There’s an old joke about a narcissist being someone who goes to a football game and thinks the team is talking about them in the huddle. There’s a dangerous element of that attitude in some U.S. reactions to unfolding events in Iran.
Already the chattering classes are falling into the habit of handicapping the twists and turns of the Iranian election crisis in terms of a “win” or “loss” for President Obama (viz, Martin Peretz’s post on Saturday entitled: “Ahmadinejad: 1; Obama: 0”). While international events do often affect the standing of the chief executive of the world’s most powerful nation, it’s a really bad idea to begin thinking that the rest of the world calibrates every action in reaction to U.S. policies. Believe it or not, foreigners have their own fish to fry.
Today Matt Yglesias tries to make this simple point in reacting to some hysterical tweeting by the man who might well have been in charge of the United States right now, John McCain (“If we are steadfast eventually the Iranian people will prevail,” said the Arizona senator’s thumbs):
That’s right. Whether or not the Iranian people prevail depends on how steadfast we are. How steadfast we are in what? In wishing them well? In tweeting mean things about the Iranian security services? 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.
Some of what Yglesias calls “neocon egomania on Iran” is coming, of course, from people who have favored military action against Iran for years, and who will treat every development in Tehran as reflecting the degree to which America or Israel is or isn’t conveying a credible threat of force. Worse yet, others think of Iran as part of an undifferentiated “Islamofascism” that is bent primarily on the destruction of The West, and believe Iranian repression should be viewed as a mocking reaction to Barack Obama’s “appeasement” of Islam in his Cairo speech. Check out this characteristic take from the Washington Times‘ Wes Pruden:
If Iranian voters had thrown Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into the street, the American president would have assumed that he was the One who did it, and the American press would have led the hosannas for the messiah from the south side of Chicago.Just a few more speeches, a few more respectful bows toward Mecca, and all the rough places would be made smooth and plain. But now even Mr. Obama must wake up and smell the tear gas.
Lest it be objected that Pruden is a marginal, extremist figure, his argument was pretty much the same one made Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” by Mitt Romney, the early frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination:
The comments by the president last week, that there was a robust debate going on in Iran, was obviously entirely wrong-headed. What has occurred is the election is a fraud, the results are inaccurate, and you’re seeing a brutal repression of the people as they protest. … It’s very clear that the president’s policies of going around the world and apologizing for America aren’t working. … Look, just sweet talk and criticizing America is not going to enhance freedom in the world.
One of the most destructive tendencies of contemporary conservatism has been its determination to conflate recognition of the limits of American power with “weakness” or “appeasement.” With that comes a strong tendency to overrate the global impact of every word uttered in Washington, to the point that we Americans are expected to sacrifice our own freedom of action and self-interest in submission to our awful responsibilities as a world power.
The delusions associated with narcissism should be rejected if and when Iran’s crisis subsides, and we get around to considering what happens next in U.S.-Iranian relations. To quote Yglesias again:
[Whatever] the outcome of Iran’s domestic political struggles, the fundamental strategic calculus remains the same. Airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities will not accomplish the goal of maintaining a verifiably non-nuclear Iranian military, and an agreement on nuclear issues between the U.S. and Iran would still serve the interests of both countries. Under the circumstances, no matter what the outcome, pursuit of such an arrangement should continue to be a priority.
Recogning that basic reality will be easier if conservatives would stop talking as though Iranians are backward children whose every act is dictated by their reaction to “rewards” and “punishments” meted out by the United States.
UPDATE: John Judis of TNR has published a very good post about the cautious approach to a situation like Iran’s that a “prudent idealism” would suggest.