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Nationalism For Us, Not For Them

By Taylor Marvin

Thomas L. Friedman has a new column out. While it’s arguably futile to critique his writing — Friedman’s been penning self-congratulatory paeans to conventional wisdom for a decade now — but it does touch on an interesting fallacy that dominates US foreign policy thinking: the belief that the US’ policy preferences are so evidently righteous that their appeal is universal. The key to resolving foreign disputes, it follows, is not moderating US preferences, but taking them directly to the people and bypassing intransigent foreign leaders. Friedman makes this point most strongly with regards to Iran:

“Rather than negotiating with Iran’s leaders in secret — which, so far, has produced nothing and allows the Iranian leaders to control the narrative and tell their people that they’re suffering sanctions because of U.S. intransigence — why not negotiate with the Iranian people? President Obama should put a simple offer on the table, in Farsi, for all Iranians to see: The U.S. and its allies will permit Iran to maintain a civil nuclear enrichment capability — which it claims is all it wants to meet power needs — provided it agrees to U.N. observers and restrictions that would prevent Tehran from ever assembling a nuclear bomb.”

For someone who prides himself on his travel record and whose propensity for quoting insightful taxi drivers is viewed as a running joke, Friedman seems to have little ability to empathize with the people he speaks for. Iranians aren’t all ignorants who only need the US government to spell out its position in Farsi to happily accommodate American demands — they’re autonomous human beings fully capable of holding views contrary to the United States’. Friedman’s inability to reach this obvious conclusion is striking.

International concern over Iranian nuclear program is justified. But think of how American opposition to their country’s nuclear program looks to Iranians: the United States, which remains the only state to use nuclear weapons in combat, insists that it and other nations can maintain nuclear weapons capability, but Iran cannot. This prohibition, in Iranians’ view, is even more unjust coming from the United States: many are old enough to remember the brutality of the American-supported Pahlavi regime, and the terror of US-abetted Iran-Iraq war. Is it surpassing that reasonable people within Iran would object to America’s attempt to forbid them from accessing what they see as a prestigious and security-assuring technology? Is it really logical that the only barrier to a US-Iranian accord is that the US hasn’t made the message simple enough? Isn’t it possible that the median Iranian objects to the “offer on the table” itself, and its implicit coercion?

This lack of empathy — the ability to recognize the biases of others — is the core deficiency in Friedman’s worldview. Friedman’s entire schtick is that the world is flat, fundamentally simple, and readily understandable. If the world is as simple as Friedman claims, then reasonable people divided by culture and national experience cannot hold fundamentally different interpretations of the world; if policymakers can just express their positions clearly, opponents will come to an accord. The US and Iran haven’t failed to reach a mutual understanding not because they hold mutually exclusive views of each other and their own security, but only because American leaders haven’t made themselves clear. Friedman argues that the US should “say to the Iranian people over and over: ‘The only reason your currency is being crushed, your savings rapidly eroded by inflation, many of your college graduates unemployed and your global trade impeded and the risk of war hanging overhead, is because your leaders won’t accept a deal that would allow Iran to develop civil nuclear power but not a bomb.’” But of course this is a fallacy. To many, if not most, Iranians the blame for economic stagnation rests on the outside world, whose sanctions threaten their livelihoods and health. To them the reason that “the risk of war hangs overhead” is not their own leaders, but a belligerent United States that threaten regime change. Attempting to convince Iranians otherwise plays into regime messaging’s hands.

Friedman counsels that incoming-Secretary Kerry should “break all the rules” by talking directly to the people. But this rests on the assumption that foreign populations must agree with the US’ liberal worldview — an assumption that denies them the agency to hold legitimate grievances against the US hegemon. Is it any wonder his column reeks of condescension, not measured wisdom?


Daniel Drezner has a similar critique of Friedman’s column. Drezner correctly notes that the nuclear program is broadly popular in Iran, and that the US is unlikely to win a propaganda war within the country. I would note that the IRI’s nuclear policy is as much driven by path-dependent public opinion as it is a top-down government imposition, and that the regime — historically inclined to nationalistic populism — likely is “listen to ordinary Iranians on the nuclear question” anyway. However, Drezner’s piece is valuable, and the dual arguments that US public diplomacy is at best counterproductive within Iran and any hint of outside-influenced public campaigning is delegitimizing within Iranian society is a strong argument against US conservatives who denounce President Obama’s perceived failure to support the Green Movement.

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