Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Spreading Fear is Bad for Democracy

A comment on my post of yesterday offers this version of diplomacy:

Suppose we told the Iranian Mullahs that they are an evil, backward, dangerous, ignorant bunch of theocrats, and that nothing will help that unhappy land until they are gone. Suppose we told them we were going to do everything in our power, short of war, to consign them to the dustbin of history where they belong. That has my vote for candor. But perhaps it is not in our interest to say so?

I tend to think that, at least with adversaries, a little studied ambiguity is often the best. If the bad guys think you might just be crazy enough to send them all to where they get the 72 virgins, or whatever, maybe they will behave themselves.
I believe this whole approach to our adversaries - both the candid and the ambiguous versions - makes the world worse, and does not serve the interests of the United States or, in this case, the Iranian people. Striking fear in others makes them worse, makes them less rational, less open to persuasion about where their true interests lie. And it does the same to us, too. Moreover, approaching the leadership of another nation as children who we have to make behave - who we have a right to make behave - makes even the most reasonable people in that nation reject us for our arrogance. We would feel the same way if other nations treated our leaders that way, even when strongly oppose our own leaders.

In the particular case of Iran, I am very hopeful about the future of democracy in Iran - more so than in just about any other Muslim nation except Turkey. Iran has an elected government and a constitution that, on paper, vests power in that elected government. They have plenty of pragmatists who want to have peace and get on with business, as every government does. Right now they have a group of unelected religious authorities who overrule that elected government, and keep its most strident and dangerous party in power. Yet, as the stolen election showed, there are already cracks in the religious establishment.

How can we promote the rule of law in Iran? How can we get the religious authorities to back off and let the electoral process proceed? I believe we are more likely to strengthen the moderate elements in Iran, and throughout the Muslim world, by being reasonable, by finding common ground wherever we can, by communicating to the Muslim world that Americans are not their enemies. This will be a rocky process, and will be strongly resisted by religiously pugnacious elements (in both countries). Making Iranians, in power and out, believe that we are crazy and should be feared strengthens the worst elements there and makes peace and freedom less likely.


Plink said...

BHO is testing your anti fear philosophy on Iran. How's it working so for? We shall see.

Anonymous said...

Sounds really sweet. Got a couple or three examples of where your anti fear policy has worked? Beside of course with Iran since the election of BHO.

Gruntled said...

Reconstruction. The Marshall Plan. NAFTA. A century of relations with Canada.

Anonymous said...

Diplomacy by fear and threat of force only inspires people to build enough strength to eventually rise up and defeat you. Not what I'm looking for in a foreign policy program.

There are times when force is necessary, and I'm certainly not advocating that the US disband the standing military force, etc., but fear is the main strategy of a lot of really awful tyrants. I don't buy that it become a better strategy when employed by my country.

The belief in fear as the leading edge of US foreign policy seems to go back to the belief that the US is essentially infallible - it's OK when we do it because we're the good guys.

Anonymous said...

I meant examples involving countries hostile to us like Iran. Where has your no fear policy worked? Libya? No, it was a fear policy that worked there. Remember?

As I recall fear was used by both parties to get NAFTA passed here. We were told our country would fall behind others if the law were not passed. Ross Perot in fact ran against it as a presidential candidate.

Gruntled said...

The Confederacy was hostile to us, as were Germany and Japan and Canada. The trusting terms on which we made peace at the end of the Civil War created the United States of America. The harsh plan at the end of World War One created World War Two. The trust-based plan after World War Two created NATO.

We did not threaten Canada or Mexico with military action if they did not agree to NAFTA - that would be the apt analogy.

Bombing Libya delayed their attempts to rejoin the community of nations. Normal trade relations, in which our European allies took the lead, brokered the recent good moves by Libya.

Anonymous said...


Most of your examples are of when the U.S. showed leniency following a military defeat of an enemy(Civil War, WWI, WWII). Notice that leniency was not shown prior to such defeat.

Neville Chamberlain tried the diplomatic route with Hitler and you know how that turned out.

Whit said...

Gruntled quoted me out of context, as if I were advocating bullying in all circumstances. I suggest you read my entire post for a more complete picture.

Winston Churchill once wrote, "In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnaminity. In peace, good will."

Ronald Reagan once said, when asked how he would end the Cold War, "That's easy, we win, they lose."

These two guys, both pretty successful foreign policy leaders, summarize my position.

I'm more than willing to be magnanimous and to show good will once we have won.

Whit said...

Gruntled: Marshall plan aid went, of course, to Western (friendly) Europe. The Eastern block turned us down. I'm all for free trade like NAFTA, but that was hardly put into place to solve a foreign policy problem. And of course, Canada is a free market democracy. What I would prefer to call my uncertainty policy (rather than fear) is for enemies, not friends.

Gruntled said...

"I'm more than willing to be magnanimous and to show good will once we have won."

Who do you think we are at war with, exactly? What are the conditions of victory?

We fight terrorism by not being terrified, not by terrorizing them back. I think you are mixing resolve in the face of an enemy with threatening to attack adversaries.

Whit said...

Anonymous: Governments act, most often, in ways which they believe to be in the interest of those in power. This is particulary true of our enemies. You will never convince them to behave by moral argument. They respond to bribery (appeasement), pressure, threats and force. None of these is particularly pleasant to employ, but they are necessary.

I do not contend that the US cannot err. In retrospect we can certainly see mistakes, though mostly from good motives. But looking forward, once we have consulted our friends, we must make our decision based on our own best judgment. And I trust our own best judgment more than that of anyone else.

Whit said...

Gruntled: We are at war with political Islam generally, and, among others, Iran in specific. Their folks are behind attacks on our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They support Hamas and Hezbollah, both actively at war with our ally Israel. The conditions of victory? Political Islam, like Communism, is consigned to the dustbin of history.

Whit said...


One other thing. I agree that it is good not to show terror in the face of terrorism, like standing up to any bully. But confronting our own terror does not defeat the terrorists. For that you need drones. And the failure to respond to attacks feeds a sense of powerlessness and lack of control.

Gruntled said...

Our current declared war is not on "political Islam," and is certainly not on Iran.

Our current declared war is on "terror." This should also include "political Christianity" that leads to killing abortion doctors, and "political misanthropy" that led to the hostage taking at the Discovery Channel this week, and "political environmentalism" or whatever you call the Unabomber's ideology, as well as whatever drives the various school shooters.

Whit said...

Gruntled, you can be at war without actually declaring war. Iran is fighting our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our ally's forces in Israel. And we were certainly at war with Communism during the "Cold War" even though there was no active fighting going on for much of the time.