Rhetoric about Iran: Americans Learning from Their Mistakes

The most gratifying aspect of Peggy Noonan’s eloquent article last Friday in the Wall Street Journal isn’t merely the belated sign that sane and grown-up conservative thought is finally being heard on the subject of the Middle East, in contrast to the obtuse bellicosity and stupid posturing of John McCain and others. Even more, it’s a sign that some Americans are finally beginning to learn something from American mistakes — above all, from the peculiar conviction that American self-aborption is the only thing urgently needed in the world outside the U.S., and that any sign of tact, calm, and/or reticence automatically translates into weakness. (I hasten to add that Noonan’s voice hasn’t been the only sensible one recently coming from the right; I’m emphasizing it only because it seems the loudest and clearest of these voices.)

I would love to see this dawning wisdom take one crucial further step — the recognition that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 weren’t simply, exclusively, and unproblematically “attacks on America”, whatever that means. They were attacks on people, many of whom weren’t American. Assuming otherwise, as so many chest-beaters did and still do, means playing into the hands of the fanatics who committed these murders and perversely honoring their supposed wisdom and one-dimensional view of the world for the sake of throwing out every other possible reading of what happened. Because the minute you reduce the whole discussion to the level of saying that “they” hate “us,” you damned well better have a clear and comprehensive sense of who “we” are before you even presume to start defining “them”. (Which “us” or “them”, incidentally, was it that armed Saddam Hussein with the capacity to use poisoned gas on Kurds and Iranians? Or that overturned a democratically elected Iranian government in the early 1950s?)

An inability to properly define “them” was of course what filled Abu Ghraib and countless other prisons with so many allies that we insisted on converting into enemies. And an equivalent inability to define this “us” with any precision continues to invalidate a good many of our reflexes.  (Trying making a list of all the unthinking exclusions automatically made in that pronoun and you might be getting somewhere.) Obama’s capacity to broaden that definition is perhaps the surest sign of what defines him as a thinking grown-up. [6/23/09]

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