Blind Hostility

Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, 10 April 2008. (Credit:  Seyedkhan / Wikimedia Commons)

Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, 10 April 2008. (Credit: Seyedkhan / Wikimedia Commons)

The perception of war’s necessity derives from (or at least corresponds to) a narrow view of the adversary. Enemies are imagined in caricature as the embodiment of evil. The crude image is an easy projection of a people’s collective anxieties.

A predisposition toward diplomacy and peacemaking requires a broader construction. It is more difficult to reflect on an adversary’s humanity than to react to a frightful caricature. The primitive impulse favors fighting over negotiating.

The debate between President Obama and his critics over how to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb is illustrative.

John Bolton, in making an argument for bombing Iran, critiques Obama’s turn to diplomacy by focusing on “the hard-liners running Iran.” The “inescapable conclusion,” he argues, is that they “will not negotiate away [Iran’s] nuclear program.” Nor will sanctions stop them. The “inconvenient truth,” he insists, “is that only military action . . . can accomplish what is required.” Bolton is not alone in his narrow view of Iran as a violent, murderous, and devious aggressor.

Barack Obama, in defending his administration’s commitment to negotiate, acknowledges that Iran is a “dangerous country” but insists it is not “undeterrable.” Iran is a “complicated country,” Obama contends. There is “a practical streak to the Iranian regime.” Iran’s leaders are “responsive to self preservation” and “responsive, to some degree, to their publics”; there is “an appetite among the Iranian people for a rejoining of the international community.” Even Iran’s supreme leader, who is “deeply suspicious of the West,” realizes that the present economic sanctions are “weakening Iran over the long term.”

The practicality of the Iranian adversary moderates, in Obama’s construction, the rudimentary viewpoint of an undeterred enemy, whereas Joshua Muravchik reflects the narrower perspective of those who believe Iran can only be stopped by force because ideology is its “raison d’être,” which makes it “akin to communist, fascist, and Nazi regimes that set out to transform the world.”

We are accustomed to hearing the simple story of war’s necessity. The more complex narrative is the exception. Nevertheless, Eugene Robinson sees history in the making. Things can always go bad, even get worse, he writes, but “what is certain is that the post-1979 status quo of blind hostility between Iran and the West has ended.” Obama has initiated a new phase in the relationship. He’s getting a better deal so far than skeptics expected.

What makes Robinson receptive to the President’s stance on negotiating with Iran? His openness is largely premised on the modifying theme of pragmatism: “The regime in Tehran is an odious theocracy, but like most governments it displays an interest in self-perpetuation.” Where others see a singular, undeterred Iranian aim of Islamic revolution across the Middle East, Robinson sees the complicating, practical value of Iranian leaders emphasizing economic development over nuclear weapons to achieve their goal of becoming a regional superpower.

Here is the jumping off point for the opposing logics of force versus diplomacy. Each logic circulates around a different image of the adversary (and, by implication, a different image of ourselves), one more rudimentary than the other. Both images are metaphorical, but we habitually identify ourselves as reasonable and attribute malevolence to our enemies. This duality is the unacknowledged mythic force embedded in our ostensibly modern minds.



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