NPR released yesterday a presidential interview, taped December 18, that bears on many issues, not least the Middle East. I probably should let the opportunity to comment pass, but I can’t. I probably should eat much less ice cream too, but I can’t seem to do that either. Well, more on New Year’s resolutions anon.
Two globules of presidential language in particular catch my attention, both foreshadowed by a Reuters article on December 28. Let me take the two in turn.
In the interview President Obama praises the “incredible talent and resources and sophistication inside of Iran” and adds that if Iran agrees to curb its nuclear weapons ambitions Iran “would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules—and that would be good for everybody.” The President offered that Iran has “legitimate defense concerns” and “suffered from a terrible war with Iraq” in the 1980s, but he criticized it for regional “adventurism, the support of organizations like Hizballah, the threats they’ve directed at Israel.”
The Reuters story commented in demur, drive-by style that, while the President thinks an agreement is still possible and perhaps likely, Vice President Biden said earlier this month that he gives the negotiations a “less than even shot” of succeeding. POTUS can’t so easily dump Biden like he dumped Hagel, because Biden got elected—besides which, the VP’s own “can’t-help-myself” problem, which manifests itself most often in his predilection for “committing a truth” (as he sees it) in public, is under better control today than at any time since his election to the Senate in 1972. (For those unaware, just by the way, the phrase “to commit a truth” is a key element of speechwriting wit; it means that one should not say something in public just because it’s true, unless it serves a particular purpose. Political speech is not a didactic exercise; it is inherently about controlling and manipulating impressions.)
Ah, but back to that other member of the Executive Branch who got elected, the President. What to make of these, one hopes, non-scripted remarks?
It’s clear—actually a little too clear—that President Obama is trying to flatter the Supreme Leader and other assorted higher ups in Tehran. Someone no doubt explained to the President in another, earlier drive-by incident that these guys believe they deserve more respect for their sovereignty, history, and culture than they get. He wants to assure them, insofar as he can, that regime change is not high up on the U.S. want list with regard to Iran, though he cannot explicitly rule it out without cutting the knees out from future U.S. policy options. He wants to let them know he’s sensitive to how the world looks from their perspective.
All of this publicly articulated respect is designed, it seems likely to me as a recovering Executive Branch speechwriter, to reduce the heat on the roiling pot that contains the conspiracy theories Iranians cook up and consume on a depressingly regular basis. The practical purpose? To get the Supreme Leader to authorize the concessions he needs to make to let the deal happen, in return for which we promise not to betray his trust. Respect worked for Aretha Franklin; maybe it’ll work for Barack Obama, too.
But note that, in the list of Iranian sins, the President did not even mention Iran’s role in Syria, or in Yemen. Note, too, that he omitted mentions of Iranian-supported terrorist and insurgent-war acts that have claimed American lives. He never warns that we now intend to link the nuclear negotiations with Iranian regional behavior, as we should have been doing all along. Note too, however, that if we have already secretly consummated a “big deal” with Iran to split U.S. regional security responsibilities with Tehran largely at Arab expense—as some commentators here but especially in the region think is a done deal already a few years ago—it would be harder to make sense of this sort of klutzy fawning language.
The Administration may still yearn for such a deal, however, which now, as in 2009, gives off the sound of one tongue flapping. Here we are, it would seem, at the second coming (or third or fourth coming, depending on what evidence you credit and how you count) of the original outstretched hand offering engagement to mutual benefit for the future. The first time the Administration did this, the Iranian “Green movement” protesting a rigged election was a victim, and our hand got slapped. (Or as Shel Silverstein once wrote: “Cast your bread on the water and what do you get? Another day older, and your bread gets wet.”) Nor did the Supreme Leader deign to answer the first of now three private presidential letters.
It remains to be seen who will suffer this time around, but one thing is certain: When the Saudis, Israelis, and other U.S. associates in the region hear presidential language like this, they head for their mental bunkers and hunker down. Meanwhile, President Obama should not be watching his mailbox for a letter from Tehran.
It will all be judged wise and worldly, perhaps, if the tactic succeeds and we get in due course a nuclear deal worth having. Me, I’m with Joe Biden on this one, as an earlier post explained in some detail. But will it succeed?
Some clever folks in the White House are sensitive to Iranian insecurities and have coached the President on how to make the Iranian lion purr. Alas, they can’t turn the Iranian lion into a vegetarian, and they have a long way to go to evoke any genuine purring. I do not think this will succeed, and let me explain why by speculating on how the Supreme Leader and other Iranians of his ilk will probably hear this sort of language.
“So”, says the Supreme leader to President Rouhani over mint tea one afternoon, “the Americans think they get to judge whether we can be a successful regional power! They presume their dominance, these upstarts, as they speak to the heirs of the Achaemenid dynasty, the Sassanid dynasty, the Safavid dynasty—as these historical adolescents speak to the very founders of civilization. They speak to us not as equals but as masters. They are not and never will be our masters.”
“Yes, sir”, answers Rouhani. “You will remember when Judge [William P.] Clark, one of the NSC Advisors during the Reagan years, characterized Iranian statesmen as ‘a bunch of rug merchants’, do you not? Despite all their failures since, the hubris in Washington is undaunted. This young and inexperienced man speaks of how everyone will benefit if Iran submits to America’s will, as if life on earth can be like paradise. He speaks of international norms and rules as though everyone accepts them, despite the fact that most people in the world have suffered from the Western arrogance and oppression they symbolize.”
