February 05, 2006

Walking into the Iran Trap, III: Mythic War, and Endless Enemies

[Part I: A Decision of Policy -- and the Intelligence Won't Matter

Part II: The Folly of Intervention]

[AND Part IV: The National Myth that Sustains Us -- and Its Inevitable Racism]

In the concluding parts of this series, I will offer some thoughts about the nature of the propaganda campaigns engaged in by the Bush administration and our media over the last several years -- first with regard to Iraq, and now in connection with Iran. The dynamics of the campaigns are identical -- and the degree to which they have overtaken the critical and analytic capacities of the majority of people is, in a word, appalling. It is also incredibly dangerous. I will also indicate an entirely different way of approaching the "Iran problem": I will show that it is not a problem in the manner we are now told to think it is, and that an alternative way of engaging Iran exists -- a way which does not involve war and destruction, possibly on a genuinely horrifying scale. Consult the second half of this essay ("Unleashing Armageddon: What Then?") to see just how horrifying it might be -- and note that most hawks never talk about these possibilities at all.

The extent to which the Iran propaganda has saturated the views of most Americans is truly astonishing. At this point, one expects and knows to a certainty that all the Bush supporters, including almost all Republicans and conservatives (and even most of the phony so-called "libertarians" who are so plentiful today) will regurgitate the line that an Iran with nuclear weapons is an enemy of civilization on the order of Hitler, and that we must not make the "Munich mistake" again. With one voice, they tell us that a nuclear Iran is completely "unacceptable" and cannot be tolerated. I will have more to say about the mindset that underlies this approach later. For the moment, I will only note that, as the catastrophe of Iraq continues to play out every day, it is entirely extraordinary for anyone to announce that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" -- as if that phrase means anything, and means that we can impose our views on the entire world by military force. We are unable to control the events we set in motion in Iraq, a nation that was a third- or fourth-rate country (or even less) in terms of any threat it represented -- and now we are going to dictate terms to a country that is significantly larger and much stronger militarily? If the matter were not so serious, it would be entirely laughable.

But the Iran propaganda has even infected many liberals and progressives. Yesterday, Atrios noted the following:
The other night during the SOTU when I was at CAP Action Fund with Sam Seder I was on for a bit with Amy Sullivan from the Washington Monthly. Seder asked us both to name the biggest threat to the Republic, aside from George Bush and Dickey Cheney. Sullivan responded, with all seriousness, Iran.
Along the same lines, I read this on the front page at Daily Kos last week:
There is little doubt that a nuclear Iran is the largest threat that the world now faces--the most pressing foreign policy issue facing us today.
For a moment, I thought I had mistakenly clicked on a link to the latest Michael Ledeen diatribe, or to one of the other National Review propagandists. As I indicated, I will show later in this series that this view is completely indefensible. "The largest threat that the world now faces"? "The most pressing foreign policy issue"? I find it simply astonishing that the most widely-read liberal blog should highlight such a delusional view -- and there is no other way to describe it accurately. This is and will be Bush's major line of propaganda on Iran now and in the future, a line that will be faithfully echoed by most of the media. Why is Daily Kos parroting it so unquestioningly? (It is clear from some comments to that post that this view is far from unique at Daily Kos.)

In a followup about Byron York's misrepresentation of his views (a type of misrepresentation which Atrios correctly noted will be SOP from this point on), Atrios made the point that, if one is going to compare threats, North Korea and Pakistan can certainly be regarded as threats on approximately the same order as a nuclear Iran. If we are speaking of nuclear threats generally, I would add two more just off the top of my head: Russia, where we are regularly reminded that a lot of unaccounted-for nukes are still floating around, under whose control we aren't exactly sure -- and China, which may (among other possibilities) simply be waiting for a moment of maximum U.S. vulnerability finally to have a showdown over Taiwan. That time of vulnerability could well come in the wake of a monumentally ill-advised U.S. attack on Iran. Yet this kind of possibility is also studiously avoided by the hawks.

