You may not have seen this storyline yet, but I promise you, you will. Basically it argues that the Iranian protesters have been primarily inspired by the American creation of democracy in Iraq. Seeing the Iraqis vote, in this narrative, is what stimulated the Iranians to challenge their own clerical regime. The Fox News PR guys will call it a “tide of freedom unleashed by the United States” and the Iranian protesters will be described – as were the Iraqis — as yearning for American-style freedoms and hoping to make their country more like the U.S.
Regional experts who actually speak the major languages, read the speeches of the Iranian leaders and listen to the commentary in the Iranian street will tear out their hair and sputter that this is a profound cultural misunderstanding of how most Iranians actually think about reform. Consider the following analogy — imagine that in 1963 the then-Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru – noting on TV the clearly Gandhi-inspired, nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement – assumed that the movement was actually generally inspired by the Indian example and led the Indian congress to unanimously pass a “Fraternal Resolution of Support and International Solidarity with American Blacks in their Heroic Struggle to create a Hindu Republic in the American deep South.”
Go ahead and laugh. But the notion that the Iranian protesters basic source of inspiration is the U.S. presence and activities in Iraq represents a level of American cultural misunderstanding of their motives that is equally misguided. Unfortunately in the absence of high-quality objective opinion polls, this cannot be empirically demonstrated. Moreover, because this notion serves the profound needs of two groups, it will inevitably become a permanent part of the American political debate.
First, the neo-conservatives. For them, this “made in America tide of freedom” narrative is vital because it justifies the invasion of Iraq. Even in their own eyes, the worst failure of their policy was the absolutely undeniable strengthening of Iran that it produced (“collateral damage” to Iraqi civilians and the sacrifices demanded of US troops were always considered an acceptable “price”) Embarrassingly for them, the replacement of Saddam Hussein with a pro-Iranian Shia government and the immobilizing and overtaxing of virtually every available combat soldier in America in “Blackhawk Down” style urban warfare for 5 years exposed the fact that their feverish fantasy of intimidating the Iranian regime into total submission with implicit or explicit threats of a massive George Patton-style armor/infantry thrust on Teheran (launched from bases in a compliant US-allied Iraq, of course) made them look like pathetically bumbling military incompetents. Today, rather than being seen as the modern-day George Pattons they fancied themselves, the neo-conservatives have become widely viewed as modern-day General Custers.
Thus, for them, the story that the sight of elections in Iraq was the central inspiration for the demonstrators in Iran is vitally important. It makes everything fit together again and makes them once again “right”. They will, therefore, cling to this notion against any and all empirical evidence to the contrary with the fervor of religious pilgrims in Lourdes seeking miracle cures for their ills.
The second and far more heartrending group is America’s military families. It is impossible to overstate the tremendous comfort this narrative promises to provide. They desperately need to feel that the difficult and painful sacrifices they have made have had meaning and have been worth the cost. For the families and friends of the injured and dead, this sentiment is unimaginably profound. They will therefore embrace the notion that the invasion of Iraq has been validated by the protests in Iran utterly and without reservation. It is impossible not to deeply feel and profoundly identify with their feelings.
Thus, for these two groups, the new conservative narrative will stick. For other Americans as well it also has a very strong appeal – one rooted in the psychological mechanism called the “theory of mind” – the mental model people have of how other people think.
In everyday life, most Americans simply ignore the fact that other cultures have mental frameworks that are fundamentally different than those in the West. Most Americans, for example, do not have the slightest idea what the pleasant, middle-aged Chinese woman running the local take-out restaurant thinks about the afterlife or how she managed to raise her three children to be more polite, studious and respectful than most Americans without ever sending them to Sunday school. Equally, most Americans have absolutely no mental concept whatsoever of what their co-worker Sanjay over in accounting thought as he was growing up looking at pictures of a dancing woman with six arms on the wall in his home or how his mother could think that the college educated, white, lower-middle class American woman he was dating was appallingly “inferior” to him socially (and ethnically) and why she would feel genuinely humiliated among her friends and family if the two contemplated marriage.
Most Americans simply do not try to visualize or understand these differences. There is only a cognitive empty space in their minds where such understandings should be stored. As a result, when it suddenly becomes necessary to try to understand the mental framework of another culture – as it was after 9/11 — they simply borrow totally inappropriate mental models from their familiar western cultural library.
