I will tell you how to really understand Tom Friedman’s April 4 interview with the President, but to do it properly I need to begin with a rather sweeping detour.
Once upon a time humanity was suffused by political theology—that union of beliefs about the world “above” and the world “below” that bound politics inseparably to religion. This meant in most times and places that the authority of priests, who sited the origins of their authority in the world above, decided among divergent claims about order and justice in the world below.
One result of the union described by political theology was to invest quotidian decisions about how to organize and regulate what we call today the public sphere with transcendent importance. In a mental universe in which the holy and the profane, the sacred and the ordinary, had yet to be divided, nearly every decision implicated ultimate principles. It followed that to contest priestly authority in any sphere was to cast aspersions upon its legitimacy in all spheres. That was manifestly dangerous, because the authority of the priests defined the in-group/out-group boundaries critical to both the internal and external security of the community.
Imagine hunter-gatherer groups if you like, or better, shamans and witchdoctors in early agricultural settlement some 10,000 years ago. But you can just as easily read about how the Catholic Church determined that Galileo Galilei’s heliocentrism made him a heretic. Indeed, with a little imagination and a small dash of courage, you can even assess practically all contemporary arguments from authority, whether avowedly priestly or not, in a similar manner.
And then one day, a remarkable thing happened: Some very religious people in Europe differed over some extremely critical (to them) theological propositions. They could not solve their disputes, and their disagreements led to protracted periods of horrific violence. In the end, to make a long, bloody, and fairly well known story short, at least some societies eventually learned to carve out a space for politics separate from the ultimate claims of religion. They created the social concept of the secular, and by so doing delimited the sphere of the sacred.
From the concept of the secular there eventually arose the intellectual innovation of popular sovereignty—the idea that while the authority in the world above still governed the private lives of people in the world below, authority over the communal world below in all its public functions resided within, not outside of, that society itself.
As everyone knows (or ought to know), Hobbes endeavored to base political authority on necessity, essentially the idea that a political community needed a sovereign not by divine right, but because in its absence life would become, as he famously put it, nasty, brutish, and short. This implied that the King was not also really the head of the Anglican Church, or at any rate should not be—a very bold claim at the time, and one that led Hobbes to see the need to protect himself from accusations of heresy. It is simply impossible to understand first few chapters of Leviathan without grasping this point.
It fell to Locke and others to make an argument against the divine right of kings not from dour necessity but from a moral logic informed by premises other than those that Hobbes began from. The natural rights of individuals, Locke believed, showed that a republican form of government was superior to a monarchical one because it allowed a useful form of pluralism in the face of existential doubt about the best way to solve collective problems. Locke’s understanding of individual liberty as a natural right also placed logical limits on the state, a proposition that resonated widely in a chastened post-Civil War England. It was not too far a leap from the principle of liberty as a natural right to the idea of democracy as a procedural necessity to protect that right from the usurpation of the state.
It was natural, too, that the admission of doubt and the assertion of pluralism as a social good came out of the Anglo-Protestant tradition. It was in England that a natural pluralism, probably based on land-tenure circumstances shaped by topography, produced the Magna Carta almost exactly 800 years ago. It was in England that the fecund heterodoxy of the early post-Reformation period produced an extant and undeniable religious pluralism, one so energetic that in time it allowed even for the free expression of the Roman Catholicism from which the Anglo-Protestant tradition had sprung. It was out of this singular environment that doubt acquired an aura of virtue and mere forbearance morphed into actual toleration—both developments being genuinely revolutionary in the European context. England was not entirely alone in this development; neighboring Scotland and newly independent Holland, in particular, shared many similar attributes.
From the merger of these historical and philosophical developments there arose in time a characteristic set of attitudes and what we might call dispositions toward political life. Five such clusters of attitudes or dispositions matter most.
First, no one had a lock on political truth anymore than anyone could have a consensually acknowledged lock on theological truth—an understanding that created the basis for the concept of a loyal opposition and the toleration of political dissent. Secular truth can be evasive, uncertain, plural, and changeable without insulting the Deity. This enables a citizen to strongly disagree with a leader without demonizing him, to engage arguments without disparaging persons.
Second, disagreements were understood as natural and healthy; disputes civilly aired were believed to reveal the better way forward. Dialogic discourse rather than dictatorial narratives held pride of place. Socrates, not Plato’s philosopher-king, prevailed.
Third, defeat in political contests came to be seen as inherently provisional and temporary; there is always the next election. That realization, in turn, conduces to compromise and conciliation, other means of rendering politics something other than a continuously zero-sum proposition.
Fourth, it followed that while the contract that defined the republican political regime as such (the constitution) had to remain above the political fray for the sake of political stability, that contract could be adjusted as deemed necessary by the same procedural means that applied to rule-of-law itself. Hence a constitution or a foundational law could be revered without becoming sacrosanct or frozen.