I'll have quite a bit more to say with regard to debunking the "unacceptable" notion of a nuclear Iran. In the corrupt intellectual atmosphere which now engulfs us and makes serious policy debates all but impossible, I am obliged to note that I certainly do not mean that a nuclear Iran would be a good or positive development. In the largest sense, I do not view it as good or positive that any nation at all has nuclear weapons. And I surely do not need to remind readers that there is, in fact, only one nation that has actually used nuclear weapons. Hint: it wasn't any of our enemies. (And for the moment, take a look at this Paul Craig Roberts column from last August, comparing the respective threats represented by Iran and China -- and noting the Bush administration's incomprehensible policies, given its own stated objectives and supposed concerns.)

Given the ease with which one can deflate the ludicrous notion that a nuclear Iran would constitute "the largest threat" facing the world, it is a cause for great concern that this view has so completely taken over rational debate on the subject. It is of even greater concern when we remember that we are only discussing a potential. But note how a central part of the propaganda campaign works: several months ago, the usual estimate for the time Iran would need to develop nuclear weapons was about ten years. Then it got reduced to five years. Now, people speak as if Iran will have nuclear weapons in the next few months. The unavoidable implication of this tactic is the obvious one, the one that Bush used so disastrously with Iraq: we need to act now. We have to do something now. There is only one word to describe this approach: it is not reasoned discourse -- it is hysteria, pure and simple.

So the question arises: what makes so many people, to be found in all parts of the political spectrum, so willing to fall for this kind of propaganda? Is there something in our general method and approach that makes us particularly susceptible to this kind of hysterical saber-rattling? Are we predisposed to find enemies -- not just your standard enemy, but "the biggest threat to the Republic" and "the largest threat" to the entire world -- when the actual enemy is significantly different in nature and magnitude from the nightmarish cartoon the propagandists offer us?

Full answers to these questions would require an entire book. Here, I will indicate in general terms a few of the elements involved. The first part of the answer is to be found in the "mythic reality" of war that I discussed the other day. I offered a few excerpts from Chris Hedges' War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and I remind you of some critical passages:
But in mythic war we imbue events with meanings they do not have. We see defeats as signposts on the road to ultimate victory. We demonize the enemy so that our opponent is no longer human. We view ourselves, our people, as the embodiment of absolute goodness. Our enemies invert our view of the world to justify their own cruelty. In most mythic wars this is the case. Each side reduces the other to objects--eventually in the form of corpses.


When we allow mythic reality to rule, as it almost always does in war, then there is only one solution--force. In mythic war we fight absolutes. We must vanquish darkness. It is imperative and inevitable for civilization, for the free world, that good triumph, just as Islamic militants see us as infidels whose existence corrupts the pure Islamic society they hope to build. [See The Apocalyptic Crusader for more on this point.]


The potency of myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. ... By turning history into myth we transform random events into a chain of events directed by a will greater than our own, one that is determined and preordained. We are elevated above the multitude. We march toward nobility. And no society is immune.
This parallels in many ways certain observations from Robert W. Merry, in Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition. Merry discusses one of the foundations of our thought, the "Idea of Progress," and notes that "it is a distinctly Western concept. It is the notion that mankind has advanced over the centuries through quickening stages of development, from primitiveness and barbarism to enlightenment and civilization--and that mankind will continue to advance throughout the human experience on earth."

Merry emphasizes that this idea underlies America's foreign policy generally, a policy that both Democrats and Republicans embrace (speaking in broad terms). It is the idea that "America and the West represent a culminating universal culture that offers peace and happiness to the world's other peoples if they will simply embrace it..." Strobe Talbott, Clinton's deputy secretary of state, maintained that U.S. foreign policy is "consciously intended to advance universal values" -- and Bush, of course, sounds this theme repeatedly in his defense of the Iraq disaster, and of his foreign policy more generally. Obviously, one can argue that there are significant differences about which countries and conflicts one chooses to engage even if the underlying perspective is the same -- but my point here is the more general one: the idea that there is a universal solution to the world's problems, and that we have it.

I have often quoted this passage from Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly before, and I offer it again -- because it concisely identifies the dangerous error in this view. In discussing how our involvement in Vietnam developed, Tuchman writes:
Americans were always talking about freedom from Communism, whereas the freedom that the mass of Vietnamese wanted was freedom from their exploiters, both French and indigenous. The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. “The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe,” stated President Eisenhower on taking office, “is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia.” He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.
History has shown repeatedly that it is a very dangerous delusion to believe that one solution fits all -- and that the solution may successfully (and properly) be imposed by military force. Yet we refuse to learn the lesson, because this perspective is so deeply embedded in the Western approach.