In trying to imagine dictatorships, for example, many Americans have only one mental model available to them – World War II and Nazi Germany. As a result, all Middle Eastern dictators – Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Yassir Arafat, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya — all are indiscriminately compared to Hitler and all protesters against undemocratic regimes visualized as the equivalent of the French resistance – freedom-loving rebels, outwardly compliant but secretly yearning for liberation.
There is a tremendously rich cognitive library of images associated with this WW II schema in American culture, so much so that for most Americans it is mentally vivid and “real” in a way that no alternative mental image of dictatorship can possibly can be. There is, for example, the image of the portly, middle-aged Frenchman (invariably with a black beret , brown leather jacket and a Galois hanging from his lip) listening at low volume to a hidden radio as Charles De Gaulle or Winston Churchill broadcasts a crackling, static filled message of freedom. There are the equally iconic images of dewey-eyed, thirtysomething French women strewing flowers in the path of the American tanks rolling through their village and hugging the GI’s (who are invariably played by John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Telly Savalas) and who shyly tell them “Aw shucks, I was just doing my job.”
John McCain offered a perfect example of the power of this mental model last week when he said — in a quote that was so redolent of Winston Churchill in wartime that one could almost smell the brandy and cigars — that “if we [i.e. the American people] are steadfast eventually the Iranian people will prevail.”
As Matt Yglesias noted:
[McCain] talks about Iran not so much as an actual country full of actual people doing actual things in a difficult situation, but instead as a kind of phantasmagoric canvass onto which we should paint a tableau of American hubris and militarism…..Whether or not the Iranian people prevail depends on how steadfast we are… Of course what Americans do isn’t totally irrelevant, but it’s unquestionably a peripheral factor in this drama. Iran is a country populated by Iranians, and their fate is primarily in their own hands.
This perspective, however, does not fit the World War II mental model in which the US is the central actor and therefore can’t possibly be correct.
In considering how Democrats should respond to this new conservative narrative, there are three distinct audiences who must be addressed.
First, in regard to the military and their families, Democrats should completely and sincerely embrace the fact that the men and women who have served in Iraq were motivated by a profound belief in democracy and that any democratic struggles in the region are also very much a part of the struggle for that same noble cause. As President Obama very movingly said, when American soldiers fight for the nations’ best ideals, no American soldier ever dies in vain.
Second, in regard to the neo-conservatives, Democrats should clearly point out that they are subject to conflicting loyalties when it comes to dealing with the Iranian pro-democracy movement. On the one hand, in the long run they would certainly prefer that Iran become a pro-western democracy. But at the present time, however, they see certain important advantages to Ahmadinejad remaining in power.
This was dramatically illustrated by an article in the Jerusalem Post entitled “I’m glad Ahmadinejad won” As the author said:
I was rooting for Ahmadinejad, the demagogic Holocaust denier who wants to wipe Israel off the map, because a victory by the relatively moderate Mir Hussein Mousavi could have created a dangerous complacency… that would tempt some in the West to ease up on the pressure to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As a result, there are obviously some good reasons for American Democrats – not to mention the Iranian protesters themselves — to be very wary regarding the dependability of any “allies” in the struggle for Iranian democracy who agree with that philosophy.
Finally, for the average American, Democrats should make clear that they not only wholeheartedly support the Iranian movement for democracy, but also believe that only the Iranian protesters themselves can decide how to conduct their struggle or choose their objectives. Cognitively speaking, the Republicans will want to shoehorn the Iranian protesters into the mental model of French resistance fighters, listening to their radios late at night and unable to succeed without the inspiration and guidance of the far away headquarters of the forces of freedom. Democrats should point out that Iranians do not speak French, wear berets, smoke Galois, or want to be told what to do by Americans. The Iranian protesters will want to figure out their own path to democracy, based on their own rich and complex history, traditions, institutions and culture and Democrats will support their right to select their own path to democracy. The Republicans, in contrast, will be quite certain they know much better than the Iranian protesters themselves exactly what they should do. This was, of course, the attitude that proved so spectacularly successful when applied in Iraq.