And fifth, with distance put between public and private spheres of life, confidence grew that the political system could contain disagreements in such a way as to preclude civil violence. This, in turn, freed individuals to believe anything they wished and everything they could, unfettering and ratifying the full expression of their imaginations and creativity. In short, a well-ordered public sphere became the best guarantee of private happiness, and enabled lucky people to recognize that not just faith, but life itself, transcended politics. (If this isn’t close to what Jefferson meant in the Declaration, then I don’t know what he meant.)
Dear reader, if you are an American of a certain age and education, you know this detoured path very well. But what you may not fully appreciate is that these attitudes and dispositions remain rare on this planet, even in countries nominally described as republics and democracies. They are fragile, too, even here. They are subject to mass forgetfulness in the absence of heroic efforts, from generation to generation, to socialize new members of society into these attitudes and dispositions, and that mass forgetfulness in turn generates a high potential for institutional decay. They are especially vulnerable in tumultuous times that tend to point a lot of emotional energies toward political life.
Above all, these attitudes and dispositions, and the institutions they enable, are most certainly not the default drive of humanity. They arose and matured under unusual conditions in only a few places. They are not in any way natural; they are rather an artifice or an achievement of civilization some centuries in the making. They are therefore the exception, not the rule, both “vertically” through history and “horizontally” across the world right now. There is no country in the Middle East, for example, that displays these attitudes and dispositions in great abundance, not even genuine democracies like Israel and Turkey, and certainly not Iran and the Arab countries.
Your patience is fraying, I know. You are getting frustrated, if not angry. What has any of this to do with Thomas Friedman engaging the President on the Iran deal? Plenty, I think.
President Obama acquitted himself very well with Mr. Friedman. Unless one thinks the President was knowingly lying through his teeth, he showed himself a master of the multifaceted political, technical, and even strategic issues at stake. Obviously, the President was in advocacy mode, and so now and then bent an interpretation in the desired direction. But this was no tall tale, no act of pandering, no substance-free exercise in debased partisan manipulation. He acknowledged the shortfalls of the past and the uncertain difficulties ahead. He offered up a reasonable balance of skepticism and hope on that score. The gist of his replies to Friedman’s mostly non-softball questions had all the markings of a logical argument, presented with sincerity and an unmistakable acceptance of personal responsibility. It was, in short, an act of leadership more than an act of mere salesmanship, and as such a relatively rare moment in a presidency whose foreign policy judgments have been mostly shallow and excessively partisan in motivation.
That does not mean we must agree with his arguments, of course. The President made one comment that particularly troubles me, which I will discuss in a moment. But the depth and sophistication with which the President made his arguments has already made an impact. Together with the revealed terms of the framework deal, even experienced Republican national-security grayheads respect his position more than before. A key half dozen Democratic Senators who had been suspicious of the deal are already, some of them, backtracking, giving the impression that so long as the White House acknowledges Congress’ role here, they will give him the benefit of the doubt on the substance, at least until the end of June. After all, parsing the details shows any honest observer that both sides made difficult choices, that the U.S. position was not so feckless that concessions flowed like floodwaters over the dam lip.
The President’s interview performance was of such a caliber that it at least opens a space for the attitudes and dispositions that make American politics, at its zenith, a beacon of best practice for the world. The President made an argument on the logical merits, not an argument from authority. He was humble enough to have earned the right to expect that those who disagree with him will engage his arguments and not his person, and that they will express reservations with civility and the respect due the President’s office in a democracy. The President also suggested flexibility for the period until the end of June, with Iran, with U.S. allies, and with Congress; so there is reason to hope that what ultimately emerges at least through the latter two interlocutors will be better for the debates and compromises ahead.
Now, I have several reservations about this deal as it stands at the moment, as of course do many others. Yet it is not as bad as I had feared it might be, a premonition I marched up and down the field in several earlier posts. But one remark the President made unifies my reservations into an outright concern. I foreshadowed the existence of this concern just above, and I predicted its possible emergence in a previous post. So what is this about, and why does it matter?
Fairly early on in the interview, the transcript has an exchange going like this:
The notion that Iran is undeterrable—“it’s simply not the case,” he added. “And so for us to say, ‘Let’s try’—understanding that we’re preserving all our options, that we’re not naive—but if in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place. . . . We’re not relinquishing our capacity to defend ourselves or our allies. In that situation, why wouldn’t we test it?”
I took this to mean that Friedman introduced the term “underterrable” and the President interrupted him to answer the question by finishing the thought. That is also the impression one gets from the video. But just to be sure, I asked Friedman if he thought the President meant that we could deter Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons or Iranian use of nuclear weapons—for the language allows either possibility. He answered that he thinks the President meant the latter, and his extended remark, it seems to me, bears that interpretation out.
