In a long and searching interview with President Obama that appeared in the Atlantic over the weekend, Jeffrey Goldberg asked President Obama whether the virulent and frequently expressed Jew hatred that senior Iranian officials spew had him concerned. Here’s how Goldberg describes this moment in the interview, invoking a line of analysis frequently raised on this site:
I also raised another concern—one that the president didn’t seem to fully share. It’s been my belief that it is difficult to negotiate with parties that are captive to a conspiratorial anti-Semitic worldview not because they hold offensive views, but because they hold ridiculous views. As Walter Russell Mead and others have explained, anti-Semites have difficulty understanding the world as it actually works, and don’t comprehend cause-and-effect in politics and economics. Though I would like to see a solid nuclear deal (it is preferable to the alternatives) I don’t believe that the regime with which Obama is negotiating can be counted on to be entirely rational.
The President’s response is telling, revealing among other things that the Leader of the Free World doesn’t spend as much time with Via Meadia as for all our sakes he probably should:
Obama responded to this theory by saying the following: “Well the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—”
I interjected by suggesting that anti-Semitic European leaders made irrational decisions, to which Obama responded, “They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”
It seems clear from this exchange that the President either doesn’t understand or flatly disagrees with the point Goldberg has in mind. Goldberg’s point is that serious anti-Semites (that is, people whose worldviews are shaped and informed by Jew hatred as opposed to people who have, for example, a social prejudice against associating with Jews) don’t understand reality the way that other people do. They see a world dominated by Jewish plots and secret cartels, and believe that the Elders of Zion rule the world behind a screen of deception and misdirection.
This doesn’t just mean that they have some quirky and unpleasant views. It means that they don’t understand how politics work, why economies behave as they do, or how power is constructed in the modern world. As I wrote in an earlier post on this subject, “Jew haters don’t understand how the world works; anti-Semitism is both a cause and a consequence of a basic failure to comprehend the way pluralistic and liberal societies behave. As a result, nations and political establishments warped by this hatred tend to make one dumb decision after another — starting at shadows, warding off imaginary dangers, misunderstanding the nature of the problems they face.”
There are many forms of prejudice and bigotry, and they are all twisted and ugly, but Jew hatred may well be the most damaging to the hater’s ability to understand the world. Jew hatred takes the form of a belief that conspiratorial groups of super-empowered Jews run the world in secret, cleverly manipulating the news media and the intelligentsia to hide the truth of their control. Someone who really believes this isn’t just a heart-blighted ignorant boor; someone who believes this lives in a house of mirrors, incapable of understanding the way the world actually works.
President Obama seems to understand anti-Semitism as a much more superficial phenomenon. He has no patience for it, and scorns it morally and intellectually, but he sees it as an emotional force, a hatred that sometimes, “on the margins” causes people to do stupid and ugly things. An anti-Semite might kick a Jew when nobody is looking, or vent his feelings when in like minded company, but as a rational actor, the anti-Semite won’t indulge his emotional dislike of Jews at the expense of his vital interests. He won’t turn down tenure at Harvard because there are too many Jews on the faculty, or turn down an otherwise attractive job offer from Goldman Sachs because the company has Jewish origins. Nor will he radically misinterpret the position of an American president seeking a win-win end to the U.S.-Iran standoff.
President Obama agrees with Goldberg that anti-Semitism is a bad thing and that Iran’s regime is riddled with it. The difference between them seems to be that the President believes that this propensity of the Iranian leadership is unpleasant but ultimately not that important. Goldberg, however, is asking a deeper question: does the fact that the curse of anti-Semitism has the Iranian leadership tightly in its grip mean that the Iranian leaders aren’t, by our lights, rational actors? When this phrase comes up in a nuclear context, ‘rational actor’ usually means someone who understands the logic of deterrence and is prepared to be deterred by it. But there are other forms of unreason. Goldberg seems to be asking whether President Obama has fully considered the possibility that his counterparts in Iran don’t see the same world that he does, that they don’t think political cause and effect works the same way that he thinks it does and that they see him, for example, less as an independent actor proceeding on the basis of rational convictions and humanitarian good will than as a mask for the real American overlords, the evil Waspo-Jewish conspiracy that in the demonology of Iranian revolutionary thought controls the United States and is driving the world to destruction?
What gives the question its resonance is the uncomfortable fact that President Obama has been singularly unsuccessful at understanding and dealing with foreign leaders who don’t share his world view. President Obama tried to deal with both Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan on the basis of western rationality. He failed in both cases to understand that these men were driven by very different visions and priorities from those President Obama assumed that all rational people share. He was wrong about them, and he appears to have similarly misread the Saudis.
The problem here is that the President, ironically enough, doesn’t seem to understand diversity. He thinks diversity is trivial: that people of different religious faiths, ethnic backgrounds and ideological convictions are not all that different in the way they look at the world. The President’s life experiences have taught him that diversity is superficially important but on the big issues it matters much less. Rulers of great nations, in particular, can’t afford to let their backgrounds and their religious ideas get in the way of clear thinking and planning.
Essentially, Goldberg was asking the President whether his years in the White House have taught him that real diversity exists, and that it matters. He was asking whether the President understands that people from different cultures can sometimes operate on the basis of such radically different presuppositions that their mental world maps are fundamentally incompatible with the norms of reason as the President sees them. He was asking whether the President had considered whether Iranian leaders in particular reason so differently from standard cosmopolitan Washington liberal thinking that they may not, in fact, be approaching these negotiations from what the President, and most Americans, would recognize as a logical point of view.
Far from quieting (or even addressing) Goldberg’s concern, President Obama’s answer will deepen the concern among his critics that he has learned nothing from his encounters with Putin and Erdogan, and continues to think that his opponents see the world more or less as President Obama does.