One of the related problems is that this point of view lies so deep within the general Western consciousness, if you will, that we often don't even realize it is there. Thus, you have liberals making statements about "the largest threat" represented by Iran that are identical to the views offered by Bush's most zealous defenders and advocates. Most of these people believe that, because there are "universal" values applicable to all -- and because we in the West understand and embody those particular values more fully than anyone else -- any nation that opposes us must be the embodiment of Evil, with a capital E. As a result, we have the demonization of Iran that is now underway, just as we witnessed the demonization of entire races and peoples in past wars. (Again, this is not to defend the rulers of Iran, who are especially noxious in numerous ways. But demonizing them in the manner so many do does nothing to identify the precise nature of the danger they may represent, and it is singularly unhelpful in determining the most effective and least dangerous foreign policy. And there is nothing about Iran or its rulers, with or without nuclear weapons, that renders them "unique" as many people would now have us believe.)

There is still another significant, related danger lurking in this Western perspective. It arises in a very extreme form among Bush's most devoted followers, and Matt Taibbi identified it very well in an article I excerpted some time ago (in a piece explaining why I voted for Kerry in the last election). Taibbi went to work as a volunteer for Bush for Florida, to try to get a better understanding of what motivates many Republicans. Here is the most important part of what he came to understand:
The problem not only with fundamentalist Christians but with Republicans in general is not that they act on blind faith, without thinking. The problem is that they are incorrigible doubters with an insatiable appetite for Evidence. What they get off on is not Believing, but in having their beliefs tested. That's why their conversations and their media are so completely dominated by implacable bogeymen: marrying gays, liberals, the ACLU, Sean Penn, Europeans and so on. Their faith both in God and in their political convictions is too weak to survive without an unceasing string of real and imaginary confrontations with those people -- and for those confrontations, they are constantly assembling evidence and facts to make their case.

But here's the twist. They are not looking for facts with which to defeat opponents. They are looking for facts that ensure them an ever-expanding roster of opponents. They can be correct facts, incorrect facts, irrelevant facts, it doesn't matter. The point is not to win the argument, the point is to make sure the argument never stops. Permanent war isn't a policy imposed from above; it's an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom.
In a way, it actually helps if the fact is dubious or untrue (like the Swift-boat business), because that guarantees an argument. You're arguing the particulars, where you're right, while they're arguing the underlying generalities, where they are.

Once you grasp this fact, you're a long way to understanding what the Hannitys and Limbaughs figured out long ago: These people will swallow anything you feed them, so long as it leaves them with a demon to wrestle with in their dreams.
In the balance of my earlier article, I explained the deeper psychological roots of this phenomenon.

The key lies in these two sentences from Taibbi's piece: "Permanent war isn't a policy imposed from above; it's an emotional imperative that rises from the bottom." And: "These people will swallow anything you feed them, so long as it leaves them with a demon to wrestle with in their dreams." What I want to emphasize is that, although it is certainly true that the most zealous of Bush's followers exhibit this approach in a dangerously extreme form, the underlying perspective is one that influences Western thought generally: the idea that we represent Absolute Good, in the form of "universal" values that everyone ought to live by, and that our enemies represent Absolute Evil, bent on destroying all of those "universal" values, without exception.

This is a perspective that, by necessary implication and at its most dangerous, must have opponents and enemies, and that requires "permanent war" to ensure its own continuing survival. It is a perspective that all too frequently courts Armageddon -- because it must have "a demon to wrestle with," and an enemy to vanquish.

There is obviously much, much more to be said about these issues, and I will address certain of the elements involved in future essays. But this indicates, at least to some extent, the dynamics in play -- and why the Iran propaganda campaign has been and continues to be so successful.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Atrios for the link. Please allow me a moment of pushiness: at present, the only income I make is from donations for my writing here and at The Sacred Moment (where many of my Alice Miller essays are now reposted, as well as the series, On Torture). If you enjoyed this post and find my writing of some value, I would be very grateful if you considered making a contribution. A further description of my current circumstances will be found here, with an update here. I'm trying just to pay a few very basic bills, no frills at all (damn it). Many thanks for your consideration.