This is what concerns me, and here is why. On April 2, I wrote:
Despite the Administration’s insistence, for many years running now, that deterrence does not apply and cannot be trusted in a multivalent strategic environment like that of the Middle East, one can imagine a shift that would de facto create a deterrence (and extended deterrence) posture as a supposed bridge between an Iranian breakout and new U.S. efforts to roll back the Iranian program. To the extent that a breakout is ambiguous—and it can be made so, especially if the United States has reason to be very slow about detecting and admitting a problem—it opens the way for a line of talk that goes something like this: Iran may have one or two deliverable nuclear weapons, but absent any threats to use those weapons, the United States will engage in negotiations to roll back that capacity, and so will not preempt. Even if the word deterrence is never used, that’s what such a position would amount to.
Words matter. Note that despite the Administration’s insistence all along that “all options remain on the table”, coupled with the repeated assertion that Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapons capability, it has never once used the word “preemption” to describe its policy. That, of course, is exactly what it comes down to, but to say that would be way, way too Bush-like. If preemption is now the policy but the word is never spoken, one can imagine without too great a strain a situation in which deterrence can become the policy without its ever being explicitly stated.
Remember, Friedman first uttered a form of the D-word, but the President did not repeat it, in any form. See what I mean?
This matters because it may describe some confusion or conflation, or it may describe a slippery slope of sorts spinning out from the inability to achieve in the Iran negotiations what the Administration initially set out to achieve. Several Principals Committee meetings back in 2009-10 reached a different conclusion (and it has become known that there were more PC meetings on Iran, thanks in no small part to the intelligence community’s revelations about the Fordow facility, than on any other national security issue). That conclusion was that the superimposition of the Cold War deterrence model on the Middle East would not work, and would lead instead to a mousetrap proliferation scenario that would be extremely dangerous for everyone, including the United States. I and many others have detailed why this superimposition is a serious conceptual mistake (I did so most recently on March 4 here), so there should be no need to repeat it here—not that this has prevented many so-called experts from assuring us that deterrence would work just fine. One can only hope that the President has not changed his analysis in recent months, but his comment to Friedman makes one wonder.
About the vulnerability of American democracy’s “best practice” to regressions into political theology, there is no reason to wonder. Our public discourse, even over matters that used to be and still should be above partisan politics, has become increasingly less rational, less responsible, and less civil. For every veteran Bush-hater out there we have now an equal and opposite Obama-hater. Some personal experiences, if I may, to illustrate the point.
It has become embedded in “common knowledge” on the Left in the United States, and certainly abroad, that the Bush Administration generally, and Colin Powell in particular in his February 2003 speech to the UN Security Council, knowingly lied about weapons of mass destruction stockpiles in Iraq. It is simply beyond discussion that Administration principals actually worried about that subject; it was all allegedly mere pretext. I have even had people look me in the eye and declare that there is no difference, morally or otherwise, between knowingly lying and simply being mistaken about some point of fact. Such is the underwhelming capacity for moral logic among true Bush haters.
Obama haters are equally certain that the President actually despises his own country and its history, and a certain subset of haters is as certain that he hates Israel and Jews and has conspired from the start to do irreparable harm to Israeli security and well-being. Thus all that the President said about Israel in the Friedman interview, and by implication his explicit acknowledgement of the anti-Semitism of the Iranian leadership, has to be out and out duplicitous to such haters. He is indeed lying through his teeth, they are sure.
The Bush haters and the Obama haters have something important in common: The attitudes and dispositions of a liberal democracy in no way populate their mental landscapes. Their default discourse tense is the ad hominem. An argument is not right or wrong on its logical merits, but simply by virtue of who makes it. All supporters of the object of hatred are automatically wrong; detractors at least get the benefit of the doubt. The opposition is not loyal, but both immoral and seditious, hence deserving of neither toleration nor respect. I can disagree with the President (for whom I did not vote) without stigmatizing him as evil or maleficent; true haters are incapable of this distinction. I can adjust my assessment expectations of the Iran negotiations when I see new evidence concerning them; true haters dare not.
I used to think until fairly recently that those who love to hate over American politics were either aberrant or rare personalities. I am mindful that regression from the benign mean of liberal democracy did happen before, when a blast of ideological dogmatism very reminiscent of political theology’s characteristic tones led the country into a disastrous Civil War. But I thought we’d learned our lesson once and for all time, and that such indulgences were behind us.
Now I’m not so sure. Whatever else they do, the internet and kindred social media technologies seem to have democratized the popularity of politics as bloodsport. The bottom-feeding frenzy seems to intensify day by day, judging by most of the from-the-hip commentary that trawls beneath the waterline of feature essays. Its crypto-theological dogmatism is unmistakable, and not surprising in an age when politics so often trumps religion as creedal anchor number one. It does so in the case of the Iran portfolio despite the leavening details of the prospective framework accord with Iran, and despite Friedman’s interview of President Obama this past Saturday.
I do worry about how this diplomatic dagger dance with Iran will turn out, but I worry as much about the increasingly acrid, shrill, and irrational tone that infests what passes for our political discourse. An old professor of mine, a curious but wonderful fellow named E. Digby Baltzell, once remarked that the tragedy of American society in the 20th century was that the prodigious native energies of American religion had migrated into politics, to the detriment of both. A truer or more alarming nutshell analysis has yet to pass my eyes.