lawns outside, I wondered just how much influence men like him could have on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s thinking. Ahmadinejad may be open to questioning the Holocaust, I thought, but he was a far smarter man than the deputy foreign minister. A few days later, when I was relating my meeting with Mohammadi to President Khatami, he screwed up his face in disgust at the first mention of his name. Mohammadi has held senior positions at the Foreign Ministry even under the reformists, just as other hard-liners have, and their apparently untouchable status only serves to illustrate that the “Ahmadinejad element,” always a factor, will remain a constant in Iranian politics long after he’s gone.

The point isn’t that any one of Obama’s picks is going to influence him to deny the Holocaust or undertake any other major abrogation of perceived reality. It’s far, far easier to sway people to your position when the distance between two points is shorter, when you’re talking about two potential outcomes of different policies instead of historical evidence.

And whether it’s expressed in those terms or not, I think that’s what makes people unhappy (those who are) about some of Obama’s choices. A president doesn’t have endless time to fact-check the recommendations his Cabinet places in front of him. If you pick Joe the Hammerer — someone with a propensity for treating everything like it’s a nail — as your advisor, don’t be surprised if your advice involves a lot of hammering.