The Sounds of Silence

There is a thirteenth-century Chinese Buddhist text (of the Chan or Zen school) in which the buddha gives a sermon that consists of the silent display of a flower. There was great meaning in that silence, as immediately understood by his wisest disciple Kassyapa who smiled in response. Sometimes words are not necessary or get in the way of meaning.

The U.S. organized a two-day conference on “peace and security in the Middle East,” (as though this were a field in which it specializes) in Warsaw to lecture its allies and partners inspire them to joint action. Russia declined to attend; the EU’s chief diplomat and the Lebanese prime minister declined to attend; Iran was not invited because the whole point of the gathering was to rally U.S. allies around U.S.-Israeli-Saudi plans for war on Iran. Still, those absent sent junior staff to the conference. Angela Merckel attended and pointedly refused to pull out of the Iran Deal.

The Polish government itself upholds the Iran Deal, and did not want the conference to become an opportunity for U.S. Iran-bashing. But the former Polish ambassador to Afghanistan, Piotr Lukasiewicz told Al-Jazeera, Poland “has lost control over the general message of the conference to the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.” Poland has been among the most slavish of U.S. NATO allies, so this is not surprising.

I have referred to these three countries before as an axis—a real one, unlike the “axis of evil” imagined by George W. Bush in 2002, because they actually coordinate strategy. The U.S. political class is irrevocably wedded to Israel, for irrational reasons, and prone to listen to its incitements to action. It is also wedded to the Saudis because the Saudis are rich and (no matter how vicious their regime and cruel their society) they always kiss up to the U.S. and want to sell oil and buy bombers. They were anticommunist allies all through the Cold War and have avoided conflict with Israel.

Saudis want the U.S. to bomb the mullah’s regime in Iran out of existence because they hate Shiite religious heresy and the model of Islamic multiparty democracy Tehran offers (in strong contrast to their own absolutist monarchy). The Israelis share the Saudis’ loathing for Iran, but not for religious reasons. Iran supports the effective and popular Hizbollah movement in Lebanon, which drove out the Israel invaders, and the government of Syria, whose land Israeli occupies and whose president Israel would like to topple from power.

Europeans do not share the U.S.-Saudi-Israeli enthusiasm for war with Iran. So the delegates at the Warsaw meet listened as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stated somberly from the podium: “I bring greetings from the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.”

The teleprompter indicated he should pause for applause. But there was no cheering in Warsaw. Just stony silence. And polite clapping at the end compared to a standing ovation for Angela Merckel. As he demanded all nations quit trading with Iran, Pence addressed leaders attempting to actively circumvent U.S. secondary sanctions that prevent them from trading freely with Iran. Silence.

Binyamin Netanyahu, who sat next to the puppet Yemeni foreign minister for part of the conference, was delighted with the outcome of the meet, which his office announced would “advance the common interest [of Israel and Arab states alike] of war with Iran.” That was the whole point.

It did probably solidify the de facto Saudi-Israeli alliance that targets Shiite Muslims that the Wahhabi Saudis dislike. That is: Shiites in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and elsewhere as well as Shiite-majority Iran. And in Saudi Arabia itself, maybe 15% of the population, concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province. Israel sees Iran as the hub of its most implacable enemies, and has long sought common cause with Saudi Arabia (never mind the savage legal system and the antisemitic content of the school curriculum) against Iran (with a far better human rights record. And the U.S. that has always maintained cordial relations with both now warms to them increasingly at the expense of its ties with Europe and most of its other allies.

So it’s the assassin Prince Muhammed bin Salman, the corrupt politician and war criminal Binyamin Netanyahu, and the unhinged buffoon Donald Trump advancing their common interests in Warsaw while civilized humanity looks on in perplexity and terror. Mike Pence stands there at the podium, blank-faced, with a thin smile and totally calm demeanor, praying the apocalypse will come soon and that, in the wake of a terrible war in the Middle East, Jesus will return, coming down from Heaven to Jerusalem (now recognized by Trump as Israel’s capital).

Those moments of silence were precious. Moments of supreme embarrassment. Sometimes silent communication can be most profound. In that moment the world said to the U.S.: You’re not in charge anymore.

The wise found it beautiful to listen.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: