Last week, Sean Penn posted another shrill diatribe lambasting the Bush administration, denouncing the war in Iraq, and raging against the idea of military confrontation with Iran. In the most general of terms, I agree with Mr. Penn on all of these points (Bush & Co. = awful leaders; war in Iraq = wrong decision; war with Iran = compounding an already awful situation). Unfortunately, Mr. Penn seems to have the same cognitive deficiencies as the President. (And judging by his gross misuse of commas and semicolons, Mr. Penn’s screeds aren’t edited before they’re posted).

To wit:

Sean Penn: And if we give that corrupt leadership, (by attacking Iran militarily) the opportunity to unify that great country in hatred against us, we’ll have been giving up [sic] one of our most promising future allies in decades. If you really know anything about Iran, you know exactly what I’m referring to.

GWB: The best way to protect this country is to defeat the enemy overseas so we don’t have to face them here at home.

Both of the above statements lack the substance and/or reason to justify either the Iraq war or a non-military approach to the Iran situation. Unfortunately, these superficial assessments of complex matters of geopolitics are always the loudest voices on either side of the debate. I could write a small book on what currently passes for debate on the US policy in the Middle East. Instead, I’ll focus on the two statements above, because I think the essence of each shows exactly why reasonable people (on both sides) continue to get shut out of this discussion.

[I’m trying to remain neutral here, but in the interest of full disclosure, I am no fan of the Bush administration]

Bush’s and Penn’s fundamental error is that neither of them is capable of seeing the situation in anything more than episodic bits. First we invaded Iraq because they were developing WMDs and had links to terrorists, then, to capture Saddam, and now to keep the terrorists from being transported from our TVs into our neighborhoods. Considering that the terrorists in Iraq (or whatever you want to call the people attacking US forces) are using rather simplistic means to attack Iraqis and westerners (e.g., IEDs, car bombs, and assorted booby traps), and considering that the administration has gotten a fair number of Americans paranoid of brown-skinned people, how likely is this scenario? Really? You’re telling me that dozens or hundreds or thousands of so-called terrorists are going to get passports, get money, fly to the US, and start militant jihad on our soil? We’re so paranoid that we’re arresting people who don’t even have the means to scout–let alone attack–their alleged target. The collective hand-wringing and scaremongering isn’t a good technique to persuade terrorists to try a negotiation method short of their literal self-destruction. Addressing Bush’s elementary argument, at what point are our enemies “defeated?” There will always be someone somewhere roaming freely hating America, or taking up arms in the name of a radical practice of some religion.

On the other hand, Penn talks about his trips to Baghdad and Iran as though simply being in a country qualifies him to advise on international policy. The gibe, “If you really know anything about Iran, you know exactly what I’m referring to,” is just as inane as “Either you’re with us, or you’re against us.” Though I’ve never been to Iran, I think I know more than the average person on the street, and I have no clue “exactly what” Sean Penn refers to. I know in 1953 we successfully ignited a revolution that brought a relatively stable secular regime into power for 25 years; I know that puppet regime was toppled, the US embassy was stormed, and 70 Americans were held hostage for over a year; I know we funneled weapons to Iran in the 1980s; and I know that while the current Iranian leader has a knack for saying inflammatory things, he’s really not the one calling the shots. Given any or all of these facts, one could draw several different conclusions about what Sean Penn is trying to get us to understand. As long as Ahmadinejad or Bush is in power, I don’t see much hope for the great future alliance to which Penn alludes. I’ll be happy if the two leaders can keep from escalating the current situation beyond the status quo.

If Mr. Penn were to explicitly tell us “exactly what” he’s talking about re: Iran, and then go so far as to embellish on the “exactly what,” maybe he’d fade into the masses, where most reasonable people sit, and the neo-conservative militants would be exposed as raving mad. But as long as he’s more theatric than substantive in his arguments, he’s hindering the cause he’s trying to champion.