How to think about Iran

July 8, 2019

People simplify countries into good and bad, leading us to bluster about military options, and overlook better ways to get things done.

It seems required that all discussions of Iran begin with statements about lack of trust and the badness of what they are doing. But goodness and badness aren’t genes baked into each country’s DNA. Despite American complaints about Iranian government, Iran waited a year after this country reneged on the multi-national nuclear agreement before acting in conflict with its no-longer application terms. They were not, in this case, untrustworthy.

Much of the Iranian population is very westernized. Despite some of the leadership’s language, Iran is not a country of America haters, or nearly as authoritarian as much of the Middle East. Iranians have been voting for decades except when our country dislodged their democratically selected leader and substituted the Shah. Iranians don’t have as much power as they want but they have a great deal more than most of the people of the region. Until the current occupant of the White House took over, they pushed their leadership in our direction.

We’d benefit from thinking about the Middle East and Iran differently. Iraq and Iran fought a war that cost at least half a million lives, with two or three times that many casualties. American defeat of Iraq removed any Iraqi threat to Iran and made Iran more powerful, which many here regret.

But also, Israel and Iran were cooperating before the U.S.-Iraq wars. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and Iraq was their common enemy. So after we defeated Iraq, Iran and Israel saw each other as the most dangerous countries in the region, leaving Iran facing Israel and Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East.

Saudis aren’t angels. They’re decades behind Iran in their treatment of women and have caused us much more trouble. Saudi support for militant Wahhabi Islam brought 9/11 about, produced Osama bin Ladan, al Qaeda and led to the war in Afghanistan, and Saudi Wahhabi schools are radicalizing the Islamic world. Our alliance with Saudi Arabia has been very costly.

So assuming we suffer the pain and cost of defeating Iran, which countries would drive the new Middle East: Israel, Saudi Arabia or Turkey? The longstanding working relationships between Iran and Turkey have helped stabilize both. Turkey is now playing East and West against each other. It seeks entry into the EU while becoming increasingly authoritarian. If Iran were defeated, would Turkey draw closer to the west, to Sunni Islamic countries or would Turkey be more vulnerable to the Russian bear? The answer isn’t obvious. A defeated Iran would be in chaos, and the risks that could pose to all countries in the area as well as ourselves could be very severe. In other words, war is not an independent decision without understanding or controlling the aftermath.

Defeating Iran may only solidify our reputation as the world’s most warlike country. Plus, demonizing Iran is diverting us from China’s threat to the security of other countries in the Far East. If those countries lose confidence in American support, the world balance of power could change in an instant. How to make America puny again.


War and the Sources of Fake News

June 25, 2019

The president would have us believe that anything critical of him is fake. To which many respond that everything out of the president’s mouth (or twitter feed) is fake. Both statements, of course, are false.

Everyone makes mistakes but deliberately faked news often has government hands all over it. One American Administration took us into Vietnam based on lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, which were revealed when government reports were finally declassified. Another took us into Iraq on the basis of cooked evidence about weapons of mass destruction.

Teaching free speech, I don’t compare truth and falsity – there are enough screw-ups to go around. I compare whether there is better information when the press can act as watchdog or when we are forced into total reliance on official pronouncements. Around the world the answer is obvious. Here the answer is clouded by our attachments to our favorite politicians. But the so-called classification system is designed to feed us cooked evidence when an Administration thinks we can’t deal with truth. Of course, some secrets are kept for reasons of national security or diplomatic reasons, but much is protected only for political reasons. All Administrations convince themselves that it’s good for America that they keep secrets or that they deliberately mislead us. We simply have to assume that even our own government lies to us regularly, sometimes convinced that it’s good for us and often convinced that distortions are good for themselves.

That’s why the press matters. No person or institution can understand everything or get everything right.  Even Einstein didn’t although I certainly like his batting average. But only by examining conflicting evidence do we have some hope of teasing out what we need to know.

John Stuart Mill gave us our basic understanding of free speech and press, teaching that public officials have reasons to mislead: for reelection, to enlarge their own power, to get what they want done, to protect themselves or their beliefs, etc. His point was human fallibility coupled with power to throttle everyone else spells a high likelihood of official gobbledygook masquerading as truth. Worse, official censorship blocks the press from digging and correcting as many important stories as possible. Science, by contrast, is designed to keep challenging mistakes and getting better answers. A free press, too, can keep improving answers.

Go back to the examples I made at the head of this essay. The press made lots of mistakes about Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. But the most damaging mistakes resulted from intentional government newsfeeds designed to mislead. We eventually learned the truth about those and many other cases because reporters kept pushing for more and better information.

Unfortunately I’ve learned over many years not to trust our presidents – they have too many reasons to mislead us that seem good to them. I think Trump is worse than most – he so often misstates the facts that I never trust him. Conservative commentator Bret Stephens wrote, “the Trump administration has credibility issues, to put it mildly, which is one reason why electing a compulsive prevaricator to the presidency is dangerous to national security.” On the other hand, many other presidents have told the truth just often enough that we become gullible when they really want to mislead us.

There’s no way to know what the situation will be between the U.S. and Iran by the time this is broadcast.  But too many lives are at stake; too much depends on figuring out what information is accurate, who is telling the truth and who isn’t, let alone whether it justifies killing both Iranians and Americans. Let there be no war.


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