What You Should Think About Belligerence

December 4, 2007

“There was never a good war or a bad peace.”

–Benjamin Franklin

As the autumn leaves brandished their colors in 2001, I looked forward to the prospect that something good might come out of a Presidency that had been consistently disappointing. Republican talking points were foreshadowing a call for immigration reform. No one fresh from the Texas Governor’s Mansion could side with the hateful rabble on that issue. Alas, I would not get to see the President make an appeal for something vaguely resembling decent public policy until years later.  Osama bin Laden and his associates made sure of that.

Instead, speeches that were initially disturbing for their lack of coherence and appeal gave way to coherent appeals to immanentize the eschaton. “You’re either with us or against us,” revealed that the President and his inner circle viewed the world in very simple terms. All humanity was reduced to black hats and white hats. Concern about a possible shortage of nuance was answered by flaunting a total lack of nuance. Our national leader seemed certain all citizens would look to him for clear answers about who was good and who was evil.

In international relations, messages seldom are so simple and clear as they were when the 2002 State of the Union address introduced “the Axis of Evil” to the pages of history. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were the nations said to threaten national security and pose grave peril to all peace-loving human beings. One of the most overrated minds in the history of politics, belonging to David Frum, forged this powerful rhetorical implement of belligerence.

“Wise men talk when they have something to say; fools talk when they have to say something,” is an aphorism that is attributed to Plato, Benjamin Franklin, and Saul Bellow. Whoever actually wrote it, the sentiment surely applies here. Early in his first Presidential campaign, George W. Bush dismissed questions about recent events abroad by explaining that there was no cable television on his ranch. Both major party candidates in 2000 were clearly focused on a domestic agenda, and the nation itself had only recently shed the weight of the Cold War. Yet there is an enormous difference between being focused chiefly on domestic policy and being oblivious to world news.

Given how long it took overseers of Iraq policy to recognize the significance of the sectarian divide in that nation, it is fair to ask if White House insiders would have been able to find Iraq and Iran on an unlabeled map in early 2001. Though the time between the 9/11 attacks and the Axis of Evil speech was roughly as long as a typical undergraduate semester, whatever studying the President and his foreign policy advisors did during that time was unsatisfactory. Any astute assessment of their work makes this painfully clear.

Among the lessons they failed to learn was that Iran had made tremendous progress toward the restoration of secular rule. Years of relatively benign behavior and rhetoric from the United States robbed fanatics’ fires of fuel. Iranians old enough to remember the time before the revolution longed for a return to sights like women with loose hair in public places or progressive political messages in uncensored print. The original revolutionaries were growing old and tired, and their successors generally lacked the fervor so evident in the years just after the Shah was deposed.

Even in Iran, there was much sympathy for Americans blindsided by terrorism. Having restored authentic autonomy to a nation long dominated by Western puppets, the old guard in Tehran was circumspect about letting their homeland become a diverse and free society. Media censors rarely exercised their powers. Politicians called for an end to the theocratic institutions established during the revolution, and those calls resulted in increased popularity. Left to its own devices, Iran was months away from genuine secular governance.

Then the President of the United States took it upon himself to poke Iran with one very big stick. Suddenly militant Iranian conservatives stopped sounding quite so ridiculous as they railed against “The Great Satan.” The people of Iran felt threatened. This feeling emerged from the fact that they were threatened by the world’s only remaining superpower! Suddenly the work of censoring progressive media seemed much more important to Iranian officials. As the election approached, reinvigorated theocrats disqualified reform candidates and detained the most vocal protesters.

Yet even if old revolutionaries had not awakened police powers that had lain dormant for years, the people of Iran may have voted against reform. It is hard to be reasonable and thoughtful in a climate of fear. Much like Americans in 2002 and 2004, Iranians have suffered from a recent trend toward visceral politics. In both nations, the perception of a worldshaking menace threatening voters’ way of life mattered more than real issues and worthwhile ideas.

Enter Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Jubilantly pandering to Iranian jingoism, he was able to muster a strong level of popular support. In fact, it is a fair question to ask if he really is just pandering. Even today, American insiders seem unsure to what extent the Bush-Cheney team is intent on war with Iran. If you can get past the cyborg heart and secret underground lair, Dick Cheney is scary in ways unrelated to the archvillain stereotype. An Iranian firebrand could tell tall tales, but a sensible analyst may also raise alarms simply by focusing on what our Vice President has said and done.

There is no sane justification for the extent to which Americans have already changed our way of life out of fear. Though international terrorism provides a little core for this dark emotion, it has been built up to monumental proportions by the rhetoric of our own leaders. By contrast, no hyperbole is needed to make the threat of attack from the United States armed forces seem monumental. Peering across the border into Iraq provides a reality to generate that perception from a truly Iranian perspective.

This morning, President Bush took a number of questions from reporters, some clearly not planted there by his own administration. A recent National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Iran has ceased work on military applications for nuclear technology was characterized as an opportunity to raise awareness about the “threat” posed by Iran. The President called for additional international pressure to isolate Iran. To Iranian observers, it must have seemed a “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” moment.

Assuming the President and his foreign policy advisors are not all mental defectives, we can infer from the garbage coming out of their mouths that there must be a great deal of garbage going into their ears. One might be able to make the case that Iran is troublesome because the government has some sympathy for Palestinian terrorists and may have some slight links to the insurgency in Iraq. Yet in making that case Saudi Arabia must be judged much more troublesome on both counts.

Perhaps the standard is that nuclear technology should be kept out of the hands of regimes that do not practice real democracy. How does this standard apply to China? Did Pakistan recently cross the line? Is Russia on track to “be against us” eventually? It seems as if U.S. policy toward a foreign government is influenced by no factor quite so much as the degree of personal animus George W. Bush feels for that regime. The problem with Iran is merely that the administration in the White House today is hostile toward the Iranian government. Just how is this the fault of any Iranian?

Okay, so it is fair to point out that President Ahmadinejad is just as quick to rattle a sabre as our own Warmonger-in-Chief. Yet it is vital to point out that the people of Iran are no less inclined than the people of America to seek peace. Outside the halls of power (and certain elements of each nation’s military-industrial complex,) there is widespread consensus in favor of focus of constructive actions by government. The average man, there as here, has no desire to feel foreign blood on his hands. If only the leaders of both nations could behave as well as average men, the world might be a more tranquil place than it seems to be just now.