Yes, there is no doubt that Khamenei and Rouhani remember Judge Clark’s comment, for they assiduously collect every insult cast their way in faithful expectation of historical revenge; and you can bet your bottom dollar that the President and his advisers, including current NSC Advisor Susan Rice, lack that particular datum in their active memory banks. And much more important, yes, the Iranian government is full of geostrategic realists who know what a revisionist state is. And they are people who, for the most part—whether we can them moderates or hardliners—sincerely project the Shi’a martyrology complex onto the imagined political sociology of the world. This precisely was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s creative and expansive act of ideological genius; it still defines Iranian foreign policy ideals just as it sustained the revolution in its infancy, particularly during very hard times. So when Barack Obama tells Iranians how much they suffered during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, he comes across like a trespasser on sacred cemetery soil. “Who is this idolatrous man who presumes to narrate our holy suffering?”, the Supreme Leader asks the President.
When Robert Burns wrote, “O would God the gift to gi’ us, to see ourselves as others see us”, he weren’t just whistling Dixie folks, or suggesting that short Cliffs Notes courses in cultural studies would suffice for serious purposes. He really meant it.
The NPR interviewer asked the President whether in his last two years in office he would help war-torn countries like Libya, Syria, and Iraq. His answer was that these countries have to take the lead: “We can help, but we can’t do it for them. I think the American people recognize that. There are times here in Washington where pundits don’t; they think you can just move chess pieces around the table. And whenever we have that kind of hubris, we tend to get burned.”
Well, obviously the President is reading the wrong pundits (and in my view he acts unpresidentially even to mention them publicly). He should be reading me. I don’t want us to be engaged in a bombing campaign against the Islamic State if it is premised on a counterproductive half-strategy. I don’t want U.S. combat troops aiding the Abadi government in Baghdad, along side of Iranian Revolutionary Guard units, trying to reclaim for a unitary Iraqi state what it cannot firmly reclaim. I never argued for boots on the ground in Syria, or anything on the ground or in the air with respect to Libya. I and The American Interest with me over the years have been sympathetic to not “devoting another trillion dollars” to misbegotten foreign wars because, yes, as the President said, “we need to spend a trillion dollars rebuilding our schools, our roads, our basic science, and research here in the United States.” We at TAI used the phrase “nation-building at home” before he did (you can look it up—just check out the lead section of volume 4, number 3, published just before Obama’s inauguration).
So then what’s wrong with this picture of presidential remarks on Libya, Syria, and Iraq? What’s wrong is that the President is apparently unable or unwilling to connect his own damned dots.
Did Libya’s troubles today, by which I mean in brief that it has not one dysfunctional government but pretenses of two, just fall out of the sky one day? Unless you mean the U.S. cruise missiles targeted on Tripoli that kicked off a war in March 2011, no. If that is what you mean, as the NPR interviewer had the temerity to suggest, than yes. It was U.S. policy that caused the destruction of the Libyan state, such as it was. U.S. policy, from starting a war to failing to plan for its Phase 4 post-combat aftermath, explains not only the god-awful mess that Libya has become, but also what happened to Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Libya has to get its act together to deserve our help?! What Libya? There is for all practical purposes no Libyan state for us to help.
Did Iraq’s troubles today, by which I mean the state’s collapse back into roughly the three Ottoman provinces cobbled together to create it in 1920, just sort of happen, too? Like Libya, Iraq was a nasty, authoritarian hellhole before U.S. policy made it even worse. We may blame that on the Bush Administration for mis-starting a war that had not been properly planned, but Iraq would not be quite the mess it is today had the Obama Administration not mis-ended it by yanking our presence out without a SOFA agreement. Iraq has to get its act together to deserve our continued or expanded help?! What Iraq? There is, very nearly, no Iraqi state for us to help.
Did Syria’s troubles fall out of the sky, too? Here U.S. policy is mostly guilty of sins of omission rather than sins of commission, some of them circling back to our hands-off-Iran supinity, but it is guilty all the same. As we have said here at TAI many times over the past three years, a judicious early use of U.S. power and leadership well short of kinetic action—difficult though it always was, true—could have averted the still evolving worst-case calamity that Syria has become. Syria is well on its way to complete Somalization. So Syria, too, has to get its act together to deserve our help?! What Syria? There is, very nearly, no Syrian state for us to help.
Far be it for me to advocate the use of U.S. force in any of these places. We cannot put these states back together at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure. As I have stressed in earlier posts (for example, here), what is happening, at base, is historio-structural in nature and no mere policy nipping and tucking can restore the status quo ante. I am no more in a mood to move chess pieces around on a table than the President is, especially if I have to do it with bombers, APCs, and Aegis cruisers loaded up with SLCMs. But to pontificate about the need for Arab self-help in these three cases, as though U.S. policy had nothing whatsoever to do with their present plights, very nearly surpasses credulity. It reminds me of a three-year old not yet well experienced at hide-and-go-seek who covers his face and thereby imagines that others cannot see him. Who in the region does the President think he’s fooling?
I have commented in recent weeks about the dropping away of relevant context in the reporting of important news stories, which I suspect is linked to the generic disappearance of even relatively recent historical memory in our IT-addled, radically segmented collective cognitive state (see, for example, this). But this amnesic babble really takes all, and coming from the President of the United States it frankly makes me a bit uncomfortable.
One of my secular New Year’s resolutions is to read and think more, write and speak less. Another, however, is to write more quickly on the heels of breaking stories, as I’m doing now. Another is to cut back on the ice cream; I like to think that will buy me an indulgence for a bit more single malt, which is more conducive to thinking than to writing, and so the circle of my resolutions comes to completion.
I wish Vice President Biden success in his effort to cut back further on committing truths in public. I’m always here for you, Joe, if you need me.
As for the President, I hope he will add a resolution for 2015 to stop saying stupid “stuff” to his previous determination to not do stupid “stuff.” Since saying and doing are mingled behaviors, especially when they emanate from the Oval Office, a truth that even non-speechwriters can appreciate and that this President seems implicitly to credit more than most, there’s reason to expect both resolution and redemption. Happy New Year!